I am pretty stubborn about some medical things in my life, I admit that. At the same time, I have a dear friend that is far more stubborn than I have ever been – they just won’t take care of needed medical issues when they arise! Let me explain: A few weeks ago my friend banged their little toe into a piece of furniture and broke the toe. Looking at the direction of the toe, there was little doubt that it was broken. I urged my friend to get to a doctor, but that wasn’t what they chose to do. They didn’t want to spend the money, so instead they “toughed it out” with the pain. Now, weeks have passed, and the pain hasn’t gone away, and the toe hasn’t properly healed… and they are still resisting making an appointment to get it looked at. I don’t know if they are embarrassed for waiting so long, or if they believe that it will somehow right itself over time without help, even though that strategy isn’t paying off right now. What is clear is that the toe is broken, and no amount of ignoring the pain will rightly address the cause and bring it to a close. Some things won’t heal unless they are cared for by people who know what should happen next. Time heals wounds that are addressed properly – not pain that is ignored and buried. Pain comes as a byproduct of a broken toe – and an unaddressed toe can become even more painful over time.
That isn’t the only place where burying pain is a bad idea. The same problem carries over into the kind of pain we get from the buried feelings between people that often can lead to broken relationships – and frequently is an even deeper pain than something like a toe. What do we do to maintain relationships – especially when they have been wounded by the sin of one of the parties? Jesus supplied the answers to this prickly problem. As we continue following His ministry to the Disciples, now mostly focused on their development, let’s examine another important instruction of our Savior, and see if we can pick out a principle that becomes clearer the longer you examine the text. The truth is…
Key Principle: Without attending to forgiveness, wounds increase and relationships grow weaker. Only facing the pain causes real change.
Someone has quipped that “Relationships are like gardens – they need constant tending for rich beauty to reveal itself.” It isn’t hard to see in our day that when people don’t properly invest in a relationship with each other, it is easy for their relationship to fall apart. It happens in condo associations, churches and even marriages. Starved relationships become “flimsy” and need constant patches even to appear continuously connected– but beneath they are shallow and largely un-joined. In our study, Jesus addressed relationships primarily among His followers – but any relationship can benefit from heeding the truths He uttered. Many churches and fellowship circles should heed these truths to move to a place of healthy relationship, and heal the breaches caused by our own hard hearts.
Here is the question: “What are the common problems that plague relationships between followers of Jesus like weeds plague a garden?” Jesus addressed six complications we must face to remain on track with one another and walk together as His people.
First, there is the temptation of Avoidance:
Sometimes we let offenses fester in relationships, and that kills trust and love. Jesus warned:
Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
Often we find that the struggles of life are hard enough without bringing more conflict into our lives by pointing out harm people did to us. People do wrong, and we just get to the point that it just doesn’t seem worth it to confront them – so we let it alone. Maybe we are afraid of their reaction if we point it out – so we try to avoid the conflict. The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t resolve our hurt, and it usually fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship. At the very least, we stop opening ourself to the other person in the same way – at least until trust begins to be restored – if it ever is.
I clipped this story some time ago, but I think it aptly illustrates what can happen when simple conflicts are left unattended because we avoid “making a thing” out of what seems too small to bring up…The article is dated August, 1999 from Landover, Maryland:
“One hundred years of Christian fellowship, unity, and community outreach ended last Tuesday in an act of congregational discord. The Holy Creek Baptist Church was split into multiple factions. The source of dissension was a piano bench which still sits behind the 1923 Steinway piano to the left of the pulpit. Members and friends at Holy Creek Baptist say that the old bench was always a source of hostility (people should have seen this coming). At present, Holy Creek Congregation will be having four services each Sunday. There has been an agreement mediated by an outside pastor so that each faction will have its own separate service with its own separate pastor. Since the head pastor is not speaking to the associate pastors, each will have their own service, which will be attended by the “factioned” members. The services are far enough apart that neither group will come into contact with the other. An outside party will be moving the piano bench to different locations and appropriate positions, between services, so as to please all sides, and avoid any further conflict that could result in violence.” (From sermoncentral.com).
Unfortunately, there are many such stories from Christian communities! Pastor Dan Erickson published an article and noted that:
In the 1890s there was a small Baptist church in Mayfield County, Kentucky. The church had just two deacons, and those two men seemed to be constantly arguing and bickering with each other. On a particular Sunday, one deacon put up a small wooden peg in the back wall so the pastor could hang up his hat. When the other deacon discovered the peg, he was outraged. “How dare someone put a peg in the wall without first consulting me!” The people in the church took sides and the congregation eventually split. Over a hundred years later, residents of Mayfield County still refer to the two churches as Peg Baptist and Anti-Peg Baptist.
Let’s be honest, in many cases believers have become notorious for their silly divisions. There is an apocryphal story that I think sums up many believers and their constant conflicts:
A man fell overboard a vessel in the high seas and eventually found himself stranded on little island. Alone for years he was finally discovered and rescued. Before leaving the island, he showed his rescuers around the place. He boasted beside his hut: “This is the home I built with my own two hands.” Beside it was another well maintained building where he exclaimed: “This is the church I built with my own two hands.” One of the rescuers inquired of the other structure a short distance away, and asked: “What’s that building over there?” The man replied “That’s where I used to go to church until I got mad and left!”
Jesus didn’t intend for His people to let sin and relationship problems go unaddressed. There are five important words that are instructive in Jesus words in Matthew 18:15. Look at the sentence again:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
1. This is for a brother – not how you handle things in the world.
2. This is when sin occurs – not simply someone exercising a preference different than yours.
3. This is dealt with in person (“go and show”)- not something offered in an anonymous note.
4. This is handled privately – not something that others divide over.
5. This is offered with the hopeful goal of winning back your brother – not something designed to get them to move on.
The command of Jesus to His followers was simple: Don’t make up conflict, but don’t avoid it when it comes. Deal with one another. If someone hurts you – talk to them, not about them. If someone is involved in sin and you see it – pull them aside and deal with them quietly and privately – don’t offer it as a “public prayer request” so others can “take sides” with you. If the people of God will tend to the relationships of brothers, there will be greater health and strength in the body of Christ and less distraction to the cause of Christ in the world.
Second, there is a struggle to hear what others are saying because of Ego Deafness:
Jesus anticipated that some won’t listen – because we are stubborn and often ego driven. Sometimes we let our ego block our ears and we resist the truth even when we are obviously caught doing wrong. It is as though when someone confronts us, we search their words but cannot point to anything they did or said that was wrong, yet we dig our heels in and refuse their words. Inside we may even believe we are wrong – but we won’t admit it to them! Jesus instructed:
Matthew 18:16 “But if he does not listen [to you], take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.
Jesus wanted others involved if the hearer was resistant. That is a protection to all parties, and can be helpful if the recipient of the rebuke does not truly understand – but that is usually not the problem. Ego deafness is often caused by scarring that has covered over our ability to hear criticism well, and a protectiveness that causes us to push off responsibilities and blame others. People who are “corrective tone deaf” are often people who associate even the most constructive comment with a negative and piercing tone of screeching volume. Because there are so many of us who are prepared to “write off” criticism, Jesus gave an instruction about what our friends should do when we are wrong, but we won’t listen. If we hear critique concerning our sin from one person, we may react inside like: “This guy is crazy!” If we hear from many others, we are slowly forced to conclude that the problem really may be US. Jesus’ instruction in the case of the ego deaf was:
• Approach him privately, but if rejected approach him with another person or two.
• Make sure all are listening carefully to his response – it will be essential to know if there was real resistance to the idea that they were wrong.
The legal standard of two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6 – what was required in a murder charge) was applied by Jesus to disputes between believers. God intended the words of believers to bring help and life – even when the feedback is to point out sin in our lives. We need each other, and we need to listen to one another. A good word on this was provided by the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together”:
“God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying their truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother, his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
Third, we struggle with the problem of Misplaced Compassion:
Sometimes we license behaviors by allowing them to continue to “keep peace” and “save others the embarrassment” or “deliver them from consequences” but that isn’t love – it is often abandonment of principle for the sake of appeasement.
Matthew 18:17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Some words need to be carefully studied here, because Jesus obviously didn’t tell the early believer to “take them to the church” if there was no such thing yet. The term “ekklesia” was literally the term “called out ones” – taken from Greeks who were called apart to Pnyx hill to vote. They were taken out of the community at large – and later that word was chosen in Greek to describe the early believers as they formed the church. In the words of Jesus, these were likely a group of wise men who represented the whole of the synagogue – like elders of the faith community. They rendered judgment and enforced the carrying out of penalty.
As a society we can easily make mistakes out of misguided compassion. Most government programs began with a view toward helping genuinely needy people.
The single mother struggled, so the government put together a relief package. Not everyone had the same number of children, so the relief needed to be indexed to the number of them. The net result, though entirely unintended, was to pay people more for having more children out of wedlock. The outcome was that people were aided who lived without a value system that included essential moral components, and they found this as a means of support. They had babies to increase revenue, and refused marriage because it would cost them too much.
No one wanted to pay people to have children out of wedlock, but that is what we do to the tune of millions of dollars today. What should have happened? Let me suggest three important guidelines that could have helped (and still can):
• First, keep funding and aid at the local level, where people can evaluate the lifestyle and keep that attached to funding.
• Second, make sure that life skills are included in any funding program that will truly give aid.
• Third, attach responsibilities to rewards. Make sure people recognize that money from another’s pocket is not their right – but a “helping hand” to get them through and on their feet. Standing will be there responsibility.
Taking shots at society is all well and good, because we don’t have to do anything about all that but nod our head or disagree – but in the end the government takes the money from our check and we have little to say about it directly – and increasingly little from a representative standpoint. Let’s get a bit closer to home, then.
As believers, we can and should have hearts that are sensitive to needs in our society. The problem is, if we don’t see the need completely within the context of the parameters of God’s Word, we can make the problem worse with an improper response. We can even contribute to other problems that we don’t see by our response. Misplaced compassion can often be the culprit when believers “love brothers” past the Scriptural mandates to live as believers. After all, we are all sinners, aren’t we? While that is true and we don’t ultimately judge another’s eternal destiny, the Bible is filled with standards we are called to hold one another accountable to in the body.
In the Corinthian letters, where Paul was primarily addressing rampant sin and a lax church leadership, Paul made it clear that behaviors that did not please God were cause for church discipline. Tolerance of sin for the purpose of keeping peace leads to a dropping of God’s standard altogether in favor of the happiness of men. Paul commanded ostracism and discipline out of tough love.
Fourth, there is the problem of hesitation because of Uncertain Authority:
Sometimes we don’t correct behavior because we fail to recognize the truth that God empowered in His Word and through His people, and we don’t speak with one voice clearly.
Matthew 18:18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
In the case of the Apostles in this context, Jesus told them something very powerful that was uniquely true of them- they were going to bind and loose with heaven’s authority if they did it together. The key to verses eighteen through twenty are clear – they were empowered when they came together and stood together on issues that needed to be made clear.
Though we are not Apostles in the first century sense of the term, we need to recognize that God did, in fact, give our generation the responsibility to proclaim with clarity the truth of His empowered Words. We must be clear: God’s Word changes people. We don’t have power, and the combination of the words isn’t a spooky incantation – but the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to transform people – on that the Bible is crystal clear. Because that is true, we can speak with love, but we must also speak with certainty when God has spoken.
• We are not uncertain about how someone comes into a right relationship with God.
• We are not uncertain about God’s priority of life and the sacredness of human life.
• We are not uncertain about the key role the family plays in God’s work, and what God says IS a real family.
• We are not uncertain about God’s Word concerning racial prejudice and hatred.
• We are not uncertain about respect for authority and God’s clear admonition to see those in authority as an extension of His arm.
We cannot remain silent out of a warped sense of tolerance, nor should we act like the Bible is not clear because some people have stubbornly refused to read the whole narrative in its intended context.
Fifth, there is the problem of Wounded Spirits:
When we get hurt by people who do wrong to us, we don’t want to forgive them – either we desire revenge or at least we don’t want them to use our softness to hurt us again. We become quick to push people out – and are not characterized as a people of forgiveness. We start a countdown on wrongs with an end toward limiting our own pain.
Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
Jesus told Peter he needed to stop counting, or he would never really understand the nature of forgiveness. We have been given only two choices: first, we can confront in short accounts those who hurt us and try to “win a brother”. Second, we can decide to simply and completely forgive another person, recognizing they may not have understood the breach, and also taking into account that they may do the same thing again, because we did not seek to correct the behavior. The option that far too many of us take is the one that is NOT given to us – to keep the hurt and not confront the problem.
Corrie Ten Boom in the book, Reflections of God’s Glory (page 69), wrote,
“In Africa a man came to a meeting with bandaged hands. I asked him how he had been injured. He said, “My neighbor’s straw roof was on fire; I helped him to put it out and that’s how my hands were burned. “Later I heard the whole story. The neighbor hated him and had set his roof on fire while his wife and children were asleep in the hut. They were in great danger. Fortunately, he was able to put out the fire in his house on time. But sparks flew over to the roof of the man who had set the house on fire and his house started to burn. There was no hate in the heart of this Christian; there was love for his enemy and he did everything he could to put out the fire in his neighbor’s house. That is how his own hands were burned.”
What a picture of forgiveness without boundaries!
Sixth, there is a problem of Forgetfulness:
Finally, Jesus offered the key to forgiving one who hurt you; that is recognizing how much you have been forgiven for your own mutiny against God.
Matthew 18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 “When he had begun to settle [them], one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 “But since he did not have [the means] to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 “So the slave fell [to the ground] and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and [began] to choke [him], saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 “So his fellow slave fell [to the ground] and [began] to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 “But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 “So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 “Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
There is little need to comment on Jesus’ story – we all get it. If we are going to forgive others, it will be because we see ourselves as undeserving of God’s forgiveness and mercy. With the sharpness of truth within, we will look tenderly without. Jesus taught us:
• We can avoid needed confrontation out of fear of a bad response.
• We can deny wrongdoing because of wounds to our ego.
• We can bury wrongs to try to keep a veneer of peace.
• We can hesitate to address wrongs because we are unsure of our authority to do so.
• We can resist forgiving others to protect ourselves from further hurt.
• We can forget how much we have violated God, and how much our forgiveness cost our Savior.
All of these are avoiding the problems that cause relationships to fall apart.
Without attending to forgiveness, wounds increase and relationships grow weaker. Only facing the pain causes real change.
I was moved when I read this short story, and I hope it will help cement the truth in your heart. The story was called “FORGIVING WHEN YOU CAN’T” by Jeannette Williams. She wrote:
Her car had killed my husband, a school crossing guard. She had struck Tom down while he was on duty, helping the children. The investigating officer and witnesses had told me it was a “no fault” accident. I didn’t want to believe them. In the sad, lonely weeks after the funeral, my thoughts turned again and again to this woman–blaming her, accusing her, resenting her. One afternoon my preacher, Garth Steele, stopped by, “I’ve seen her,” he said. “She wasn’t speeding. She wasn’t careless. She was blinded by the low, glaring sun. It honestly wasn’t an irresponsible accident.” “That’s what everyone says,” I replied. “I know I should feel sorry for her–that God wants me to–but I can’t.” He patted my arm kindly. “When you can accept what’s happened, perhaps you can forgive. Please, Jeannette, ask God to help you.” My angry feelings were still there a few weeks later when Brother Steele came back “I want you to go see her,” he said. “See her?” My voice was shrill. “Why? I’m the one who’s alone–she has a husband! I’m the injured party.” I was hurting so much inside. “Is it wrong that I’m angry?” I finally asked. “No, it’s human. With God’s help, you’ll work your way through this. You must pray about it.” He took my hands. “She’s a teacher. She loves children, the way Tom did.” She loves children. The words echoed in my head long after he’d left. I tried to imagine the woman in her classroom–guiding, encouraging, concerned for her students. I sank into Tom’s chair and bowed my head: “Father, I can’t go on like this. I know You want me to forgive her. Help me have the heart to do it.” The next day, God did. I was putting away some sympathy notes from Tom’s schoolchildren, and as I reread the caring messages, Tom’s favorite bible verse slipped into my mind: (Eph 4:32 NIV) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. My preacher had asked me to pray, and I had. Now, I found, I was ready to try the thing that God seemed to be asking me: Be Kind. Brother Steele phoned ahead, and the following morning I walked up the brick path to the woman’s house. She had a frail look and her face was drawn. We sat down stiffly. At first it was difficult for both of us to talk, and then she began to tell me how her heart went out to me, and how miserable she was. She was afraid to drive a car now, she couldn’t work, and she couldn’t eat. Could it be, I wondered, that she was suffering even more than I? And then I heard my own voice blurt out: “I know you didn’t mean to hit my husband.” Her lips trembled. “If only I hadn’t left home that day!” Without thinking about it, I put my arms around her. “I forgive you,” I said. “Now you must forgive yourself.” And, with God’s help, she did.