The Peacemaker, by Ken Sande (Please support the author by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).
This wonderful news can radically change the way we respond to conflict. Through the gospel, the foundational G, the Lord enables us to live out the Four G’s of peacemaking. As we stand in awe of his matchless grace, we find more joy in glorifying God than in pursuing our own selfish ends. When we realize that God has mercy on those who confess their sins, our defensiveness lifts and we are able to admit our wrongs.
The primary focus of this book, however, will be on how God can help you as an individual Christian throw off worldly ideas about resolving conflict and become a true peacemaker. Among other things, it will explain How to use conflict as an opportunity to demonstrate the love and power of Jesus When it is appropriate to overlook an offense How to change attitudes and habits that lead to conflict How to confess wrongs honestly and effectively When to assert your rights How to correct others effectively How to forgive others and achieve genuine reconciliation How to negotiate just and reasonable agreements When to ask the church to intervene in a conflict How to deal with people who refuse to be reasonable When it is appropriate for a Christian to go to court
When someone mistreats or opposes us, our instinctive reaction is to justify ourselves and do everything we can to get our way. This selfish attitude usually leads to impulsive decisions that only make matters worse.
Focusing on God is the key to resolving conflict constructively. When we remember his mercy and draw on his strength, we invariably see things more clearly and respond to conflict more wisely. In doing so, we can find far better solutions to our problems.
Escape Responses – The three responses found on the left side of the slippery slope are called the escape responses. People tend to use these responses when they are more interested in avoiding a conflict than in resolving it.
Denial. One way to escape from a conflict is to pretend that it does not exist. Or, if we cannot deny that the problem exists, we simply refuse to do what should be done to resolve a conflict properly.
Flight. Another way to escape from a conflict is to run away. This may include leaving the house, ending a friendship, quitting a job, filing for divorce, or changing churches. In most cases, running away only postpones a proper solution to a problem (see Gen… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Suicide. When people lose all hope of resolving a conflict, they may seek to escape the situation (or make a desperate cry for help) by attempting to take their own lives (see 1 Sam. 31:4).… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Attack Responses – The three responses found on the right side of the slippery slope are called the attack responses. These responses are used by people who are more interested in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Assault. Some people try to overcome an opponent by using various forms of force or intimidation, such as verbal attacks (including gossip and slander), physical violence, or efforts to damage a person financially or professionally (… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Litigation. Another way to force people to bend to our will is to take them to court. Although some conflicts may legitimately be taken before a civil judge (see Acts 24:1–26:32; Rom. 13:1–5), lawsuits usually damage… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Murder. In extreme cases, people may be so desperate to win a dispute that they will try to kill those who oppose them (see Acts 7:54–58). While most Christians would not actually kill someone, we should never forget that we stand guilty of murder in God’s eyes when we harbor anger… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Peacemaking Responses The six responses found on the top portion of the slippery slope are called the peacemaking responses. These responses are commanded by God, empowered by the gospel, and directed toward… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The first three peacemaking responses may be referred to as “personal peacemaking,” because they may be carried out personally and privately,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Overlook an offense. Many disputes are so insignificant that they should be resolved by quietly and deliberately overlooking an offense. “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11; see also 12:16; 17:14; Col. 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8). Overlooking an offense is a form of forgiveness and involves a deliberate… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Reconciliation. If an offense is too serious to overlook or has damaged the relationship, we need to resolve personal or relational issues through confession, loving correction, and forgiveness. “[If] your brother has something against you… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Negotiation. Even if we successfully resolve relational issues, we may still need to work through material issues related to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
When a dispute cannot be resolved through one of the personal peacemaking responses, God calls us to use one of the next three peacemaking responses,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Mediation. If two people cannot reach an agreement in private, they should ask one or more objective outside people to meet with them to help them communicate more… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Arbitration. When you and an opponent cannot come to a voluntary agreement on a material issue, you may appoint one or more arbitrators to listen to your arguments and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Accountability. If a person who professes to be a Christian refuses to be reconciled and do what is right, Jesus commands church leaders to formally intervene to hold him or her accountable to Scripture and to promote repentance, justice, and forgiveness: “If he… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The extreme responses to conflict also result in greater losses. Every response to conflict costs you something; you must give up one thing to gain another.
There are also three noteworthy parallels between the two sides of the slippery slope. Both extremes of the spectrum result in death, either through suicide or murder, which are terrible problems in our culture.
There are also some interesting contrasts between the various responses to conflict. First, there is a difference in focus. When I resort to an escape response, I am generally focusing on “me.” I am looking for what is easy, convenient, or nonthreatening for myself. When I use an attack response, I am generally focusing on “you,” blaming you and expecting you to give in and solve the problem. When I use a peacemaking response, my focus is on “us.” I am aware of everyone’s interests in the dispute, especially God’s, and I am working toward mutual responsibility in solving a problem.
The issue of goals reveals a second difference between various responses. People who use escape responses are usually intent on “peace-faking,” or making things look good even when they are not. (This is especially common in the church, where people are often more concerned about the appearance of peace than the reality of peace.)
Attack responses are used by people who are prone to “peace-breaking.” They are more than willing to sacrifice peace and unity to get what they want.
Those who use the responses on the top of the slippery slope are committed to “peace-making” and will work long and hard to achieve true justice and genuine harmony with others.
Let’s begin our discussion by defining conflict as a difference in opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires.
There are four primary causes of conflict. Some disputes arise because of misunderstandings resulting from poor communication (see Josh. 22:10–34). Differences in values, goals, gifts, calling, priorities, expectations, interests, or opinions can also lead to conflict (see Acts 15:39; 1 Cor. 12:12–31). Competition over limited resources, such as time or money, is a frequent source of disputes in families, churches, and businesses (see Gen. 13:1–12). And, as we will see below, many conflicts are caused or aggravated by sinful attitudes and habits that lead to sinful words and actions (see James 4:1–2).
As James 4:1–2 tells us, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. . . .” When a conflict is the result of sinful desires or actions that are too serious to be overlooked, we need to avoid the temptation to escape or attack.
First, you can trust God. Instead of relying on your own ideas and abilities as you respond to people who oppose you, ask God to give you grace to depend on him and follow his ways, even if they are completely opposite to what you feel like doing (Prov. 3:5–7).
Second, you can obey God. One of the most powerful ways to glorify God is to do what he commands (Matt. 5:16; John 17:4; Phil. 1:9–10). As Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
Third, you can imitate God. When the believers in Ephesus were struggling with conflict, the apostle Paul gave them this timeless advice: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1–2; see 1 John 2:6).
Fourth, you can acknowledge God. As God gives you grace to respond to conflict in unusual and effective ways, other people will often take notice and wonder how you do it.
Every time you encounter a conflict, you will inevitably show what you really think of God. If you want to show that you love him “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37), then ask him to help you trust, obey, imitate, and acknowledge him, especially when it is difficult to do so.
The other benefit of a God-centered approach to conflict resolution is that it makes you less dependent on results.
God’s highest purpose for you is not to make you comfortable, wealthy, or happy. If you have put your faith in him, he has something far more wonderful in mind—he plans to conform you to the likeness of his Son!
God may also use conflict to expose sinful attitudes and habits in your life. Conflict is especially effective in breaking down appearances and revealing stubborn pride, a bitter and unforgiving heart, or a critical tongue. When you are squeezed through controversy and these sinful characteristics are brought to the surface, you will have an opportunity to recognize their existence and ask for God’s help in overcoming them (Ps. 119:67).
The Bible provides a detailed description of the character traits needed to manage conflict productively.
Motivated. As we have seen, the gospel provides enormous motivation to respond to conflict constructively.
Informed. As a steward, you also need to understand your Master’s will (see Luke 12:47). This is not difficult, because God has written out his instructions for you.
Strengthened. You are not alone when you are stewarding conflict: “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9a; cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). God provides this strength to all Christians through the Holy Spirit, who plays an essential role in peacemaking.
Dependent. At times, conflict can push you beyond your limits. You may have a difficult time understanding how to respond to a particular situation, or you may become so weary that you lose your determination to do what you know is right.
Faithful. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a steward is faithfulness: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). Faithfulness is not a matter of results; it is a matter of dependent obedience.
The Three Dimensions of Peace God loves peace. From Genesis to Revelation, he communicates a deep desire to bless his people with peace and to use them to bring peace to others. Consider these recurring themes: 1. Peace is part of God’s character, for he is frequently referred to as “the God of peace” (see Rom. 15:33; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil.4:9; Heb. 13:20; cf. Judg. 6:24). 2. Peace is one of the great blessings that God gives to those who follow him (see Lev. 26:6; Num. 6:24–26; Judg. 5:31; Ps. 29:11; 119:165; Prov. 16:7; Micah 4:1–4; Gal. 6:16). 3. God repeatedly commands his people to seek and pursue peace (see Ps. 34:14; Jer. 29:7; Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 13:11; Col. 3:15; 1 Thess. 5:13; Heb. 12:14). He also promises to bless those who do so (see Ps. 37:37; Prov. 12:20; Matt. 5:9; James 3:18). 4. God describes his covenant with his people in terms of peace (Num. 25:12; Isa. 54:10; Ezek. 34:25; 37:26; Mal. 2:5). 5. God taught his people to use the word peace (Hebrew shalom and Greek eirene) as a standard form of greeting (Judg. 6:23; 1 Sam. 16:5; Luke 24:36) and parting (1 Sam. 1:17; 2 Kings 5:19; Luke 7:50; 8:48). Nearly all of the New Testament Epistles either begin or end with a prayer for peace (Rom. 1:7; 15:13; Gal. 1:3; 2 Thess. 3:16).
There are three dimensions to the peace that God offers to us through Christ: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace within ourselves.
Peace with God Peace with God does not come automatically. All of us have sinned and alienated ourselves from him (Isa. 59:1–2). Instead of living the perfect lives required for enjoying fellowship with him, each of us has a record stained with sin (Rom. 3:23).
Peace with Others In addition to giving you peace with God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross opened the way for you to enjoy peace with other people (Eph. 2:11–18). This peace, which is often referred to as “unity” (Ps. 133:1), is not simply the absence of conflict and strife. Unity is the presence of genuine harmony, understanding, and goodwill between people.
Peace within Yourself Through Jesus you can also experience genuine peace within yourself. Internal peace is a sense of wholeness, contentment, tranquility, order, rest, and security.
Jesus’ Reputation Depends on Unity – Unity is more than a key to internal peace. It is also an essential element of your Christian witness. When peace and unity characterize your relationships with other people, you show that you are God’s child and he is present and working in your life (Matt. 5:9). The converse is also true: When your life is filled with unresolved conflict and broken relationships, you will have little success in sharing the good news about Jesus’ saving work on the cross.
Similar words are recorded in John 13:34–35, where Jesus tells his disciples that their public witness would be closely related to the way they treated one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The Enemy of Peace – Since peace and unity are essential to an effective Christian witness, you can be sure that there is someone who will do all he can to promote conflict and division among believers. Satan, whose name means “adversary,” likes nothing better than to see us at odds with one another. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8b).
Satan promotes conflict in many ways. Among other things, he tempts us so we give in to greed and dishonesty (Acts 5:3), he deceives us and misleads us (2 Tim. 2:25–26), and he takes advantage of unresolved anger (Eph. 4:26–27). Worst of all, he uses false teachers to propagate values and philosophies that encourage selfishness and stimulate controversy (1 Tim. 4:1–3).
Satan prefers that we do not recognize his role in our conflicts. As long as we see other people as our only adversaries and focus our attacks on them, we will give no thought to guarding against our most dangerous enemy.
Paul also shows that unity does not mean uniformity (Eph. 4:7– 13). He reminds us that God has richly blessed his children with a wide array of gifts, talents, and callings (1 Cor. 12:12–31). Mature Christians rejoice in the diversity that God has given to his people, and they realize that believers can legitimately hold differences of opinion on “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). When differences rob us of harmony and peace, however, there is work to do.
Ironically, even though pastors usually neglect 1 Corinthians 6, there are many judges and attorneys who are calling the church to take Paul’s teaching seriously. For example, associate Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia made this observation: I think this passage [1 Cor. 6:1–8] has something to say about the proper Christian attitude toward civil litigation. Paul is making two points: first, he says that the mediation of a mutual friend, such as the parish priest, should be sought before parties run off to the law courts. . . . I think we are too ready today to seek vindication or vengeance through adversary proceedings rather than peace through mediation. . . . Good Christians, just as they are slow to anger, should be slow to sue.5
God Is Sovereign – The Bible provides many examples of people who trusted God even in the midst of terrible hardship and suffering. Our prime example is Jesus.
One reason that Jesus and Paul trusted God so completely is that they knew he was in complete control of everything that happened in their lives.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we say to ourselves, “If I were God and could control everything in the world, I wouldn’t allow someone to suffer this way.” Such thoughts show how little we understand and respect God.
God Is Good – If all we knew was that God is in control, we could have reason to fear. Indeed, if he used his power arbitrarily, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil, we would be in great danger. But this is not the case. God is good—his power is always wielded with perfect love.
The Path Has Been Marked – Trusting God does not mean that we will never have questions, doubts, or fears. We cannot simply turn off the natural thoughts and feelings that arise when we face difficult circumstances. Trusting God means that in spite of our questions, doubts, and fears we draw on his grace and continue to believe that he is loving, that he is in control, and that he is always working for our good. Such trust helps us to continue doing what is good and right, even in difficult circumstances.
Trust Is a Decision – Your view of God will have a profound effect on how much you trust him. If you do not believe that he is both sovereign and good, trust will be an elusive thing, for a god who is loving but not in control is simply “a heavenly Santa Claus . . . who means well, but cannot always insulate his children from trouble and grief.”11 Such a god offers little security or hope in the face of affliction and fails to inspire either trust or obedience. On the other hand, if you believe that God is sovereign and good, you will be able to trust him and obey him, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Define the Issues – As you evaluate your role in a conflict, it is helpful to clearly define the issues that separate you from other people. Conflicts generally involve two kinds of issues: material and personal. Material issues involve substantive matters such as property, money, rights, and responsibilities.
Personal issues relate to what goes on inside or between persons. These matters involve our attitudes and feelings toward others that result from how we have treated one another.
Overlook Minor Offenses – In many situations, the best way to resolve a conflict is simply to overlook the personal offenses of others.
Check Your Attitude—and Change It One of the reasons we sometimes find it difficult to overlook offenses is that we have an overly sensitive attitude or a tendency to dwell on what others have done. One way to guard against this problem is to check your attitude in the light of God’s Word.
Philippians 4:2–9 Paul does not explain every action that Euodia and Syntyche need to take to settle their differences. Instead, he focuses on the steps they can take to develop a proper attitude toward their situation and toward each other. Paul has broken his instructions into five basic principles, which you too can use whenever you are involved in a conflict.
1. Rejoice in the Lord always. As usual, Paul urges us to be God-centered in our approach to conflict. Moreover, he wants us to be joyfully God-centered.
2. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The second step in developing a proper attitude toward conflict is to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (cf. Gal. 6:1–2).
3. Replace anxiety with prayer. The third step in developing a godly attitude toward conflict is to get rid of anxious thoughts.
4. See things as they really are. As you replace anxiety with prayer, you will be ready to follow Paul’s fourth instruction, which is to develop a more accurate view of others.
5. Practice what you’ve learned. Paul’s final instruction to Euodia and Syntyche (and to us) is both straightforward and encouraging: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
Count the Cost – Another way to avoid unnecessary conflict is to consider the cost of unresolved conflict. Conflict is often much more expensive than we expect it to be. Unresolved disputes can consume large amounts of time, energy, and money, leaving you emotionally and spiritually exhausted.
What about “Rights”? Some people resist overlooking offenses and settling disputes by arguing, “I have my rights—and it wouldn’t be just to let him off so easily.” Whenever I hear this comment from a Christian, I ask, “Where would you spend eternity if God administered justice that was not tempered with mercy?” The answer is obvious: We would all be condemned to hell.
The truth of the matter is that it may actually be unjust in God’s eyes to exercise certain rights. Much of what is legally permissible today is not right when viewed from a biblical perspective.
Here again the concept of stewardship serves as a helpful guiding principle. Rights are not something you deserve and possess for your own benefit. Rather, they are privileges given to you by God, and he wants you to use them for his glory and to benefit others, especially by helping them know Christ.
These passages describe the root cause of conflict: unmet desires in our hearts. When we want something and feel that we will not be satisfied unless we get it, that desire starts to control us. If others fail to meet our desires, we sometimes condemn them in our hearts and fight harder to get our own way. Let us look at this progression one step at a time.
The Progression of an Idol / Desire – Conflict always begins with some kind of desire. Some desires are inherently wrong, such as vengeance, lust, or greed, but many desires are not.
I Demand – Unmet desires have the potential of working themselves deeper and deeper into our hearts. This is especially true when we come to see a desire as something we need or deserve and therefore must have in order to be happy or fulfilled.
Most of us think of an idol as a statue of wood, stone, or metal worshiped by pagan people. But the concept of idolatry is much broader and far more personal than that. An idol is anything apart from God that we depend on to be happy, fulfilled, or secure.
It is important to emphasize the fact that idols can arise from good desires as well as wicked desires. It is often not what we want that is the problem, but that we want it too much.
As you search your heart for idols, you will often encounter multiple layers of concealment, disguise, and justification. One of the subtlest cloaking devices is to argue that we want only what we legitimately deserve or what God himself commands.
How could I tell which motives were actually ruling my heart? All I had to do was look at how I felt and reacted when my desires were not being met.
I Judge – As my example shows, idolatrous demands usually lead us to judge other people. When they fail to satisfy our desires and live up to our expectations, we criticize and condemn them in our hearts if not with our words.
As David Powlison writes: We judge others—criticize, nit-pick, nag, attack, condemn—because we literally play God. This is heinous. [The Bible says,] “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you to judge your neighbor?” Who are you when you judge? None other than a God wannabe. In this we become like the Devil himself (no surprise that the Devil is mentioned in James 3:15 and 4:7). We act exactly like the adversary who seeks to usurp God’s throne and who acts as the accuser of the brethren. When you and I fight, our minds become filled with accusations: your wrongs and my rights preoccupy me. We play the self-righteous judge in the mini-kingdoms we establish.3 This insight should leave us shaking in our boots!
We cross the line, however, when we begin to sinfully judge others, which is characterized by a feeling of superiority, indignation, condemnation, bitterness, or resentment. Sinful judging often involves speculating on others’ motives. Most of all, it reveals the absence of a genuine love and concern toward them. When these attitudes are present, our judging has crossed the line and we are playing God.
I Punish – Idols always demand sacrifices. When someone fails to satisfy our demands and expectations, our idol demands that he should suffer. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, we will find ways to hurt or punish people so that they will give in to our desires.
This punishment can take many forms. Sometimes we react in overt anger, lashing out with hurtful words to inflict pain on those who fail to meet our expectations. When we do so, we are essentially placing others on the altar of our idol and sacrificing them, not with pagan knives, but with the sharp edge of our tongues. Only when they give in to our desire and give us what we want will we stop inflicting pain upon them. We punish those who don’t “bow” to our idols in numerous other ways as well.
Love, fear, trust—these are words of worship. Jesus commands us to love God, fear God, and trust God only (Matt. 22:37; Luke 12:4–5; John 14:1). Anytime we long for something apart from God, fear something more than God, or trust in something other than God to make us happy, fulfilled, or secure, we worship a false god. As a result, we deserve the judgment and wrath of the true God.
Deliverance from Judgment – There is only one way out of this bondage and judgment: It is to look to God himself, who loves to deliver people from their idols. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2–3).
Deliverance from Specific Idols – Yet there is more good news. God wants to deliver us not only from our general problem with sin and idolatry, but also from the specific, day-to-day idols that consume us, control us, and cause conflict with those around us.
God uses three vehicles to convey his grace to help us in this identification and deliverance process: his Bible, his Spirit, and his church.
If someone told you that you had a deadly cancer that would take your life if you did not get treatment, you would probably spare no effort or expense in pursuing the most rigorous treatment available. Well, you do have cancer—a cancer of the soul. It is called sin and idolatry.
Replace Idol Worship with Worship of the True God – In his excellent book Future Grace, John Piper teaches that “sin is what you do when you are not fully satisfied in God.”4 The same may be said about idolatry. In other words, if we are not fulfilled and secure in God, we will inevitably seek other sources of happiness and security.
Repent before God. When we repent and confess our sins and idols, believing in our forgiveness through Christ, we also confess our faith in Christ.
Fear God. Stand in awe of the true God when you are tempted to fear others or are afraid of losing something precious.
Love God. Desire the one who forgives us and provides everything we need, instead of looking to other things that cannot save you.
Trust God. Rely on the one who sacrificed his Son for you and has proven himself to be absolutely dependable in every situation.
Delight in God. Learn to find your greatest joy in thinking about God, meditating on his works, talking to others about him, praising him, and giving him thanks.
James 4:1–3 provides a key principle for understanding and resolving conflict. Whenever we have a serious dispute with others, we should always look carefully at our own hearts to see whether we are being controlled by unmet desires that we have turned into idols. These desires love to disguise themselves as things we need or deserve, or even as things that would advance God’s kingdom. But no matter how good or legitimate a desire may look on the surface, if we have gotten to the point where we cannot be content, fulfilled, or secure unless we have it, that desire has evolved into an idol that has diverted our love and trust from God. Fortunately, God delights to deliver us from our slavery to idols and enable us to find true freedom, fulfillment, and security in his love and provision. And as we break free from the desires that have fueled our conflicts, we can resolve seemingly hopeless disputes and become more effective peacemakers. If you are presently involved in a conflict, these questions will help you apply the principles presented in this chapter to your situation: 1. Work backwards through the progression of an idol to identify the desires that are controlling your heart. Ask yourself these questions: a. How am I punishing others? b. How am I judging others? c. What am I demanding to have? d. What is the root desire of that demand? 2. What makes you think that you need or deserve to have any of these desires satisfied? 3. In order to more clearly identify your idols (desires turned into demands), ask yourself these questions: a. What am I preoccupied with? (What is the first thing on my mind in the morning and/or the last thing at night?) b. How would I fill in this blank?: “If only ______, then I would be happy, fulfilled, and secure.” c. What do I want to preserve or avoid at any cost? d. Where do I put my trust? e. What do I fear? f. When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression? g. Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it? 4. How are your expectations of others magnifying your demands on them and your disappointment in their failure to meet your desires? 5. How are you judging those who do not meet your desires? Are you feeling indignation, condemnation, bitterness, resentment, or anger? 6. How are you punishing those who do not meet your desires? 7. What has God done to deliver you from your idols? What can you do to receive this deliverance? 8. How can you cultivate a more passionate love for and worship of God? 9. Go on record with the Lord by writing a prayer based on the principles taught in this chapter.
Repentance Is More Than a Feeling – Repentance is the first step in gaining freedom from sin and conflict. Repentance is not something we can do on our own; it is a gift of God for which we should continually pray, whereby he convicts us of our sin and shows us the road to freedom (2 Tim. 2:24–26). Repentance does not mean we simply feel sad and uncomfortable. Nor does it involve a mere apology. To repent literally means to change the way we think.
In contrast, godly sorrow means feeling bad because you have offended God. It means sincerely regretting the fact that what you did was morally wrong, regardless of whether or not you must suffer unpleasant consequences. It involves a change of heart—which is possible only when you understand that sin is a personal offense against God himself (2 Chron. 6:37–39; cf. Jer. 31:19). Godly sorrow will not always be accompanied by intense feelings, but it implies a change in thinking, which should lead to changes in behavior.
Examine Yourself – One evidence of sincere repentance is a willingness to thoroughly examine ourselves so that we can uncover both our mistakes and our sins. Mistakes are the result of errors in judgment rather than sin. Although it is right to acknowledge and repair mistakes that have hurt others, we do not need to go through the same in-depth process that is needed to confess and correct our sins.
In fact, we can sin against God by omission—by doing nothing.
Because most of us do not like to admit that we have sinned, we tend to conceal, deny, or rationalize our wrongs. If we cannot completely cover up what we have done, we try to minimize our wrongdoing by saying that we simply made a “mistake” or an “error in judgment.” Another way to avoid responsibility for our sins is to shift the blame to others or to say that they made us act the way we did.
Using Your Tongue as a Weapon – Scripture warns us that the tongue is often a chief cause of conflict. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person. . . . It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:5–6, 8b). Sinful speech can take many forms.
Reckless words, spoken hastily and without thinking, inflame many conflicts.
Grumbling and complaining irritates and discourages other people. It also takes our eyes off of the good things God and others do for us.
Falsehood includes any form of misrepresentation or deceit (Prov. 24:28; 2 Cor. 4:2), including lying, exaggeration, telling only part of the truth, or distorting the truth by emphasizing favorable facts while minimizing those that are against us. Anytime we use words that give a false impression of reality, we are guilty of practicing deceit.
Gossip is often both the spark and the fuel for conflict. “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).
Slander involves speaking false and malicious words about another person. The Bible repeatedly warns against such talk (e.g., Lev. 19:16; Titus 2:3) and commands us to “have nothing to do” with slanderers who refuse to repent (2 Tim. 3:3–5).
Worthless talk can also contribute to conflict, even if you intend no harm. It violates God’s high standard for talking to or about others: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).
Sinful words contribute greatly to conflict. Furthermore, they can destroy us from the inside out. As 2 Timothy 2:16 warns, “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.”
Controlling Others – Few things cause as much conflict as trying to control other people. Some attempts to control others are blatantly self-serving, such as maximizing our own profit or influence at another person’s expense (Gen. 29:15–30). But the more common type of control involves trying to persuade, manipulate, or force people to do things that simply make our lives more comfortable and convenient.
Breaking Your Word – A great deal of conflict is the direct result of someone’s failure to keep a commitment, whether it was expressed in a contract, a marriage vow, an oath to God, or by a simple yes or no (Matt. 5:33–37; cf. Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:23; Prov. 2:17).
Failing to Respect Authority – Another common source of conflict is the abuse of or rebellion against the authority God has established in the church, the government, the family, and the workplace. All legitimate authority has been established by God, primarily for the purpose of maintaining peace and order (Rom. 13:1–7).
Forgetting the Golden Rule – Perhaps the most common cause of conflict is our failure to follow the Golden Rule, which Jesus taught in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” To see whether you have violated this teaching, ask yourself questions like these: Would I want someone else to treat me the way I have been treating him? How would I feel if I found out people were saying about me what I’ve said about her? If our positions were reversed, how would I feel if he did what I have done? If someone broke a contract for the same reasons I am using, would I feel that was right? If I was an employee, how would I feel if I was treated the way I have treated her? If I owned this business, would I want my employees to behave the way I am behaving?
The Seven A’s of Confession – As God opens your eyes to see how you have sinned against others, he simultaneously offers you a way to find freedom from your past wrongs. It is called confession. Many people have never experienced this freedom because they have never learned how to confess their wrongs honestly and unconditionally. Instead, they use words like these: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “Let’s just forget the past.” “I suppose I could have done a better job.” “I guess it’s not all your fault.” These token statements rarely trigger genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. If you really want to make peace, ask God to help you breathe grace by humbly and thoroughly admitting your wrongs. One way to do this is to use the Seven A’s.
1. Address Everyone Involved – As a general rule, you should confess your sins to every person who has been directly affected by your wrongdoing. Since all sins offend God by violating his will, all sins should be first confessed to him (see Ps. 32:5; 41:4).
2. Avoid If, But, and Maybe – The best way to ruin a confession is to use words that shift the blame to others or that appear to minimize or excuse your guilt. The most common way to do this is to say, “I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset you.” The word if ruins this confession, because it implies that you do not know whether or not you did wrong. The message you are communicating is this: “Obviously you’re upset about something. I don’t know that I have done anything wrong, but just to get you off my back I’ll give you a token apology. By the way, since I don’t know whether I have done anything wrong, I certainly don’t know what I should do differently in the future. Therefore, don’t expect me to change. It’s only a matter of time before I do the same thing again.”
3. Admit Specifically – The more detailed and specific you are when making a confession, the more likely you are to receive a positive response. Specific admissions help convince others that you are honestly facing up to what you have done, which makes it easier for them to forgive you.
4. Acknowledge the Hurt – If you want someone to respond positively to a confession, make it a point to acknowledge and express sorrow for how you have hurt or affected them. Your goal is to show that you understand how the other person felt as a result of your words or actions.
5. Accept the Consequences – Explicitly accepting the consequences of your actions is another way to demonstrate genuine repentance. The prodigal son demonstrated this principle. After acknowledging that he had sinned against God and his father, he decided to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (Luke 15:19).
6. Alter Your Behavior – Another sign of sincere repentance is to explain to the person you offended how you plan to alter your behavior in the future. On a personal level, this could involve describing some of the attitude, character, and behavior changes you hope to make with God’s help.
7. Ask for Forgiveness (and Allow Time) – If you follow the six steps described above, many people will readily say they forgive you. If the person to whom you have confessed does not express forgiveness, however, you may ask, “Will you please forgive me?” This question is a signal that you have done all that you can by way of confession and that the responsibility for the next move has shifted to the other person. This will often help the offended person make and express the decision to forgive you.
Not every confession will require all seven steps. Minor offenses can often be handled with a fairly simple statement. The more serious the offense, however, the wiser it is to make a thorough confession using all of the Seven A’s.
You Can Change – The final step in finding freedom from a particular sin is to work with God to change your attitudes and behavior in the future. This process fulfills the third opportunity of peacemaking, namely, growing to be more like Christ.
God is eager to help us to grow and change (see Phil. 1:6, 2:13; Rom. 8:28–29; 1 Cor. 6:9–11; 2 Peter 1:4). There is no sin or habit in your life that cannot be overcome by his grace.
Pray. Thank God for the saving work he has already done in your life and ask him to give you faith to believe that you really can change.
Delight yourself in the Lord. As we saw in chapter 5, the best way to squeeze idolatrous desires out of our hearts is to learn to love and worship God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul.
Study. The Bible frequently emphasizes the close connection between transformed thinking and growth in character (Rom. 8:6–8; 12:1–2; 1 Cor. 2:9–16; Eph. 1:17–19; 4:22–24; Phil. 1:9–11; Col. 1:9–12). Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding—all involving our minds—are important prerequisites to spiritual fruitfulness.
Practice. As Paul warned the Philippians, we cannot change unless we put what we are learning into practice (Phil. 4:9).
Jesus is clearly calling for something much more loving and redemptive than simply confronting others with a list of their wrongs. He wants us to remember and imitate his shepherd love for us—to seek after others to help them turn from sin and be restored to God and those they have offended.
As these and many similar passages indicate, we need to let go of the idea that showing someone his fault always requires direct confrontation. Although that approach will be appropriate in some situations, we should never do it automatically. Instead, we should ask God to help us discern the most winsome and effective way to approach a particular person at a particular time and to open the way for genuine reconciliation.
The Bible clearly commends face-to-face meetings as an important step in reconciling people, but it does not teach that this is the only way to begin a reconciliation process. In fact, it is sometimes better to involve other people in resolving a conflict before trying to meet personally with someone who has wronged you.
However, whether we begin with a private meeting or work through intermediaries, we must not let personal preferences or cultural traditions divert us from seeking genuine reconciliation, which requires a sincere expression and confirmation of confession and forgiveness.
First, many of the passages related to restoring relationships clearly contemplate a direct conversation between the conflicting parties (see Matt. 5:23–24; 18:15; Luke 17:3). Second, Scripture provides many examples of marvelous reconciliation that came about after personal meetings between people who had wronged each other, including Jacob and Esau (Gen. 33:6–12), Joseph and his brothers (45:1–5; 50:15–21), and Paul and the apostles (Acts 9:27–28). Third, the Bible also gives examples of disastrous results when the involvement of intermediaries allowed the parties to delay or avoid personal meetings involving genuine confession and forgiveness.
If Someone Has Something against You – If you learn that someone has something against you, God wants you to take the initiative in seeking peace—even if you do not believe you have done anything wrong. If you believe that another person’s complaints against you are unfounded or that the misunderstanding is entirely the other person’s fault, you may naturally conclude that you have no responsibility to take the initiative in restoring peace.
There are several reasons why you should initiate reconciliation even if you do not believe you are at fault. Most importantly, Jesus commands you to go.
Finally, you should initiate reconciliation out of love for your brother and concern for his well-being.
Bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness are serious sins in God’s eyes.
When Someone’s Sins Are Too Serious to Overlook – God also calls you to go and talk to someone about a conflict if that person’s sins are too serious to overlook. This is why Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). It is sometimes difficult to decide whether another person’s sin is so serious that you need to go and talk about it.
Is It Dishonoring God? – Sin is too serious to overlook if it is likely to bring significant dishonor to God (see, e.g., Matt. 21:12–13; Rom. 2:23–24). If someone who professes to be a Christian is behaving in such a way that others are likely to think less of God, of his church, or of his Word, it may be necessary to talk with that person and urge him to change his behavior.
Is It Damaging Your Relationship? – You should also go and talk about offenses that are damaging your relationship with another person. If you are unable to forgive an offense—that is, if your feelings, thoughts, words, or actions toward another person have been altered for more than a short period of time—the offense is probably too serious to overlook.
Is It Hurting Others? – An offense or disagreement is also too serious to overlook when it results in significant harm to you or others.
Is It Hurting the Offender? – Finally, sin needs to be addressed when it is seriously harming the offender, either by direct damage (e.g., alcohol abuse) or by impairing his or her relationship with God or other people.
A Christian’s responsibility to help others deal with serious sins can be understood more clearly by studying two particular words used in Galatians 6:1. In this passage Paul told the Galatians to restore a brother who is “caught in a sin.” The Greek word that is translated as “caught” (prolambano) means to be overtaken or surprised. Thus, the brother who needs our help is one who has been ensnared when he was off guard.
It also helps to understand what Paul told the Galatians to do with a brother caught in sin. Instead of ignoring him or throwing him out, the Galatians were instructed to “restore him gently.”
After the Log Is Out of Your Eye – As Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:3–5, you should not try to talk to others about their wrongs until you have dealt with your contribution to a problem.
1. You may simply overlook the offense. Confess your contribution to the problem, let go of what the other person did, and get on with your life. This route will be appropriate if the other person’s sin is relatively minor and has not permanently affected your relationship.
2. You may build on the other’s superficial confession. Your confession may encourage the other person to make some form of admission, even if it is incomplete or halfhearted.
3. You may need to talk about the other person’s sin now. This will be appropriate when the conflict is so serious or the other person’s attitude and behavior is so harmful that the situation must be dealt with immediately or further problems are likely to occur.
4. You may postpone confrontation until another time. This will be appropriate if the matter is not urgent and if immediate confrontation is not likely to be productive.
Bring Hope through the Gospel – When someone has disappointed or offended me, my natural tendency is to come at them with “the law,” lecturing them about what they have done wrong and what they should now do to make things right. This approach generally makes people defensive and reluctant to admit their wrongs, which makes a conflict worse.
As these passages show, when we need to talk with others about their faults, we should ask for God’s help to resist our tendency to hammer people into submission by dwelling on their failures. Of course, we sometimes need to show them where they have sinned and fallen short of God’s ways. But that should not be the primary focus of our words, because judgment inevitably discourages.
Be Quick to Listen – Another element of effective communication is to listen carefully to what others are saying. Knowing this is not our nature, James gave this warning to the early church: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Good listening is particularly important for a peacemaker.
Waiting – Waiting patiently while others talk is a key listening skill. Without this skill, you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict, and you may complicate matters with inappropriate reactions.
Attending – The human mind can think at least four times faster than a person can talk. Therefore, when you are listening to someone, your mind may be searching for something more to do. If you allow your mind to wander, or if you start rehearsing your responses, you may miss much of what others are saying.
Clarifying Clarifying is the process of making sure you understand what the other person is saying.
Reflecting – Reflecting or “paraphrasing” is the process of summarizing the other person’s main points in your own words and sending them back in a constructive way.
Agreeing – Agreeing with what another person says is an especially powerful listening response. This doesn’t mean you abandon your beliefs, but rather that you acknowledge what you know is true before addressing points of disagreement.
One reason we are sometimes reluctant to admit being wrong on one issue is that we fear it will seem like we are accepting responsibility for the entire problem.
The Tongue of the Wise Brings Healing – A third element of effective communication is the ability to speak to others in a clear, constructive, and persuasive manner.
Breathe Grace – As we have seen throughout this book, peacemakers are people who breathe grace to others in the midst of conflict. Since we cannot breathe out what we have not breathed in, this process hinges on our moment-to-moment relationship with God.
Make Charitable Judgments – When you are trying to show others where they may need to change, your attitude will usually carry more weight than your actual words. If people sense that you have jumped to conclusions about them and enjoy finding fault in them, they are likely to resist correction. If, on the other hand, they sense that you are trying to believe the best about them, they will be more inclined to listen to your concerns.
Speak the Truth in Love – God commands us not only to speak the truth to each other, but to “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15; emphasis added), even to people who have wronged or mistreated us (1 Peter 3:9; cf. Luke 6:27–28; Acts 7:59–60; Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12–13).
Talk from Beside, Not from Above – When you need to show others their faults, do not talk down to them as though you are faultless and they are inferior to you. Instead, talk with them as though you are standing side by side at the foot of the cross.
Help Others Examine the Desires of Their Hearts – As we saw in chapter 5, the root cause of most conflict is desires in our hearts that have become so strong that they begin to consume and control us. These desires can become little gods or idols that dominate our thoughts, goals, and actions.
Choose the Right Time and Place – Timing is an essential ingredient of effective communication. If possible, do not discuss sensitive matters with someone who is tired, worried about other things, or in a bad mood. Nor should you approach someone about an important concern unless you will have enough time to discuss the matter thoroughly.
Talk in Person Whenever Possible – As we discussed in chapter 7, communication is most effective when it is done as personally as possible. Therefore, face-to-face conversation is usually better than talking by telephone, because both people can see facial expressions and communicate with body language as well as with words.
Engage Rather than Declare – One of the fastest ways to make people defensive is to abruptly announce what they have done wrong. If you launch into a direct and detailed description of their faults, they are likely to close their ears and launch a counterattack.
Communicate So Clearly That You Cannot Be Misunderstood – Many conflicts are caused or aggravated by misunderstandings. People may say things that are actually true or appropriate, but because they did not choose their words carefully, they leave room for others to misconstrue what they mean and take offense.
Plan Your Words – I cannot overemphasize the importance of planning your words when you need to talk with others about their faults. In delicate situations, careful planning can make the difference between restored peace and increased hostility.
Use “I” Statements – One of the most helpful skills Corlette has taught me is how to use “I” statements. The statements give information about yourself rather than attack the other person—as is the case when you make statements like “You are so insensitive” or “You are just irresponsible.” A typical formula for an “I” statement is “I feel ___ when you ___, because ___. As a result ___.”
“I” statements can accomplish three things. First, they tell the other person how his or her conduct is affecting you.
Second, this kind of statement identifies what the other person has done that you are concerned about.
Third, an “I” statement can explain why this issue is important to you and why you would like to discuss it.
Be Objective – When you are trying to show someone his fault, keep your remarks as objective as possible. While an expression of personal perceptions and feelings may help someone understand your feelings, if you emphasize subjective opinions and judgments too much, you are likely to convey condescension or condemnation.
Use the Bible Carefully – It is often helpful to refer to the Bible as a source of objective truth when you have a disagreement with another Christian. If this is not done with great care, however, it will alienate people rather than persuade them.
Ask for Feedback – When talking to another person, one of your primary goals should be to match impact with intent. In other words, you want to make sure that what you meant to say has actually gotten across to the other person completely and accurately.
Offer Solutions and Preferences – When you speak to others about issues in their lives, be prepared to offer solutions to the specific problems you have identified. If you can show a person a reasonable way out of a predicament, he or she may be more inclined to listen to you. Hope is a key ingredient in promoting repentance and change.
Recognize Your Limits – Finally, whenever you are trying to show someone his fault, remember that there are limits to what you can accomplish. You can raise concerns, suggest solutions, and encourage reasonable thinking, but you cannot force change.
The Matthew 18 Process – A general principle taught in Matthew 18 is that we should try to keep the circle of people involved in a conflict as small as possible for as long as possible. If we can resolve a dispute personally and privately, we should do so. But if we cannot settle matters on our own, we should seek help from other people, expanding the circle only as much as necessary to bring about repentance and reconciliation.
Step One: Overlook Minor Offenses Before you consider involving others in a conflict, it is wise to review the steps that you can take to resolve a dispute in private.
Step Two: Talk in Private If you have wronged someone else, God calls you to go to the other person to seek forgiveness (see chapters 5 and 6). If another person has committed a wrong that is too serious to overlook, it is your responsibility to go the other person and show him his fault, making every effort to resolve personal issues and promote genuine reconciliation (see chapters 7 and 8).
Step Three: Take One or Two Others Along If a dispute cannot be resolved in private, Jesus tells us to ask other people to get involved. “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matt. 18:16).
By mutual agreement. If you and your opponent cannot resolve a dispute in private, you can suggest that the two of you ask one or more unbiased individuals to meet with you in an effort to facilitate more productive dialogue.
On your initiative. While mutual agreement is always preferable, it is not actually required if your opponent professes to be a Christian. Matthew 18:16 indicates that you may seek help from reconcilers even if your opponent doesn’t want it. Before you take this step, however, it is wise and often beneficial to warn your opponent what you are about to do.
WHAT DO RECONCILERS DO? Reconcilers can play a variety of roles in a conflict. Their primary role is to help you and your opponent make the decisions needed to restore peace.
WHAT IF MY OPPONENT IS NOT A CHRISTIAN? The basic principles of step three can also be applied when the other person does not profess to be a Christian. Some modifications may be needed, of course.
Step Four: Tell It to the Church (Church Accountability) If your opponent professes to be a Christian and yet refuses to listen to the reconcilers’ counsel, and if the matter is too serious to overlook, Jesus commands you to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17). This does not mean standing up in a worship service and broadcasting the conflict to church members and visitors alike, since unwarranted publicity is totally inconsistent with the intent of Matthew 18. Instead, you should inform the leadership of the other person’s church (and probably yours as well) of the problem and request their assistance in promoting justice and peace by holding both of you accountable to God’s Word and to your commitments.4
Step Five: Treat Him as a Nonbeliever As I have shown repeatedly, God calls his people to act justly, seek peace, and be reconciled with others. If a Christian refuses to do these things, he is violating God’s will. If he refuses to listen to his church’s counsel to repent of this sin, Jesus says the church should “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17, emphasis added). Jesus’ use of the word as is significant. Since only God can know a person’s heart (1 Sam. 16:7; Rev. 2:23), the church has no power to decide whether a person is a believer. Instead, the church is called only to make a functional decision: If a person behaves like a nonbeliever would—by disregarding the authority of Scripture and of Christ’s church—he should be treated as if he were a nonbeliever.
In other words, the church should not pretend that things are all right with people who claim to be Christians and yet refuse to listen to God as he speaks through the Scriptures and the church. Treating unrepentant people as unbelievers is sometimes the only way to help them understand the seriousness of their sin. This may be accomplished by withdrawing various membership privileges, such as communion, church office, or teaching Sunday school, and may culminate in revoking their membership status altogether if they persist in their refusal to repent of sin.
Treating someone as a nonbeliever serves three important purposes. First, revoking the person’s membership in the church prevents the Lord from being dishonored if that person continues to act in blatantly sinful ways (Rom. 2:23–24). Second, other believers are protected from being led astray by a bad example or divisive behavior (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1–6). Third, treating someone as a nonbeliever may help the rebellious person to realize the seriousness of his or her sin, turn from it, and be restored to God. This third purpose bears repeating. The intention in treating others as nonbelievers is not to injure them or punish them, but rather to help them see the seriousness of their sin and their need for repentance. Jesus loved people caught in sin enough to warn them of their sinful condition and its consequences and to urge them to repent (e.g., Mark 2:17; John 4:1–18). The church should do no less.6
Many Christians balk at this teaching. Some churches ignore or refuse to implement Matthew 18:17, even though the Bible teaches that God views accountability and discipline as an act of love and an important means to restore his wandering sheep and protect his people from being led astray by sinful examples.
Consider this analogy. When a patient has cancer, it is not easy for his doctor to tell him, because it is a truth that is painful to hear and difficult to bear. Even so, any doctor who diagnoses cancer but fails to report it to a patient would be guilty of malpractice.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13 Christians are the most forgiven people in the world. Therefore, we should be the most forgiving people in the world. As most of us know from experience, however, it is often difficult to forgive others genuinely and completely. We often find ourselves practicing a form of forgiveness that is neither biblical nor healing.
As Christians, we cannot overlook the direct relationship between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
You Cannot Do It Alone – It is impossible to truly forgive others in your own strength, especially when they have hurt you deeply or betrayed your trust.
Neither a Feeling, nor Forgetting, nor Excusing – To understand what forgiveness is, we must first see what it is not. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an act of the will. Forgiveness involves a series of decisions, the first of which is to call on God to change our hearts.
Second, forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgetting is a passive process in which a matter fades from memory merely with the passing of time. Forgiving is an active process; it involves a conscious choice and a deliberate course of action.
Finally, forgiveness is not excusing. Excusing says, “That’s okay,” and implies, “What you did wasn’t really wrong,” or “You couldn’t help it.” Forgiveness is the opposite of excusing. The very fact that forgiveness is needed and granted indicates that what someone did was wrong and inexcusable. Forgiveness says, “We both know that what you did was wrong and without excuse. But since God has forgiven me, I forgive you.”
To forgive someone means to release him or her from liability to suffer punishment or penalty. Aphiemi, a Greek word that is often translated as “forgive,” means to let go, release, or remit.
But if someone sinned against you, part of their debt is also owed to you. This means you have a choice to make. You can either take payments on the debt or make payments. You can take or extract payments on a debt from others’ sin in many ways: by withholding forgiveness, by dwelling on the wrong, by being cold and aloof, by giving up on the relationship, by inflicting emotional pain, by gossiping, by lashing back or by seeking revenge against the one who hurt you.
Therefore, forgiveness may be described as a decision to make four promises: “I will not dwell on this incident.” “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.” “I will not talk to others about this incident.” “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.” By making and keeping these promises, you can tear down the walls that stand between you and your offender.
When Should You Forgive? Ideally, repentance should precede forgiveness (Luke 17:3).
When an offense is too serious to overlook and the offender has not yet repented, you may need to approach forgiveness as a two-stage process. The first stage requires having an attitude of forgiveness, and the second, granting forgiveness. Having an attitude of forgiveness is unconditional and is a commitment you make to God (see Mark 11:25; Luke 6:28; Acts 7:60).
Granting forgiveness is conditional on the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and that person (Luke 17:3–4). It is a commitment to make the other three promises of forgiveness to the offender.
Can You Ever Mention the Sin Again? The four promises are a human attempt to summarize the key elements of God’s marvelous forgiveness for us. As a human device, they are limited and imperfect and should not be used in a rigid or mechanical fashion. In particular, the commitment not to bring up the offense again and use it against the offender should not be used to prevent you from dealing honestly and realistically with a recurring pattern of sin.
What about the Consequences? Forgiveness does not automatically release a wrongdoer from all the consequences of sin. Although God forgave the Israelites who rebelled against him in the wilderness, he decreed that they would die without entering the Promised Land (Num. 14:20–23).
Overcoming Unforgiveness – The promises of forgiveness can be difficult to make and even harder to keep. Fortunately, God promises to help us forgive others. He gives us this help through the Bible, which provides practical guidance and many examples of personal forgiveness.
Confirm Repentance – It can be difficult to forgive a person who has failed to repent and confess clearly and specifically. When you find yourself in this situation, it may be wise to explain to the person who wronged you why you are having a difficult time forgiving.
Renounce Sinful Attitudes and Expectations – Forgiveness can also be hindered by sinful attitudes and unrealistic expectations.
Assess Your Contributions to the Problem – In some situations, your sins may have contributed to a conflict. Even if you did not start the dispute, your lack of understanding, careless words, impatience, or failure to respond in a loving manner may have aggravated the situation. When this has happened, it is easy to behave as though the other person’s sins more than cancel yours.
Recognize That God Is Working for Good – When someone has wronged you, it is also helpful to remember that God is sovereign and loving. Therefore, when you are having a hard time forgiving that person, take time to note how God may be using the offense for good.
Remember God’s Forgiveness – One of the most important steps in overcoming an unforgiving attitude is to focus your attention on how much God has forgiven you. The parable of the unmerciful servant vividly illustrates this principle (Matt. 18:21–35).
Draw on God’s Strength – Above all else, remember that true forgiveness depends on God’s grace. If you try to forgive others on your own, you are in for a long and frustrating battle. But if you ask God to change your heart and you continually rely on his grace, you can forgive even the most painful offenses.
Reconciliation and the Replacement Principle – Forgiveness is both an event and a process. Making the four promises of forgiveness is an event that knocks down a wall that stands between you and a person who has wronged you. Then a process begins. After you demolish an obstruction, you usually have to clear away debris and do repair work.
Being reconciled does not mean that the person who offended you must now become your closest friend. What it means is that your relationship will be at least as good as it was before the offense occurred.
Reconciliation requires that you give a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and regain your trust.
Although reconciliation can sometimes take place with little or no special effort, in most cases you will need to remember the saying, “If you are coasting, you must be going downhill.” In other words, unless a deliberate effort is made to restore and strengthen a relationship, it will generally deteriorate. This is especially true when you are recovering from intense and prolonged conflict.
In Thought – Even when we say, “I forgive you,” many of us have a difficult time not thinking about what others have done to hurt us. Try as we might, memories of the offense keep popping back into our minds, and we find ourselves reliving all kinds of painful feelings.
In Word – As Luke 6:27–28 implies, the replacement principle applies to your words as well as your thoughts. When talking to others about the person who offended you, make it a point to speak well of the person. Express appreciation for things he or she has done and draw attention to redeeming qualities. Do the same when talking to the offender. Praise, thank, or encourage!
In Deed – If you really want to be reconciled to someone, apply the replacement principle to your actions as well (1 John 3:18). As C. S. Lewis noted, “Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”4
Cooperative versus Competitive Negotiation – Many people automatically resort to a competitive style when negotiating material issues. They act like they are having a tug-of-war, with each person pulling aggressively to get what he or she wants and letting others look out for themselves.
First, a competitive approach often fails to produce the best possible solution to a problem. When people work against each other, they tend to focus on surface issues and neglect underlying desires and needs. As a result, they often reach inadequate solutions.
Second, competitive negotiation can also be quite inefficient. It usually begins with each side stating a specific position, and progress is made by successive compromises and concessions. Because each compromise typically is about half the size of the previous one and takes twice as long, this process can consume a great deal of time and generate significant frustration.
Finally, competitive negotiating can significantly damage personal relationships. This approach tends to be very self-centered and easily offends others. It also focuses on material issues rather than on personal concerns, perceptions, and feelings.
When you need to negotiate, PAUSE. This acronym stands for the following steps: Prepare Affirm relationships Understand interests Search for creative solutions Evaluate options objectively and reasonably
Prepare – Preparation is one of the most important elements of successful negotiation (Prov. 14:8, 22). This is especially true when significant issues or strong feelings are involved.
Affirm Relationships – A conflict generally involves two basic ingredients: people and a problem. All too often, we ignore the feelings and concerns of the people and focus all our attention on the problems that separate us. This approach often causes further offense and alienation, which only makes conflicts more difficult to resolve. One way to avoid these unnecessary complications is to affirm your respect and concern for your opponent throughout the negotiation process.
Understand Interests – The third step in the PAUSE strategy is to understand the interests of those involved in the disagreement. Only then can you properly respond to the command to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In order to identify interests, it is important to understand how they differ from issues and positions.
An issue is an identifiable and concrete question that must be addressed in order to reach an agreement.
A position is a desired outcome or a definable perspective on an issue.
An interest is what motivates people. It is a concern, desire, need, limitation, or something a person values.
Before you attempt to understand the interests of other people, it is wise to make a written list of your own interests. Remembering the three opportunities provided by conflict, you might begin by listing interests related to glorifying God, serving others, and growing to be like Christ.
Search for Creative Solutions – The fourth step in the PAUSE strategy is to search for solutions that will satisfy as many interests as possible. This process should begin with spontaneous inventing. Everyone should be encouraged to mention any idea that comes to mind. Imagination and creativity should be encouraged, while evaluating and deciding should be postponed.
Evaluate Options Objectively and Reasonably – The final step in the PAUSE strategy is to evaluate possible solutions objectively and reasonably so you can reach the best possible agreement. Even if the previous steps have gone well, you may encounter significant differences of opinion when you get to this stage. If you allow negotiations to degenerate into a battle of wills, your previous work will have been wasted. Therefore, instead of relying on personal opinions, insist on using objective criteria to evaluate the options before you. If you are dealing with Christians, refer to relevant biblical principles.
Control Your Tongue – The more intense a dispute becomes, the more important it is to control your tongue (Rom. 12:14). When you are involved in prolonged conflict, you may be sorely tempted to indulge in gossip, slander, and reckless words, especially if your opponent is saying critical things about you. But if you react with harsh words or gossip, you will only make matters worse. Even if your opponent speaks maliciously against you or to you, do not respond in kind. Instead, make every effort to breathe grace by saying only what is both true and helpful, speaking well of your opponent whenever possible, and using kind and gracious language.
Seek Godly Advisors – As Paul says, it is difficult to battle evil alone (Rom. 12:15–16). This is why it is important to develop relationships with people who will encourage you and give you biblically sound advice.
Keep Doing What Is Right – Romans 12:17 emphasizes the importance of continuing to do what is right even when it seems that your opponent will never cooperate. When Paul says, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody,” he does not mean that we should be slaves to the opinions of others. The Greek word that is translated “be careful” (pronoeo) means to give thought to the future, to plan in advance, or to take careful precaution (cf. 2 Cor. 8:20–21). Therefore, what Paul is saying is that you should plan and act so carefully and so properly that any reasonable person who is watching you will eventually acknowledge that what you did was right.
Recognize Your Limits – When dealing with difficult people, it is also important to recognize your limits. Even when you continue to do what is right, some people may adamantly refuse to admit you are right or to live at peace with you. This is why Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In other words, do all you can to be reconciled to others, but remember that you cannot force others to do what is right.
Use the Ultimate Weapon – The final principle for responding to a stubborn opponent is described in Romans 12:20–21: “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Here is the ultimate weapon: deliberate, focused love (cf. Luke 6:27–28; 1 Cor. 13:4–7). Instead of reacting spitefully to those who mistreat you, Jesus wants you to discern their deepest needs and do all you can to meet those needs.