The tension in my classroom felt brittle, electrified. My desk formed the final barrier, the only defense saving me from a pop in the mouth by a student’s parents. They argued, then went verbally Rambo on me, for 20 minutes. Other parents fidgeted in the hall, restlessly whispering about the cage fight my parent teacher conference had turned into.
This particular student regularly displayed nuclear behavior, tossing desks and music accompanied by vile language, whenever I moved him to a time out spot. He consistently disrupted and taunted other choir students and terrified some of them. At my recommendation, and with administration’s hearty approval, the student would be transferred from the choir into a study hall/detention at the semester change. Sadly, he possessed a beautiful tenor voice but behaved in a dangerous, predatory fashion towards younger students demonstrated minute amounts of self- control.
His parents fixated on one goal: say anything that would keep their “poor misunderstood Billy” in my choir. All my superiors advocated for transfer, out of concern for the other students. Billy’s bloated school file bulged with disciplinary reports, including periodic suspensions. Part of my arsenal, the file was neatly stacked on my desk as I calmly explained, repeatedly, that Billy’s choir career was over, at least for this year. My resolute, unsmiling stance generated an increasing level of anger in his parents. When they finally stalked out of my room they filled the air in the parent-lined hallway with numerous, colorful opinions about my teaching skills.
I definitely won that battle but years later, thanks to the wisdom of a man who became my favorite principal, I understood that I lost the war. My relationship with those parents shattered that day and remains so. I expect they have quite an unpleasant memory of me.
My next principal taught me the art of turning adversaries into advocates. Communicating with parents of misbehaving students is not simply a matter of presenting your evidence, he shared. It’s observing and responding to the hurt and pain that is usually lurking right behind the façade of unruly classroom behavior and argumentative parents who try to justify it.
I wonder what the response might have been if my greeting to “Billy’s” parents had been something like “I am so disappointed to lose Billy’s tenor voice out of my choir.” When I met with other parents, down the road, using a similar opening, most of the time, this disarmed them. We became partners with a problem to solve together.
In James 2:12-13 he warns believers about the dire consequences of erring on the side of judgement instead of mercy. We can be 100% correct in our opinion about a fellow believer’s sinful behavior yet be totally wrong in handling that information. I don’t think we do such a bang up job in the judgement with mercy department, in the church.
I’ve met too many people, like me, that are bold about speaking the truth but don’t always speak it with love. On the other hand, just as many people confuse mercy with license and allow sinful behavior in others to go unchecked and unmentioned. How does a mature believer behave? How do we deal with sin and inappropriate behavior in others without burying our heads in the sand or blowing up relationships and crushing spirits?
2 Timothy 2:25 says, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
This excellent advice from Paul prioritizes confrontation and gentleness. Our goal is not to “set things right.” We are in the redemption business. It’s like the difference between dragging a dog on a choke collar instead of teaching them, with rewards, that you are the Alpha Dog and it’s going to be better to walk together in agreement.
Matthew tells us, in Chapter 18, that if something is akimbo between you and someone else, talk tothem privately, first. Here’s the thing; if we talk to two or three or ten other people about this situation before we speak to the person actually involved, by the time we get to the original person, we’ve built up a pretty good head of steam from rehearsing the details of this wrong repeatedly. The more we share with others the more convinced we become of our victim or judge status in the situation. That makes it tough to approach our offender, or someone caught in sin, with a gentle spirit.
Romans 16:17, I Timothy 5:20 and Titus 3:10-11 stridently warn us away from someone who refuses correction or reconciliation, but this is our last resort. How many broken or damaged relationships litter our lives? Did we do all we could to gently, lovingly speak truth and correction with pure motives aimed towards restoration? I’ve got a few damaged and lost relationships littering the landscape of my past. Some have been redeemed, by God’s grace working in both of us.
If you are erring on either side of judgement or mercy, you’ve probably got some folks you need to connect with. Ask God to show relationships you’ve damaged due to ignoring a problem or pounding on it mercilessly with your truth hammer. Commit to humble authenticity with others that makes room for truth spoken with love.