“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
― Henry David Thoreau,
“Do not be deceived: bad company corrupts good morals.”
“Interpersonal relations” is not usually thought of as a Bible topic, but advice about dealing with other people makes up a large part of the teachings of Jesus and His apostles as well as the wisdom books of the Old Testament. Whether dealing with parents, children, spouses, family, friends, co-workers, strangers or even enemies, the Bible’s advice is spiritually sound and effective for promoting peace and harmony.
The Greatest Commandment
All of the New Testament teachings on interpersonal relations follow from Jesus’ commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was most important, He replied,
The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these. (NRSV, Mark 12:26-31)
The English word “love” has many different meanings, but this “Christian love” of the Bible comes from the Greek word agape which means respect, good-will and benevolent concern for the one loved. It is deliberate, purposeful love rather than emotional or impulsive love. The King James Version of the Bible often uses the word “charity” for this kind of love.
“Love your neighbor” was not a new commandment (Leviticus 19:18), but the people of Jesus’ time had developed a rather narrow view of who should be considered a “neighbor.” In HisParable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus corrected that view and teaches us that a “neighbor” is anyone we come in contact with, regardless of race, nationality, religion or other distinctions..
Self-righteousness, Arrogance, Smugness
No one is perfect; we are all sinners in our own ways (Romans 3:21-24, 1 John 1:8). If we treat people we consider to be “sinners” with scorn, or think we are better than they are, we are guilty of the sin of self-righteousness:
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great self-confidence and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a dishonest tax collector. The proud Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t sin, I don’t commit adultery, I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For the proud will be humbled, but the humble will be honored.” (NLT, Luke 18:9-14)
Judging, Criticizing, Condemning Others
Self-righteousness is one of the hardest sins to avoid because it is so much easier to see other people’s faults than to see our own faults. But, judgment of a person’s character must be left to God (Romans 2:1-4, James 4:11-12). Rather than look for faults in others, we should look for the good in others and try to correct the faults within ourselves. Rather than criticizing other people, we should concentrate on living holy lives, ourselves. Jesus’ comical parable of a person with a log in his eye trying to see to remove a speck from another’s eye reminds us that we probably have bigger faults within ourselves (including self-righteousness) than the faults we like to criticize in others:
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (NRSV, Matthew 7:1-5)
This does not mean, however, that all sin should be ignored:
- Christians should help each other recognize and overcome sinful actions and attitudes, but it must be done in a sincere spirit of love and not with the intention to punish, embarrass or disparage (Matthew 18:15, Luke 17:3-4, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, James 5:19-20, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 2 Timothy 4:2).
- Governments have the right to act for the common good and take action against offenders who threaten law and order (Luke 20:20-25, Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-14).
- Churches have the right to excommunicate members who are disruptive to their mission (Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:9-12, 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (NAS, Matthew 23:11-12)
An attitude of humility is the key to dealing with other people in a Biblical way. Humility or humbleness is a quality of being courteously respectful of others. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, arrogance, boastfulness and exaggerated pride. Humility is the quality that lets us go more than halfway to meet the needs of others. Why do qualities such as courtesy, patience and deference have such a prominent place in the Bible? It is because a demeanor of humility is exactly what is needed to live in peace and harmony with all persons. Acting with humility does not in any way deny our own self worth. Rather, it affirms the inherent worth of all persons.
Related verses: Psalms 147:5-6, Proverbs 11:2-3, 12:16, 19:11, 22:4, 27:1-2, Matthew 5:5-9, 18:2-4, 20:25-28, Luke 14:8-11, 22:25-27, Romans 12:3, Galatians 5:26, Philippians 2:3-8,James 3:13-18, 1 Peter 5:5-6.
The Golden Rule
Do to others as you would have them do to you. (NIV, Luke 6:31)
The Golden Rule, spoken by Jesus, is possibly the best-known quote from the Bible and is the standard Jesus set for dealing with other people. If we wish to be loved, we must give love. If we wish to be respected, we must respect all persons, even those we dislike. If we wish to be forgiven, we must also forgive. If we wish others to speak kindly of us, we must speak kindly of them and avoid gossip. If we want happy marriages, we must be faithful, forgiving and kind to our spouses. If we wish to be fulfilled in our lives, we must share generously with others.
Related verse: Matthew 7:12.
Anger, Retaliation, Holding a Grudge, Revenge
“Under the laws of Moses the rule was, ‘If you murder, you must die.’ But I have added to that rule and tell you that if you are only angry, even in your own home, you are in danger of judgment! If you call your friend an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse him, you are in danger of the fires of hell. (TLB, Matthew 5:21-22)
No one makes us angry. Anger is our own emotional response to some action or event. More often than not, our angry feelings are based on a misinterpretation of what someone said or did or on our own exaggerated sense of pride. Angry words and actions escalate hostilities and block communication rather than solve problems. Whether between parent and child, spouses, siblings, friends, or nations, expressions of anger divide us and drive us toward open hostility.
It is all too easy to react to life’s annoyances and disappointments with anger. It is far more challenging, but much better, to react with understanding and empathy. In this way, we can quickly settle disputes and avoid turning minor incidents into major battles:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (NRSV, James 1:19-20)
Holding a grudge can consume us with hatred, blocking out all enjoyment of life. A grudge clouds our judgment and may lead us to an act of revenge that can never be undone. The Old Testament law specified equal revenge for equal wrong: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20), but that rule was too harsh for the new age of the kingdom of God. Jesus said the right thing to do is to take no revenge at all:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (NRSV, Matthew 5:38-42)
If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT, Matthew 6:14-15)
We should always be willing to forgive others and not hold any ill will against them. Holding a grudge and seeking revenge have no place in the lives of those who truly love their neighbors. Jesus calls us to remember that we are all God’s children. Just as He loves all His people and is willing to forgive their sins, we should be willing to forgive also.
Honesty, Gossip, Slander, Lies, Deception
A good person produces good words from a good heart, and an evil person produces evil words from an evil heart. And I tell you this, that you must give an account on judgment day of every idle word you speak. The words you say now reflect your fate then; either you will be justified by them or you will be condemned. (NLT, Matthew 12:35-37)
The words we say or write have tremendous power for good or evil. Words can promote love and understanding or inflame prejudice and hatred. It is words that make or break marriages and other relationships. Words can make peace or make war. Our words should always show a spirit of Christian love.
A lie is any false statement made with the intent to deceive someone. We must always be honest in our dealings with other people. The Bible strongly condemns any attempt to deceive with the intent to hurt someone or gain unfair advantage:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (The Ten Commandments, NRSV, Exodus 20:16)
Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit. (NRSV, 1 Peter 3:10)
Gossip or slander is an act of hostility intended to harm someone’s reputation. We must avoid the temptation to misrepresent someone’s character or actions:
An evil man sows strife; gossip separates the best of friends. (TLB, Proverbs 16:28)