A passive-aggressive person is one who appears to comply with a request but actually resists in subtle ways. The resistance can range from pouting to delayed vindictiveness. We all exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors at some point, usually as children when it was not safe to openly rebel. However, as we mature, we should be learning healthier behaviors such as setting boundaries and expressing disagreements more openly. The Bible does not use the term passive-aggression, but it does give us character sketches of people who exhibited passive-aggressive traits and the results of that behavior.
King David’s son Absalom is an example of a passive-aggressive person (2 Samuel 14:28–33). After Absalom had murdered his brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:20), David banished him from the kingdom. Even when he was allowed to return, David refused to have anything to do with him. But Absalom was full of pride and hated his father. He summoned Joab, the commander of David’s armies, to send a message to David. When Joab twice refused the summons, Absalom set fire to his crops in the field. He then began plotting to take the kingdom from his father, but he did so by feigning compassion and concern for the citizenry. He hinted that his father was not attending to the needs of the people, and that, if crowned king, he, Absalom, would see that their needs were met. Absalom’s plan was working, and “he stole the hearts of the people of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:6). Passive-aggressive people are possibly more dangerous than openly aggressive ones because we don’t see the attack coming.
King Ahab of Israel demonstrated passive-aggressive behavior when he coveted the vineyard of a neighbor and was denied its purchase (1 Kings 21:1–4). His response to being denied what he wanted was to sulk and pout and refuse to eat. His passive-aggressive actions prompted his wicked wife Jezebel to concoct a scheme to kill Naboth, the vineyard owner, and give her husband the land. She lied, forged her husband’s signature, and slandered the innocent Naboth, leading to his public execution. The Lord immediately sent Elijah the prophet to proclaim to Ahab that God had seen all that happened and that Ahab’s death would soon follow Naboth’s (1 Kings 21:17–22). It was Ahab’s passive-aggressive behavior that had begun the disastrous chain of events.
Passive-aggressive speech and behavior are cowardly ways of avoiding conflict. By pretending to be pleasant while inwardly seething with resentment, we fool ourselves into thinking we are peacemakers practicing self-control. In truth, we are communicating contempt and disapproval without having the courage to openly say so. An ancient Chinese proverb defines passive-aggression like this: “Behind the smile, a hidden knife!”
Social media has turned passive-aggression into an art form. We all know what it means when we are “unfriended,” “unfollowed,” or blocked. Some find it easier to vent their frustrations on social media than have a private conversation with someone who has offended them. However, what begins as passive-aggression can quickly mushroom into online bullying. The internet and the proliferation of smartphones have created dozens of ways for passive-aggressive people to exact revenge from behind the relative safety of a screen. Whether spoken, acted, or typed, passive-aggressive responses are harmful and dishonest. We are pretending to be unoffended while secretly planning ways to get even.
Leviticus 19:17 says, “Do not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him.” The Bible instructs us to confront sin in a loving and humble way, taking someone with us if the offender will not listen (Matthew 18:15–17). We are to be ready to forgive and restore when someone repents (Luke 17:3). Passive-aggression bypasses those critical steps in a relationship and goes directly to judgment (John 7:24). Rather than openly confront the wrong and offer an opportunity to clear the air, passive-aggressive people slide silently into the judge’s seat and devise subtle ways to get even.
Passive-aggressive traits are often so well-concealed that we are not even aware of them. We can identify behaviors that may suggest we are being passive-aggressive by asking ourselves a few questions:
1. Do I imply guilt when someone has something I can’t have? Example: “I love your dress. I wish I could afford something like that, but I have to take care of my mother.”
2. Do I give backhanded compliments to mask my jealousy? Example: “Oh, your new house is cute—for a starter home.”
3. Do I make a point to ignore or behave coldly toward someone with whom I’ve disagreed? Example: The person strikes up a conversation, but I keep checking my phone or glancing over the person’s shoulder.
4. Do I gossip about someone rather than address that person directly? Example: James was confused when he did not get the promotion he was promised. But rather than confronting the boss about it, he started rumors that the boss was dishonest.
5. Do I try to sabotage someone else’s success when he or she has offended me? Example: “Oh, I know you’re on a diet, but I couldn’t resist blowing my paycheck on this cake for you.”
6. Do I keep score and make certain that slights and snubs are kept even? Example: Sue did not invite me to her last dinner, so I send my party invitations to everyone in the office but her.
7. Do I hide behind vague comments on social media, geared toward embarrassing, shaming, or exposing someone whom I have not addressed face to face? Example: John posts on Facebook, “Some people need to learn that friendship is more than asking for bail money.”
Keeping Jesus’ Golden Rule would obliterate passive-aggression (Matthew 7:12). We are to treat others the way we want them to treat us, not the way they have already treated us. Regardless of how someone else acts, we are to respond with kindness, patience, and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:31–32). When we stand before God one day, He will not ask us how we were treated, but how we treated others (Romans 14:12). With His help, we can recognize our own passive-aggressive tendencies and replace them with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–25).