Formations 06.03.2018: Overcoming Defensiveness

2 Samuel 12:1-10

Diagram of the brain highlighting the limbic system, where emotional responses are attached to sensory data.

We all know what it’s like to see someone behaving defensively. Something has challenged a person’s values, perceptions, or belief system, and he or she responds by giving off a defensive vibe. They aren’t interested in dialogue. They just want to “win” the discussion—which quickly becomes an argument. We wonder why they’re being so difficult and unreasonable. Why can’t they see things from a different point of view?

As leadership guru Joni S. Naugle observes, however, we never have those thoughts when we are the person who is being defensive! When we do those things, we say we’re standing up for what is right.

Getting defensive, Naugle explains, is rooted in how the human brain operates. When sensory data enters our brain, we instantly evaluate if it is safe or dangerous. A fraction of a second later, we attach an emotion to the data: it makes us happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. Only then does the data reach the neocortex, where reasoning and logic kick in.

When we’re charged up about something, we often react before this last crucial step takes place.

Can we overcome defensiveness? Absolutely. We do it by stepping back from a situation and striving to understand the other person’s point of view. Remember that the goal isn’t to get our own way, but to achieve the best outcome for everyone.

In today’s text, King David might very well have been defensive when confronted with his sins against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. And Nathan himself may well have bristled with anger over his king’s behavior. Rather than lashing out, however, Nathan confronted David by telling him a story that forced him to see his actions from God’s point of view.

Joni S. Naugle, “Overcoming Defensiveness,” Reading Eagle, 22 May 2018 <>.


• In what situations do you tend to become defensive? What effect does your reaction tend to have on the situation?
• How can we be true to our convictions while genuinely listening to others’ points of view?
• Why did Nathan tell David a story rather than accuse him directly?
• How might Nathan’s strategy inform our approach when we must speak truth to power?
• What might David’s reaction tell us about hearing words from God? How might it enhance our appreciation of Jesus’ parables?

Reference Shelf

The Prophet Nathan

Nathan does not fit the pattern of the charismatic prophets seen in Samuel, Elijah, and the sons of the prophets. He was related to the political life of the monarchy and seems to have been part of the government. He appears for the first time in 2 Sam 7. Nothing is said about his origin or how he became attached to David’s court. Some scholars have associated him with the original Jebusite population of Jerusalem, while others associated him with the Ephraimite prophetic traditions of the northern tribes. According to 1 Chr 29:29 and 2 Chr 9:29, he wrote the chronicles of the reigns of David and Solomon, which indicates that the tradition of Israel associated him with the collections of old tribal materials that form the basis of the stories of David. Nathan is also said to have been involved in the development of music in the worship of Israel (2 Chr 29:25).

Claude F. Mariottini, “Nathan,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 604.

Nathan’s Parable

Nathan’s initial message to David takes the form of a parable. The Talmud calls it a mashal, a broad term that could encompass any sort of short story or riddle told for the purposes of instruction. Some question the use of the formal term “parable,” but it is perhaps the best term we have. Some recent scholars prefer to categorize the story as a “juridical parable,” since it is found in a legal context. Yahweh has put David on trial with Nathan as the prosecutor, though David does not know it at first. The purpose of the parable is to describe the guilty party’s crime in parabolic fashion, so that the targeted hearer will pass judgment on the guilty and thus condemn himself.

Two men are sharply contrasted. One is rich, powerful, and arrogant. The other is poor, helpless, and humble. The rich man has more animals in his flocks and herds than he can count, while the poor man has only one lamb, so precious that he loves it like one of his children. When the wealthy man was obligated to entertain a passing traveler, he stole the poor man’s only lamb, slaughtered it, and fed it to his guest (vv. 2-4).

The characters in this story are so clearly drawn and the rich man’s behavior so contemptible that David responds with an oath formula (“As the LORD lives”) and does not hesitate to declare the wealthy one to be patently guilty and worthy of punishment (v. 5)….

The narrator carefully has David comment on the malefactor’s character as well as his actions. He is a scoundrel and should be punished not only because of his action in stealing the sheep, but “because he had no pity.”

It was at this point that David was prepared to get the point, probably at the end of Nathan’s pointed finger: “You are the man!” With these two Hebrew words (“you [are] the-man”), David learned that the royal judge and the rich oppressor were one and the same. The crestfallen king’s words of judgment now rested on his own head.

Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 514–16.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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