Seeking Peace When We Give Offense

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image

When I was in college, I went down to the dining hall one morning. Spotting someone I knew sitting by himself, I walked over to have breakfast with him. He nodded to acknowledge me, then quickly looked up again. An angry, insulted expression spread across his face. I could see that he was getting more and more upset, but I couldn't figure out why. Finally he said, "Well, I can see how you feel about it!" He got up and left. It took me a while to understand what had happened, but eventually it dawned on me that this red-haired, freckled-faced young man dressed in green was Irish, and it was St. Patrick's Day! I was wearing a T-shirt with a British flag on it.

I hadn't been trying to make a political statement. I honestly hadn't remembered what day it was. The T-shirt really had nothing to do with Britain, either. It was from the convenience store across the street. They were open 24 hours a day, and they'd adopted the slogan, "The sun never sets." Playing on the old saying that "the sun never sets on the British empire," they'd produced promotional T-shirts like the one I was wearing. I'd put it on that morning without giving it a second thought. But now I'd seriously insulted a friend. He thought I'd actually chosen the occasion of St. Patrick's Day to send a pro-British, anti-Irish message.

I had plenty of excuses. This really was an innocent mistake. I hadn't intended any offense. (Why did he have to be so sensitive?) He'd surely get over it. But deep inside, I knew I had to make it right. I remembered what Paul had written to the Romans: "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Rom. 12:17-18). Even though no offense had been intended, offense had been given, and as a Christian, it was my duty to pursue peace. I could at least do the part that depended on me.

I went back up to my room and found a green shirt to wear. In between classes that day, I came back to our dorm, looking for the guy I'd offended. Finally I found him. He bristled when he saw me, but I spoke up anyway. "I didn't mean to offend you," I assured him. "I apologize; I didn't realize what day it was." My green shirt seemed to offer evidence that my apology was sincere. He accepted it.

Misunderstandings and unintentional offenses are almost inevitable wherever we interact regularly with others, whether at work, in school, at church, at home or in the neighborhood. People have very different things on their minds at any given moment. Words and actions will mean one thing to one person but something very different to another person. We often don't know enough about another person's background to be aware of how they're going to respond to something they might see or hear.

We may say to ourselves, "I didn't mean anything by it, so they really shouldn't be offended." Perhaps they shouldn't. But they are. And there's something we can do about it. We can take back the comment, offer an apology, assure them of our good will. We can put on a different shirt.

James writes, "A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (James 3:18). Though we may offend unintentionally, we can make peace intentionally.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Is there a relationship you can help mend today by offering an apology for an unintentional offense?
  • Is there an offense that's been bothering you that may never have been intended?
  • Paul says to live at peace with others "as far as it depends on you." What things don't depend on us, and are out of our control, when it comes to seeking peace with others?
  • James uses the imagery of sowing and harvesting to describe peacemaking. What insights does this imagery give us into that process?
  • For more, read "Authentic Peace" and "A Biblical Pattern for Conflict Resolution."
Photograph "Then Alone" by John Puddephat, used under a Creative Commons license.