In most areas of life, scripture does not give us details on how to deal with every single situation. But it does give principles within which to operate when problems arise. Here are several biblical principles that are to guide Christians in how to maintain right relationships with one another.
Unity is painstakingly built, and easily broken. As Christians, we are to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit with other believers (Eph 4:3). We are to live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16). This means that there should be no issue, sin or hurt that comes between us. There should be no unspoken undercurrents that shape our attitudes or words toward another. However, because we are selfish, flawed, and proud, we all experience pain in even the best relationships.
If one is to consider herself biblical, she must resolve any issue or hurt based on God’s principles. God’s ways do not come naturally. What does come naturally is to bury the hurt and refuse to acknowledge or deal with it. It is natural to want to run away and avoid the issue. It is natural to blame others for the problem. It is natural to want to talk with others about the situation. It is natural to withhold forgiveness. What comes naturally to us will widen the distance between friends. God does not call us to live according to our human nature. God calls us to live according to our new nature (Eph 4:22-24). The new nature will always push us to reconciliation and unity.
Don’t widen the circle.
When an issue arises between you and a friend, don’t talk with others about it (Prov. 17:9). Initially, no one other than the two of you needs to be involved in resolving the conflict. God’s prescription for restoring unity is clear. Go to the one who has hurt you, and just between the two of you, show him his fault (Matt 18:15). When you do meet, seek to be filled with gentleness and humility (Gal 6:1).
When a relational breakdown occurs, who is responsible for taking the first step toward reconciliation? The one who was sinned against should go to the person who has wronged them and speak honestly about their hurt (Matt 18:15). And, the one who has caused a hurt should go to her brother or sister to make it right (Matt 5:23-24). It doesn’t matter “who started it,” you are responsible for taking steps toward reconciliation.
When there is even a hint of sensitivity in a conversation, make every effort to speak face-to-face. Genuine reconciliation is difficult via the written word. After doing it wrong for many years, I have learned to drop what I’m doing and drive to my friend’s house just so I can see her for five minutes to apologize or ask a difficult question. The effort will not go unnoticed. Humility and sincerity is disarming.
Don’t just seek forgiveness or confession. Seek reconciliation.
Some Christians may be tempted to say that the issue has been “forgiven” because they may think that mature believers don’t need to have the face-to-face conversation. They simply “choose to forgive” and say that they’ve moved on and that all has been forgotten. In reality, however, the unresolved issue will likely seep out to others, fester and grow. God does not call us to side-step problems or sweep things under the rug in the name of forgiveness. He desires that we achieve genuine reconciliation, and that involves both parties.
Meet with the one who has hurt you, or the one you have hurt. The goal of this meeting is to “clean the slate” so that there is nothing standing between the two of you. Both sides should gently and honestly lay their cards on the table, if you will. If your sister listens to you, admits to how she has caused you pain (confesses), and says that she will strive to change/not repeat the behavior (repentance) then you have won her over (Matt 18:15). You are then compelled by Christ to offer genuine forgiveness (Matt 6:14-15 & 18:21-33). Forgiveness is not an emotion, but rather a commitment to not allow your attitude to be shaped by the now-repentant-offense. This is true reconciliation – the bringing together of two parties in right standing with one another (2 Cor. 5:18). And while trust may not be completely restored at this point, the foundation of the relationship is level and clear so that trust can be rebuilt. Over time, using these principles when new issues arise, the relationship may surpass previous levels of vulnerability and trust.
Forgiveness and boundaries.
I remember when the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal first made headlines. One Catholic representative said something to the effect of “we believe in forgiveness, so how could we remove these priests from their positions if they were penitent?” There is no conflict between offering genuine forgiveness and establishing good boundaries. We once witnessed the forgiveness of an adolescent boy who had wronged another family’s young daughter. The forgiveness was genuine, and appropriate boundaries were established to ensure that all involved would be protected. The love between the two families grew sweeter and more sincere while all respected the new boundaries.
Because going right to the one with whom you have the issue is scary and risky, and because sometimes even after searching the scriptures we may not know exactly how to proceed, you may need to seek out wise counsel as you move forward (Prov. 20:18, 15:22). Who qualifies as wise counsel?
- Someone to not only listen, but who consistently directs you to biblical action.
- Someone mature enough so that their view of the person with whom you have the issue will not change based on the information you are sharing.
- A person with the proven ability to keep a tight reign over their mouth, who is certain not to share this information with others.
If the one that you seek out for counsel does not meet all of these criteria, you will be venturing into the arena of gossip.
Witnesses and Moderators
What if you have that first meeting and the two parties leave the conversation un-reconciled? The natural response is to just drop it. To shrug and say “well, I tried” and walk away. The new nature that is created to be like God, however, will continue to make every effort to live in unity of Spirit. That woman will try again, this time taking two or three mature, trustworthy believers with her (Matt 18:16) so that there can be impartial and discerning moderation. Those who are brought in to the conversation should meet the criteria of “wise counsel” as outlined above. Very few situations during this second meeting go unresolved when both parties are seeking to honor Christ.
Don’t let the sun go down. Seriously.
Believers are to love one another (1 John 4:7). One way for us to love one another is to settle matters quickly. We are not to let the sun go down on our anger (Eph 4:26). Dealing with hindrances to relationship should become a paramount priority for us. When we let several days, weeks, or months pass before we deal with a relational breakdown, we begin to interpret every new interaction through the lens of that unresolved issue. Then we can start to make a list of all the ways we have been hurt. But we know that love does not keep a record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5). The only solution is to deal with each individual offense immediately. My husband is a total rock star when it comes to seeking a swift resolution to relational breakdowns. He is not able to rest until reconciliation is achieved and will rearrange his schedule so that whenever possible an issue can be resolved before the end of the day. He does everything he can to ensure that he and I never go to bed angry.
In as much as it depends on you…
Of course there are situation in life, within and outside of the church, where reconciliation is not possible because one party is not willing to repent and work toward restoration. In this scenario, we are to do everything in our power to pave the way for reconciliation (Rom 12:18). We should make enough gentle and sincere attempts to meet and reconcile so that it’s clear that the ball is in their court. They should know that reconciliation is a priority for you. If you have made serious invitations for reconciliation that have been ignored, you have fulfilled your obligation to God and the one with whom you have the problem. Pray that God would move in them so that they would seek reconciliation. And ask that God would help you to genuinely wish them well.
May God find you blameless.
Unfortunately, there are situations at church, in the workplace, at school and within our extended families where there are multiple people involved in a conflict. You may be in the midst of a firestorm and surrounded by relational carnage. You probably are not going to be able to make everything right. But what you can do is be blameless before God and others (1 Thess 5:23, 2 Peter 3:14, Phil 2:14-16). Practice the above disciplines in the midst of conflict and show everyone what it looks like to honor God with your words. On a daily basis, abide by the principles Communication Covenant and you will become an oasis of purity and trust even if the situation around you is decaying.
Like every other directive of scripture, the above principles are easy to say and difficult to practice. It is not enough to say that we believe the Bible. We actually have to act on scriptural commands if we are to be considered children of God (1 John 3:18, Ez 33:31). In the short term you will have to die to your comfort and desires. In the long term you will reap integrity, deep relationships, a reputation as a peacemaker, and a more Christ-like character.
And there is a good chance that you will change the culture around you.