What gift could we give our society that would make the greatest difference to the greatest number of lives? As I think back over my childhood; as I interact with business clients; as I read the newspaper; as I listen to church problems; and as I ponder the maturing of my marriage; I have no doubt about the answer. It is the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
From the bedrooms of suburbia to the corridors of power, resentment shreds the fabric of human relationships. Bitterness smoulders among the rags. What to do? Don Henley sings:
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone;
They let you down and hurt your pride.
Better put it all behind you; life goes on.
You keep carryin’ that anger, it’ll eat you up inside.
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter.
But I think it’s about forgiveness, forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.
Even if you never love me again! We know we should do something to heal hurts, but we look sideways, waiting for the other guy to make the first move. Wasn’t he the cause? Aren’t we the offended party?
The first step
Even if I am the one going around with a dagger in my back, Christ expects from me a revolutionary response. He asks me to take the first step towards reconciliation. ‘If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you’ (Matthew 18:15 –17).
Many put off reconciliation while they wait for the more guilty party to initiate dialogue. The person most responsible for the grievance, however, may not even recognise that an offence has been committed, or may not be willing to take the initiative. Then too, it is often impossible to apportion blame accurately, since any disagreement has two sides.
Ideally, the one who sins should be the one who makes the first move. Christ taught that if a person on the way to worship remembers that another has a grievance against him (due to something he has said or done) he should stop what he is doing, seek out the offended party and apologise with an eye to reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24).
These instructions assume that a breach in fellowship can be traced to a real transgression – we’ll talk about dealing with imagined offences in another column. We must graciously call a spade a spade. Throwing a blanket of Christian love over conflict does not mean hiding iniquity behind a screen of fuzzy verbiage, as when someone says, ‘I apologise if I’ve done anything wrong (even though I can’t think of anything)’.
No, Christ commands us to be clear and accurate about admitting sin and facing faults: ‘I’m sorry I lost my temper’; ‘Forgive me for questioning your motives’; ‘Forgive me for calling you stupid’; ‘Can we talk about correcting the story you told the elders about me?’
If both the offender and the one offended stall the process, a third party may need to step in. After all, being a peacemaker goes with the territory – sorry, the kingdom. The King has commissioned us all as Knights of Reconciliation.
Why did it take so long?
Seeking to reconcile offended parties requires great discernment as well as courage and tact, lest we pour fuel on a smouldering relational fire or ignite tensions where none existed. Timing is crucial if we are to avoid being charged with meddling. We must not wait, however, until friendships lie in charred ruins at our feet before we pursue reconciliation. Whether we are the cause, the victim, or a third party, we cannot afford to look the other way. We must take the first step!
When forgiveness is offered and received the very trees of the field sing for joy. A daughter is reconciled to her father. A husband and wife embrace. Friends smile again. Enemies begin to talk. Church splits are healed. The sun shines brighter. Satan flees. God is in his heaven and life is good. And with the anger gone – we can sleep! As spring breaks out all around us we ask ourselves why this took us so long.