Trying to not take offense is like trying to not think about elephants. If someone says, “Don’t think about elephants,” we automatically think about them. If we focus on trying not to take offense, we will keep thinking about the offense. This principle applies to just about any sin a person can commit. When we focus on a behavior, even in an attempt to eliminate it, the result is more of that behavior. This is just how our minds work. Thankfully, there is another, better way to address this problem.
People are lured and enticed into sin as a result of desire—wanting is the beginning of sinning (James 1:14). Every sin or bad behavior begins with desire. Desire itself is not bad; there are many good desires. But the desires that lead to sin are wrong desires, the desires based in false perspectives and misplaced expectations about others and ourselves. To eliminate a bad behavior, we must first discover the desire behind it.
For many people, the tendency to take offense at little things is rooted in a false perspective of security. We all desire security and safety; we desire the good opinion of others. We secure those good opinions with performance: what we do, how we speak, how we dress, how we express ourselves, etc. When our security is based on our performance, we may feel threatened when someone expresses something negative about us. The natural response to that threat is to take offense or become angry. Even a casual, flippant, or offhand remark can gnaw at us and steal our peace. The way to prevent taking offense is to address our desire for security. As long as feelings of security are rooted in ourselves, the tendency to take offense, even at the little things, will exist. If, however, our feelings of security are not rooted in ourselves or our performance, our perspective will change and our response to the actions and comments of others will become more balanced.
Remember the acronym COP.
Cover. Twice in the book of Proverbs, we are told to “cover” offenses (Proverbs 10:12; 17:9). The covering of offense is related to love. First Peter 4:8 says, “Love covers over a multitude of sins”—and that “multitude” would have to include small slights. In any relationship, there are many irksome things that should just be “covered” for the sake of love. By covering an offense, or not revealing it to others, we are empathizing with the offender and extending the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he did not mean what he said; perhaps we misunderstood. Perhaps the offender was having a bad day or wasn’t thinking straight. Covering the offense of another helps us, too. Remember the elephant? When we focus on the needs of the person who offended us, we no longer think about how offended we feel.
Overlook. “A person’s wisdom yields patience; / it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). Forgiveness is an honorable thing. When you cover an offense, you give grace and empathy to the offender. When you overlook an offense, you choose to give something valuable to yourself—the reminder that your security is not based on others’ opinions of you but on the security you have in Christ (see Ephesians 1:5–7).
Pray. Jesus told His disciples on multiple occasions that if they prayed for anything in His name (or, according to His will) they would have what they asked for. Do you believe that God wants you to be angry with others, or forgiving of them? Do you believe that your security is in Him, rather than in yourself? If you pray consistently, asking Him to help you not take offense, He will answer that prayer. If you ask Him to remind you of His secure and steadfast love, He will answer that prayer. You can confidently pray for help in every offending situation (Hebrews 4:16).
In Bethany, as Jesus was reclining at a table, a woman entered the room with an alabaster jar of fine perfume. The woman broke the container and anointed Jesus’ head with the fragrant ointment (Mark 14:3). Immediately, she was criticized; in fact, “they rebuked her harshly” (verses 4–5). The woman could have taken offense at their words. It would have been natural for her to react in kind. But she didn’t have to. Jesus came to her defense: “Leave her alone” (verse 6). The woman’s love of Christ and her meek response to an offense were honored, and “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (verse 9).
To sum up, when we take offense, it is because someone has hurt us or frightened us. God has given us two ways to deal with the offense. First, by remembering that the other person also has things that hurt and frighten him. When we love the offender and focus on his needs (cover and overlook), we will no longer notice the offense. Second, by remembering that, when we belong to Christ, we are fundamentally secure in Him; we do not need to react and defend ourselves, because He has promised to defend us (Isaiah 35:3–4). When we struggle to trust Him or to believe that we are secure in Him, all we need to do is pray for the strength to do so, and we know that He will answer (John 14:13–14).