Question: "Dealing with mean people - what does the Bible say?"
Answer: Unfortunately, we all have to deal with mean people at one time or another. Romans 1:28–30 contains a long list of unrighteous behavior, which includes malice, gossip, slander, insolence, heartlessness and ruthlessness. These are all different facets of meanness, and it’s inevitable that we encounter people driven by such behavior in this world. People are mean for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the person to whom they are mean. Often, mean behavior is a reaction to a person’s inner conflicts rather than a rational response to the people around him. However, being the subject of mean behavior is hurtful and demoralizing. What is the biblical response? What does the Bible say about how we should react to mean people?
Dealing with mean people—Empathy
The first proper response to mean people is empathy, especially when it is a first-time altercation or offense. A gentle attempt to understand and relate to the pain behind the meanness is much more effective than combativeness in dispelling a conflict. One of the most beautiful examples of empathy in the Bible is Jesus’ response to those who crucified Him and cast lots for His clothing. This is a dramatic example, because what was being done to Jesus was way beyond meanness—it was torture and injustice. Even so, instead of focusing on His own pain, He thought of their spiritual condition. Instead of responding with justified anger, He asked God to forgive them for their ignorant actions (Luke 23:34). Stephen, the church’s first martyr, followed that example (Acts 7:59–60).
Dealing with mean people—Confrontation
We should be empathetic, and we should always respond with kindness. Being mean to a mean person only escalates the situation; we are called to be peaceful and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38–42; Romans 12:18). But if the mean person is a Christian, the Bible recommends confrontation. We all sin, of course. As James said, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), but a pattern of meanness needs to be confronted, per the instructions in Matthew 18:15–17. We are to confront our brothers and sisters when they sin against us in the spirit of restoration. If they refuse to listen, we should take a few other faithful Christians with us, again in the spirit of reminding the offending Christian that he is not behaving according to his profession of faith. If that does not work, the matter is taken before the local church. If he does not listen to the whole group, he should be treated as an unbeliever—no enmity or retaliation is called for, but the relationship has changed.
Dealing with mean people—Humility
Remember that sometimes you are the mean person. Do not be like the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21–35. A servant owed a huge debt to his master; it was an amount he could never pay back. The master completely wiped out the debt. The servant, however, went to another servant who owed him a small amount of money and demanded that he pay up—and when the debtor could not pay, he threw him in prison! The master heard about it and became angry. The master reinstated the unforgiving servant’s original debt and threw him in jail. We should always try to remember, when people are mean to us, that we owed God a huge debt. He forgave us, and we can forgive others.