"I can't believe you've felt that way all these years and never talked to me about it!" The words stung as my friend hurled them at me. This was my dearest friend. Now, in passing, I'd mentioned something, a long-ago remark she'd made to someone about me that, I was about to learn, had been misunderstood and passed on to me.
"I should have talked to you about it right away," I began. "But I was so hurt...." I saw the tears streaming down her face. "I just wanted to forget I'd ever heard it," I told her. "I thought the memory would go away with time."
As I listened to my friend's explanation of what she really had said, I determined never again to leave an offense to simmer in my spirit.
When someone we care about does something that hurts us, grieving is only natural. We all remember the childhood saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me." Yet we know from experience that it's not true. We may try to deny the pain, or to ignore it. We may think that time heals all wounds, but it only moves the pain below the surface, waiting to affect future relationships.
Ideally, we won't be offended in the first place. Psalm 119:165 says, "great peace have they that love thy law, and nothing shall offend them."
Yet, even Jesus knew the anguish inflicted by others' words. He faced the same trials we all face. In His teachings, Jesus often expressed His concern for inter-personal relationships.
One day when He was alone with his disciples, Jesus warned them against offending others (Matt. 18:6-10). Yet He acknowledged that offenses will come (verse 7). Jesus went on to instruct them how to deal with offenses.
Matthew 18:15-17, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 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.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
Though I was skeptical when I was first encouraged to practice this principle, I've learned its validity. As a pastor's wife, I watched as our congregation learned to apply it. I know it works because I saw gossip nearly eliminated among us. It even works when applied outside the church setting. Let's take a look at what Jesus taught.
When we're offended, what we want first is to soothe our ruffled emotions. We may seek out a friend to replay the details of the offense. Without realizing it, we're looking for someone not only to agree with us that the other person had no right to do or say what they did, but also, that we have a right to be offended.
Go to your Brother
Knowing our tendency, Jesus said "go and show him his fault, just between the two of you." In most cases, the offense is the result of a misunderstanding. But sometimes we have truly been sinned against.
Steps Toward Reconciliation
When I am the one who has been offended, I've found it necessary to follow certain steps in order to handle it without making the situation worse.
1. I must examine my own heart before the Lord. I want to be sure I'm not going to the offender with an attitude that says, "I'm right and you're wrong, and I'm going to set you straight." My goal must be to bring reconciliation, not revenge.
2. I also ask God to help me to be open so I will hear the other person's heart. Often, I'll read the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, the "Love Chapter," with the face of my brother or sister in mind.
3. I look for the right timing and setting to approach the other person. I know it should be in private--where we can't be overheard--and at a time that we will be unhurried.
4. Before dealing with the issue, I verbalize my commitment to the other person. I might say, "I care a great deal about our friendship and don't want anything to stand between us." If I can't affirm the person honestly, I know I'm not ready to confront him. I must go back to God in prayer.
5. I also try to let him know that I'm eager to hear what he has to say.
6. Then, I simply go ahead and explain the way I view the circumstances about which I'm bothered. At this point, it's wise to stick to the facts, reconstructing the events and what was said as clearly as I can recall. Trying not to have an accusatory attitude, I start with how the circumstances made me feel. I use words like, "I felt..." or "It hurt me. In fact, I got angry."
7. After stating the facts as I see them, I wait to hear the other person's viewpoint. I expect defensiveness, it's natural. My own natural tendency is to be defensive. Instead, I try to go as a learner. I must be prepared to adjust my understanding of the situation according to his perspective. Perhaps I didn't hear the words clearly. Or I may have misread the circumstances because of cultural differences. Perhaps the other person's response to me was influenced by pressures from other sources. If I remain open to the offender, my perspective of the circumstances may be altered.
8. It's at this point that most offenses can be healed and forgotten. I can easily extend forgiveness if the offender's attitude is one of apology and sorrow for causing my hurt. It's important now that I speak words of forgiveness.
9. Sometimes we pray together. At least I verbalize my commitment to the person again.
Step Two may be Necessary
Sometimes reconciliation is not restored during the first confrontation. Then I need to prayerfully reevaluate whether the action that offended me was really sin--something that is condemned specifically in the Scripture--or if it was just a matter of different expectations, or a misunderstanding, as when someone fails to follow through on a promise. Other ways we may be offended when sin was not involved include miscommunication, or even lack of any communication--as with a long-time friend.
If sin was involved, the offender may be unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge any wrong doing. He may even be hostile. Rather than force such a situation, Jesus taught us to back away. Even when I've been rejected or rebuffed, I try to close the conversation with prayer and with affirmations of friendship and commitment. Always, our purpose must be to experience reconciliation.
Christ's love in our hearts requires that everything possible be done to live at peace with others. "If it is possible, as far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18).
When the offender is defensive or denies any wrong doing--when the relationship has not been restored to openness and good will--the second step of this Matthew passage needs to be brought into play.
Matthew 18:16, "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."
Jesus is saying that reconciliation is so important that we are not to let the matter rest with only one try. We should bring a neutral person to the offender. Of course this third party will not be my best friend. The offender would naturally expect my friend to be partial to my perspective. It could be a pastor or other spiritual leader, or a mutual friend.
It's crucial to avoid the temptation to influence the third party's perspective. He should hear the circumstances for the first time in the presence of both the offender and the offended. When I approach a third party I say something like, "So-and-So and I have a matter to deal with that needs a neutral person's input. Would you be willing to join us when I can arrange it?" Then I contact the offender and invite him to join us, reassuring him that I've said nothing to prejudice the third party.
Of course, this is most easily done when an entire group of Christians have agreed to follow this Biblical pattern. But the lack of such agreement should not be used as an excuse to avoid it.
By not prejudicing the third party he is left free (neutral) to weigh the matter before God as he listens to both sides. He may see that I've been over-sensitive. Or he may help the offender to see his error. Of course this means that I'll be prayerful about my choice of the neutral party; attempting to find someone whom the offender will accept as neutral as well. He should be someone who is committed to truth and to God's ways. The presence of the neutral party usually helps to temper the words and spirits of both parties during such a confrontation.
As before, location and timing are important. I again affirm the offender, emphasizing my desire to see total reconciliation with him. Then I explain the circumstances again, before the third party, remembering that most situations are simply matters of misunderstanding.
Jesus knew the importance of a second attempt at reconciliation. Such an expression of love and commitment on the part of an injured party can result in softening the offender's heart. Sometimes the offender will realize that his integrity has been protected by not prejudicing the neutral party in advance. This too will demonstrate the injured party's love and commitment to him. A loving second confrontation almost always results in reconciliation.
The Third Step
In the rare situations where a person's heart is hardened and a relationship is not restored, Jesus gave further instruction for the offended believer.
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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
An unwillingness to reconcile generally indicates other areas of spiritual need which are best dealt with at a leadership level. We may think this passage is saying that we are to stand before the congregation and expose the entire offense and the two confrontations. Rather, we should go to the spiritual leadership of the church or group so they can follow through on the matter. If the offender is not a part of our own church or group, we may need to contact his pastor, or in the case of a spiritual leader, we may need to go to his spiritual authority.
This doesn't lift the burden of responsibility off the offended or the neutral party. Each of them will want to pray for the offender until spiritual health and reconciliation is eventually restored.
In Jesus' prayer recorded in John seventeen, He said, "I pray also...that all of them may be one, Father." Rubbing shoulders as we walk this earthly life will inevitably bring offenses. We can enjoy relationships graced by His peace and joy when we follow the steps Jesus taught to restore us to fellowship with one another.
As our family has practiced Jesus' teaching regarding offenses between church members, with relatives, and even with neighbors, we've enjoyed a sense of security and commitment in our relationships we had never known before.
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