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Ever Faced with Bullies? So was Jesus

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With bullying becoming an increasing issue in the media, a lot of strategies are being developed to educate young people about how to deal with manipulative, hurtful and offensive people in healthy ways (i.e. without bullying others in turn). While the media frequently comments on teenage bullying, it doesn’t often discuss how bullying can continue into adulthood. Too often we come across it in the workplace, amongst our friends and families, and even in the church.

While the term ‘what would Jesus do?’ has become hackneyed, his response to the many people who attempted to belittle, accuse and even kill him gives us some important clues to consider when dealing with difficult people.

1. Don’t Define Yourself by Other People’s Treatment of You

Despite the immeasurable importance of Jesus’ mission, he was ‘despised and rejected by mankind’ (Isaiah 53:3). John records that ‘even his own brothers did not believe him’ (7:5). Men who spent time with him daily and saw the miracles he performed later abandoned and betrayed him, including Judas and Peter, who denied any relationship with him on three occasions, despite their close friendship (Matthew 27:69-75).

While Jesus knew Judas and Peter would betray him in advance, this did not stop him from treating them with respect and kindness right to the end. At no point does he judge or persecute them for what must have been hurtful actions. He understood that their actions were due to their own fears, and did not let that undermine his purpose or sense of self.

This is further shown when he is criticised on numerous occasions. In Matthew 12, Jesus is even accused of being in fellowship with the Prince of the Devils for healing a possessed man (vs. 24). Jesus responds to this with logic (‘if Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?’ (vs. 26)) and drawing clear boundaries (‘whoever is not with me is against me’, (vs. 30)). When he is censured for eating with sinners, he simply reminds his critics of his purpose: ‘it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17).

By staying true to his purpose and identity, Jesus remained unmoved by those who tried to bring him down or belittle him. In so doing, he refused to define himself in any other way but what God had first declared for him.

2. Don’t Give the Bully the Reaction They’re Looking For

Because Jesus was clear on his identity and his purpose, he knew how to respond even when he was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). Every time the ‘tempter’ tried to get Jesus to betray who he was, Jesus responded with a clear truth. He eventually told Satan to leave because he would only worship God, as was commanded.

Satan was looking for power, and in a way the Pharisees were also seeking to gain power over and control of Jesus through their criticisms. However, Jesus denied them this, and in so doing frequently defused their criticisms. Even Satan left him alone when Jesus would not give in to him (Matthew 4:11). Later, Jesus did not react to the accusations of those who would condemn him. Mark tells us that he ‘held his peace, and answered nothing’ (14:61). In the next verse Jesus states his identity once more, again showing that even in the face of death, his sense of identity remained secure and unchallenged.

Jesus instructed his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matthew 5:39), again encouraging us to deny the bully the reaction they’re looking for. Someone who is angry or even in a violent rage will soon be quelled when their opponent remains calm and refuses to fight back. If the other person meets them with composure, they demonstrate they cannot be moved or intimidated by hurtful behaviour. This unexpected reaction frequently convicts the bully of their actions: they may even feel foolish. As such, the ‘victim’ has gained control over the situation again, without stooping to the bully’s level or emulating their behaviour, as Peter instructs us: ‘do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing’ (1 Peter 3:9). It was also Peter who noted that it ‘is the will of God, that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men’ (2:15). By continuing to do the right thing despite those who challenge us, our actions eventually silence their uncalled-for behaviour.

3. Love Your Enemies, Because They Really Need it

‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5: 43-44).

Another way to overpower enemies is to give them love when they deserve hate. This may be one of the hardest things to do, but by looking at those who hurt us with uncondescending pity instead of dislike, we begin to realise that they are simply acting out of their own pain or are blind to their failings/faults. While this is never an excuse for them to treat another person badly, it helps us to understand their situation and motives better. It also reveals that love, not censure, heals pain and stops the cycle, and constructive criticism, when welcomed, can open the ‘eyes of the blind’. This never means we must continue to allow ourselves to be treated badly by some one, but it does mean that treating them with reciprocal hate and other bullying tactics will not bring us happiness either. By giving them love when they are seeking hate, we again deny them the power to overcome us.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (3:23). We don’t have the right to judge another when we too are sinners. But more than that, those who hurt us in any way are in pain themselves and need love – perhaps they have never been shown the way before and need someone to reach out to them. We may not always be the appropriate person to do this, but by loving our enemies instead of hating them, we are also freeing ourselves of bitterness and forgiveness, two things that stop us from leading a free and joyful life. 

Jesus dealt with many difficult situations during his short time on earth, but each time he responded with calmness, maturity and clarity. He remained true to his calling and did not let anyone interfere with his sense of purpose. In so doing, he pleased God and now sits with him in heaven (Matthew 3:17, Mark 16:19).

When we too are secure within ourselves, stand firm in who we are in Christ and become clear on what we believe, we also become resilient against those who may try to treat us in a harmful way.

‘Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken’ (Psalm 62:6). 

(For more about a bully's motives, see Why Do Bullies Bully?)