Recently I was shocked. A mother told me that her son would not speak to her. He has not been in touch for months. She tried to phone him, but he would not accept her phone calls. She tried emailing, but there was no response. Mother and son are both professing Christians.
Maybe the son was deeply wronged. I heard only one side of the story. But could his response ever be justified? Are you free from guilt in these matters? Is there anyone you will not speak to?
Is there any hand you will not shake? Is there someone whose hand you will shake, but in your heart you bear a grudge? Do you have an inner animosity? Is there a fellow-Christian whose wings you would like to see clipped and some humiliating experience happen to them?
We have all been hurt and offended in the past, but have we got over it? Do we find it impossible to forgive someone? Have we ourselves not been guilty of offending and hurting others by our thoughtlessness or selfishness? What has the Bible got to say?
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ (Matthew 6:12). Can we truly say that and dare to pray these words? Do we want God to deal with us as we deal with our fellow men?
We are guilty of many and grievous sins against God. Would we like him to hold them against us? To emphasise his point, following the prayer our Lord added: ‘For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:14-15).
How can we claim to be Christians and that our sins are forgiven and that we are going to heaven when we die, if we retain a grudge toward anyone?
Our Saviour set before us a brilliant example when he suffered injustice and barbaric hatred from those whom he came to save. In the middle of his pain, he prayed for them, and genuinely meant it: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes a similar though even more challenging point: ‘Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift’ (Matthew 5:23-24).
Here our Saviour is not just talking about the angry feelings we might have in our heart towards others, but the resentment they have towards us. Even though we are innocent, we should be aware that others who are offended by us will make our offering unacceptable. We are to strive to reconcile all to us before drawing near to God.
In Old Testament times, and until the death of Christ and rending of the veil of the temple, the people of God would come to the Lord with sacrifices and offerings. Today we come with the sacrifices of praise and incense of prayer.
God delights in his people worshipping him, but here we are told that certain requirements are necessary before our worship will be accepted by him.
Jesus’ parables present his teaching in a powerful way. A certain king had an examination or audit done of his accounts. One of his servants was called before him who owed him 10,000 talents — a vast sum of money, which would be reckoned as many millions today.
The king ordered him to be sold with his family into slavery and all his assets realised. The man fell down on his knees before him and pleaded for time and he would pay him every penny.
The king was moved with compassion and amazingly forgave him his total debt. That servant then went off and found another servant who owed him a hundred pence — in comparison, a paltry amount.
He caught this servant by the throat and demanded immediate payment. His fellow servant fell at his feet and pleaded with him for time, promising to pay him all. He would not listen and cast him into prison till he paid his debt.
Others felt sorry for the poor prisoner and told the king. He summoned the cruel man and said to him, ‘O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?
‘And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses’ (Matthew18:32-35).
Surely there is a powerful message for us here. We have been forgiven a vast debt by God; how then can we hold grudges against others?
On the other hand it is worth pointing out that Christians do fall out and do bear resentment to one another, and it is not just in our day. Paul had to plead with two prominent ladies in Philippi, ‘I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord’ (Philippians 4:2).
The church in Corinth, though rich in spiritual gifts, was rent by divisions. Paul writes: ‘For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
‘Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?’ (1 Corinthians 1:1-13).
Paul and Barnabas fell out with one another and had to go their separate ways for a time. We are all sinners, even the best of us, but that is no excuse. We must strive for perfection and nothing less.
There is of course a danger from the other side. We can be so concerned to get on well with everyone that we fail to speak out when we see wrong being done.
When, on the arrival of Jews from Jerusalem, Paul saw Peter ceasing to eat with the Gentiles and separating himself from the ‘unclean’ Gentiles and eating only with fellow Jews, he said, ‘I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed’ (Galatians 2:11).
We all have a duty to witness, even though we know that people will hate us for it. A minister or elder must sometimes speak out to correct what is wrong, even if it offends. Church discipline can be painful, but it must not be avoided just to keep the peace.
But the question still has to be asked: ‘Are our hard words spoken in love and with tears or in an arrogant and harsh way?’
The worst disputes by far are those in a family. One of the commonest causes for a falling out is disagreement over a will. The parents leave their worldly wealth to one child and the others feel resentment; or they leave it to be equally divided among all their children and the one who had the burden of care for the elderly parents feels that it is not fair.
The parents, of course, have a right to leave their money to whomsoever they wish. However, it is sad if through a lack of wisdom, or favouritism, their children are provoked to covetousness, fall out with one another and are stirred to angry thoughts toward their parents.
But looking at the matter from the other side, how wrong it is for a family to fall out over money and property! Those who have the most money and property are seldom the happiest. Though we would gain the whole world, we must soon leave it all behind.
Jesus warns: ‘Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth’ (Luke 12:15). The key to happiness and blessing is contentment: ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6). Ask the question: ‘Why have we fallen out? Is it for the glory of God or our own selfishness and pride?’
There are many similarities between family disputes and church disputes. They are both within a family and very bitter. Past love and friendship seem to increase the hatred. People say nasty things which, once said, cannot easily be withdrawn.
Some church disputes are over trivial matters which become magnified in the fog of war. Positions are taken up from which human pride finds it difficult to retreat. The electing of office-bearers and the calling of a new minister are particularly dangerous times for a congregation.
Strive for love
Even when division is necessary, for example when fundamental Christian doctrine is denied or biblical ordinances such as church discipline and Reformed worship are trampled underfoot and there is a defiant refusal to put right what is wrong, Christians on both sides of the dispute should strive to love one another and honour each other where they can.
Eventual reconciliation on the basis of truth and righteousness should always be the ultimate aim. Descending to slander, ridicule and abuse neither glorifies God nor edifies man. Remember the qualifications for eldership include: ‘no striker … but patient, not a brawler’. A bad temper disqualifies from office.
We often sing the words, ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’ (Psalm133:1). Let us mean them. The great mark of the Christian is brotherly love: ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’ (John 13:35).
Our assurance of salvation is tied in with love: ‘We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren’ (1 John 3:14). Is there any Christian against whom you have a simmering hatred?
This article was first published in the FCC’s magazine Free Church Witness