Discerning Manipulative Relational Dynamics


I’ve been blogging inconsistently over the last month or so.  This is partially because I’ve been moonlighting for the U.S. Department of Inclement Weather (c’mon, no one gets that movie reference!?).

Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been posting about passive-aggressive relational strategies.  What’s frustrating about passive-aggressive postures is that a person can be self-deceived into thinking he’s embodying humility.  What’s more, such relational strategies are indirect or masked, so they aren’t easy to identify.  Or, perhaps I should say that the manner in which a person is being manipulative isn’t easy to pin down.

So, what to do?

The Apostles James and Paul can help us here.  They both indicate that their readers can recognize destructive relational dynamics by the social fruit they produce.  That is, they can work backward from the social results to the basic motivation and relational posture to determine if it is life-giving or rotten.

James says this:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).

Is there relational oppression?  Do people feel manipulated or treated unjustly?  Is there conflict, anger, discord?  Then you can be assured that there is a demonic sort of “wisdom” at work.  There is someone manipulating, playing power games, or in some way relating destructively.  The path of peace will be to open up conversations about what is going on in an attempt to shed redemptive light on the situation.

Paul makes the same move as James in Galatians 5:19-26.  He compares the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.  He is not talking about how an individual can have power for the Christian life.  He is, rather, giving his readers counsel on how to identify which cosmic power is at work in their community.

Do you see divisions, anger, condemnation, a church broken up into factions?  If so, you know that “the flesh”—that anti-God force corrupting creation—is at work among you.

Do you see love, joy, peace, patience, etc.?  Then you know that the Spirit is at work among you to empower you to truly inhabit freedom.

In the same way, we can work backwards from social dynamics to discern where manipulative power-moves are at work.

We don’t necessarily need to identify a person’s motives and pin down their precise relational posture.  But we can throw a flag when we’re feeling manipulated in some way, or when someone speaks to us in ways that provoke anger and desires for retaliation.  Those may be indicators that something is amiss and that the relationship needs to be moved onto a redemptive trajectory.

One thought on “Discerning Manipulative Relational Dynamics

  1. Jaime

    Wait Tim, are you suggesting that when James says wisdom, he doesn’t mean allegiance to a specific list of doctrines? 😉
    (Sometimes there is a lot more practical advice in the Bible than we realize if we keep trying to use it as a doctrinal sourcebook for proof-texts.)
    Great post, and as a teacher, I definitely find myself watching what I say. I’m really becoming more aware of some of the insincere and dishonest ways we relate to one another, and I’m praying and asking the Spirit to convict me when I engage in those destructive patterns. I’m glad you’re raising these issues, because it helps me be much more reflective about what I’m doing on a daily basis.

    Grace and Peace,

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