The hurt of broken relationships is significant, and it affects us all. We are asked to pick up the cross of Jesus as our own experience; to not merely be vaguely associated with His death and new life, but to actually insert ourselves into His very death and rising again. We may think that our lives are wonderfully comfortable compared to what He went through; yet without minimizing His suffering and pain, I suggest that we can also minimize our sufferings. We should be able to say with Paul that we are indeed co-crucified with Him. For most of us, this co-crucifixion isn't in terms of literal pain or violent persecution for His sake. So in what terms, then, are His sufferings articulated in us? Surely, therefore, in our mental suffering with Him. Thus Paul can quote a prophecy of Christ's crucifixion and apply it to our sufferings as a result of bearing with our weak brethren (Rom. 15:1-3).
All the hurts which come from interpersonal contact within the
ecclesia have led some to retreat from ecclesial life into an isolated
existence; occasional attendance, visiting websites, a few emails. Yet we
are to approach the ecclesia from the viewpoint that we are here to give
rather than to receive. The ecclesia is designed by God to be the arena in
which we learn to show patience, forgiveness and the love which gives for no
return. Thus the idea of not resisting evil and offering the other cheek
(Mt. 5:39) we normally apply to suffering loss from the world without
fighting for our rights. Yet Paul took this as referring to the need to not
retaliate to the harmful things done to us by members of the ecclesia (Rom.
12:16,17; 1 Cor. 6:7; 1 Thess. 5:15). Likewise the command to forgive
our debtors when we pray (Mt. 6:14) is applied by Paul to the need to
forgive those who sin against us in the ecclesia (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
Paul evidently expected believers to have a pretty rough ecclesial life.
Perhaps we ought to warn new converts about this; for all too many have
joined us with high expectations, only to become bitterly disillusioned
after a few years by the behaviour within the ecclesia. It's a strange
paradox- for the unity of the ecclesia, the radical love between believers,
is what attracts unbelievers to Christ. But then they soon find that the
body of Christ is seriously divided and dysfunctional, and this has led many
in recent times to fall away. Whilst on one hand the ecclesia is the body of
Christ, we still have to separate out church from God, the Lord Jesus
personally from those who are in Him. There are weeds sown among the wheat;
that's a fact, which we inevitably sense, but it's equally a fact that we
are unable to discern who's who. Seeing we cannot make the ultimate
judgment, we must simply accept all those truly baptized into Christ as our
brethren, and feel towards them as brethren. For the ultimate divide is
between the believer and the world, not between believer and believer.
Paul's letters are a great example of this; yet his positive approach to his
brethren didn't mean that he personally could no longer tell black from
white or right from wrong. Our parents drummed into us from childhood:
"Because they do it, doesn't make it right". And that's simply so.
Telling The Lord
But what, then, are we to do when brethren... refuse to speak to us, divide our families, cause others to stumble; and all the other long list, the endless sentence, which we could now write or come out with? How are we to feel, how are we to cope with it? When the fellow believers saw the unreasonable attitude of a brother against another, they were "vehemently distressed" (AV "very sorry" doesn't do justice to the Greek; Mt. 18:31). Matthew uses the same Greek words to describe how distressed the disciples were to learn that there was a betrayer amongst them (Mt. 26:22). That extent of distress can destroy men and women. So "they came and told their Lord all that was done". They didn't just "tell Him". They went and told Him. We are invited to imagine the process of coming before the Lord's Heavenly presence in prayer, like Hezekiah spreading Sennacherib's letter before the Lord. The parable suggests there was no response from the Lord to the grieving servants. He called the offender to Him, asked for an account, and punished him. This speaks of how we shall be called to account at the Lord's return. But until then, there's silence from the Lord. But that silence is to develop our faith and perspective in the day of judgment. If there were bolts of fire from Heaven in response to our prayers, there would be no faith required, no longing for the Lord's return, no trust in His ultimate justice. The Greek translated "told" means 'to declare thoroughly'. Tell the Lord every detail of what happened, how you feel; what colour shirt he was wearing, exactly how she looked at you. Just as children artlessly retell every detail of a hurtful event. When they saw "what was done", they came and declared thoroughly to their Lord "what was done" (Mt. 18:31). The double repetition of the phrase suggests we should indeed tell all the details to Him; but not more, and stripped of our interpretation of them. Prayer isn’t to be merely a list of requests; it’s a pouring out of ourselves and our situation before God, as David taught us in his Psalms. And in this sense one rises from their knees healed and able to cope.
More Practical Advice
-Don’t paper over issues and call that reconcilliation. We can easily misunderstand “peace” to mean an absence of tension. But the Biblical shalom is far more positive than that; the state of shalom between God and us, and between believers, involves an intimate connection between them; a completeness and wholeness of relationship, rather than merely an on-paper agreement.
-Solomon immediately demonstrated his wisdom by the way he judged between the two prostitutes who came to him (1 Kings 4). They lived in the same house, and had given birth at the same time. The whole situation spoke of the kind of shameless prostitution which the Mosaic Law demanded should be punished by death. But the way of Divine wisdom in this case was not to automatically apply Divine law in condemning sinners. Instead, by cutting to the conscience within those women, and appealing to it, they were led to at least the possibility of repentance, transformation, salvation. Solomon’s wisdom was given him in order to know how to guide God’s great people. The way of wisdom is therefore sometimes not to press a point when someone’s in the wrong. We see this in all levels of relationships. There are weak points in relationships, fissure lines, which when pressed or brought under tension will cause earthquakes and destruction. It’s best not to press on them; and yet if they are ignored, then the quality of relationship suffers and descends into interacting only over ‘safe’ matters. So what are we to do? By not raising the obvious issue- you’re whores and must be put to death- Solomon showed grace, but he showed it in such a way that those women surely couldn’t have felt the same again; rather like the woman taken in adultery. The very fact she was not condemned by the One who could condemn her- meant that she went away indeed vowing to “sin no more”.
-We must therefore recognize that there will be anomalies in the lives of our brethren- just as there are in the lives of us all (if only we would examine ourselves ruthlessly enough to see them). And in some ways at some times, God goes along with them. Thus He gave Saul’s wives to David (2 Sam. 12:8), which would’ve involved David being married to both a mother and daughter- for he had married Saul’s daughters. And this giving of Saul’s wives to David may not have occurred simply after Saul’s death. For David’s eldest son, Amnon, was borne by Ahinoam (2 Sam. 3:2), who was initially Saul’s wife (1 Sam. 14:50). Now this is not to justify sin. Adultery, taking another’s wife or husband, is all wrong. Let there be no mistake. But God at times sees the bigger, or longer, perspective, and tolerates things which we may quite rightly find intolerable. And if He loves us despite of our sin and failure- are we surprised that we are invited to show love to others in the face of their sin and failure toward us? A black and white insistence upon God’s standards being upheld in the lives of others, demanding their repentance for having hurt us, is what has caused so much division between believers. Whilst God alone will apportion the guilt for this, in the final, unalterable, ultimately just algorithm of Divine judgment, it’s worth observing that the fault for division isn’t always with the sinners, the wider thinkers, the freewheelers; but with the inflexible intolerance of those in power.
- Recognize that God has made us all unique. According to the parable of the talents, He has given different potentials and abilities to each of us- and, quite simply, some have more than others. We need to recognize that others will have more or less than us. Try to rejoice in what we have in common, rather than the more cosmetic things and different callings which are what make us differ from each other. Unity isn’t the same as uniformity.
- The doing of right often leads us into conflict. Conflict situations shouldn’t always be read by us as meaning that we are guilty. Go out into this world and try to serve and help people, and you won’t be met with open arms. Those whom you try to assist will so often turn against you. Only those who sit on the sidelines and don’t get involved avoid this kind of conflict. But this kind of conflict is what the cross was of Christ was and is all about; that was the ultimate facing of the issues which there are between God and us. No papering it over nor avoiding the crux of the matter. The Lord Jesus came to gather fruit from Israel to God’s glory; to sit down with God’s people at the Kingdom banquet, because all things were ready. Whilst the crucifixion was foreknown by God and predicted by the Lord Jesus, this takes nothing away from the fact that it need not have happened. Jesus didn’t come to die, He came to be accepted. But Israel rejected Him. The pain of that rejection and crucifixion was all because the Father and Son had bothered to get involved with this ungrateful and rejecting world. If we are to carry even something of the cross of Jesus, we are going to have to experience rejection and the conflicts involved with that. That’s axiomatic. When you think about it. So conflict in the ecclesia shouldn’t actually surprise us. We should expect it. For it was the ecclesia of Christ’s day who were the ones who rejected Him. “As much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18) surely suggests that Paul saw conflict with others as arising due to others’ attitudes over which we have no control.
- It’s easy to take false guilt for the fact others don’t understand us. We are candles lit to give light, and we shouldn’t “cover” that light (Lk. 8:16). Yet the same Greek word occurs again in 2 Cor. 4:3, where we read that our Gospel is ‘covered’ or “hid” to those who chose not to see it. Others’ attitudes to us can therefore result in our light being covered and not get through. The fact others fail to perceive us for who and how we really are can in some cases be their fault and not ours.
- Love after the pattern of Christ’s love is radical. It’s going to have to hurt us to show it; it must cost us something. A lot, in fact. If it is in fact the love of Christ which we are reflecting. It cannot be merely part of a cosy, self-complacent social life within some club of mutual admiration.
- When people reject or manipulate us, refuse to play their game. The Pharisees tried to catch Jesus by pitting Him against the government. He refused to play, “But perceiving their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing Me, hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought Him a denarius. ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ He asked them”(Mt. 22:18-20 HCSB).
-The usual human responses to conflict are to escape or attack back. Neither of these are the spiritual, Biblical response. God’s ‘response’ to our conflict with Him has been to patiently reason, to invite sensible dialogue, and above all to pour out His grace in sacrificial love, hoping against hope that we will respond to it. And this must be our pattern. Job was in conflict with God. God heard him out, but when it came to replying, God didn’t pick up the points Job made and answer them word for word. Instead, He confronted Job with eternity. The Son of God likewise tended to answer questions by appealing to a wider context. The problem with horns-locked conflict is that people lose the wider perspective.
-In dealing with conflict with fellow believers, we really must stand back and ask ourselves basic questions: Are they in Christ? Was their baptism into Him for real? Do I intend spending eternity with this person? Are my sins and receipt of grace any different in essence from theirs? If my Lord could address His betrayer as “friend” (Mt. 26:50)- do I have the spirit of Christ, without which I am eternally none of His? Is my difference of opinion with them over Biblical interpretation really relevant in the perspective of both of us standing before the judge of all the earth, begging for grace and tolerance?
-Have a Kingdom perspective. In Lk. 12:13-21 we encounter the Lord being asked to get involved in a conflict between two brothers over an inheritance. The Lord’s response was to tell the parable of the rich fool- a parable which ought to be seriously worrying for every one of us, rich or poor. He put the immediate argument between the brothers in the perspective of eternity; the eternity we may miss because we got too distracted with the immediate argument of the moment. And the Lord’s basic message in this case was: “Be rich toward God. Give Him whatever you have”. This cut right across the issues of life’s unfairness, missing out on wealth, not getting our share of respect... to the essential question which should have made both brothers feel uncomfortable. Had they, have we, given all they had to the Lord’s cause? We may lack the quick thinking or penetrating analysis required to make this kind of fast response when confronted by others’ conflicts. But we can surely analyze our own conflicts, at our own pace, in the light of eternity; and regain perspective, even if our opponent fails to do this. We need to cut to the essence of why we are feeling as we are; pray for God to help you in this, for accurate self-examination is so hard. If we don’t connect and engage with the core issues, then even if the immediate problem [e.g. the argument about the inheritance] is resolved, then other issues will still then arise. It will only be a matter of time. The more we focus on resolving just one conflict, the more we will realize that in fact we are dealing with a tangled web of multiple conflicts. We cannot change others, but we can come to understand ourselves, and to define and engage with the essential issues which we personally face in the whole conflict.
- Conflict is a normal part of life and processing. It is inevitable that a certain amount of 'politics' intrude upon our ecclesial experience; one group wants this, another wants that; one sees things one way, another perceives things from a different viewpoint. But here again, the principles of the most basic Gospel must govern us. The Greek word for 'politics' does in fact occur in the New Testament.- when Paul says that our politeuesthe must be " worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27). The principles of the loving, saving, reconciling, patient Christ must work their way through even the politics that are inevitably part of life together.
- Learn a new process for processing. Learn to use other spaces and places to process my hurts, less in the moment and more on reflection, later, without dumping on others.
By grace we stand
We must also never forget our own need for grace. Paul progressively realized the depth of his own failures and need for grace. In his early letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of himself as the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9); some years later, he tells the Ephesians that he is "less than the least of all saints" (Eph. 3:8); but as he faced his end, he wrote to Timothy in his final maturity that he felt the chiefest of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Yet the letters to Timothy show a growing assurance that he believed he truly would live eternally in God's Kingdom. And in Paul we are to find our own pattern of growth (1 Tim. 1:16). You, me... we shall live for ever. And ever. And ever. We who are but water, bones, complex chemicals. We who are so very weak. For ever and ever. And the quality of that eternity is wonderful beyond words; for "we shall be like him". And God... just thought this up for us, decided to bring us into existence so He might lavish His grace upon us in His beloved Son throughout the eternal ages to come (Eph. 2:7). We cannot get even a moment's glimpse of that future which awaits us without being moved to show grace, compassion, acceptance; and without knowing that we ought to be giving our lives to thinking up how we can in our turn lavish grace upon others. We will not live through those eternal ages alone. We will spend them in community. There's only one man who has ever resurrected to live for ever, and that's the Lord Jesus.
Our experience of this will be insofar as we are "in Him", in His body. But His body isn't just us; it's all the others baptized into Him. If we reject them, won't forgive them, won't tolerate them, don't want to fellowship them... we are signing ourselves out of the hope of salvation. I don't doubt that God's grace is such that it will extend also to the self-righteous, the nitpickers, the critics, the bitter, the troublesome. But in this case they will be saved, like all of us, despite having done things and lived attitudes which ask them to be excluded from the salvation which is in Jesus. Quite simply, if we are to live together eternally with each other, we had better start doing so now. For we have right now been given "eternal life" in the sense that we can right now start living the kind of life which we will eternally live in God's Kingdom. If we don't wish to live it now, we are turning down the future aspect of that eternal life.
Reconciliation: Radically Important
There is a repeated, continual emphasis upon the simple fact that relationships between true believers will be characterized by strong, enduring love between believers them (Phil. 1:9; Col. 3:14; I Thess. 3:12; Eph. 5:2; Gal. 5:13; Rom. 12:10). Our eternity depends upon this. The importance of it cannot be underestimated. Picture a judgmental, unforgiving brother or sister whom you know, who’s always stirring up strife by their intolerance of others; yet remember their constant Bible reading, preaching, writing, unworldliness, clean living, constant attendance at meeting, hall cleaning... how their lives are simply full of their commitment to their understanding of the Lord. And think of this person standing before the Lord at the day of judgment and being condemned. Maybe he was the Secretary, or she was the secretary’s wife; the Bible School speaker, the writer. And they are told: ‘Go away. I don’t know you. You rejected my weak little brothers and sisters. You drove them from My table. You criticized and beat them down, some never to rise again. You demanded, demanded, demanded... conformity to how you understood things, to your standards of spiritual achievement. When you yourself seriously failed Me, disobeyed Me, and yet you never really worried about that’. That well known face, with tears flowing down the cheeks and teeth banging against each other in rage, forehead contoured as never before as he thinks of his loyalty to his clauses, his points, his constitution, his denomination; the emails and articles he laboured so long to write in defence of the faith... is ushered to death in the lake of fire. His committee members, friends, family who told him ‘You did the right thing there...’ are all strangely absent, and he walks unusually alone. As we watch. Maybe reciting 1 Corinthians 13 to ourselves. Now I’m not saying this is how it will be; I’m sure God’s grace is big enough to cover very much self-righteousness and very many blind spots. But... it might be. And, according to the plain teaching of the Lord and His apostles... it may very well be. Because how we treat our fellow believers is so utterly crucial.
The Christian life is likened to a man on his way to his judge along with his adversary (Lk. 12:58); and evidently, he ought to settle his differences with his brother before he arrives, for this judge will be extremely hard upon those who cannot be reconciled to their brethren. This would suggest that the Lord foresaw that getting along with our brethren would be a major part in the development process of His people; and as they draw closer to the day of meeting with Him, the more urgent is the need to settle their disputes, as He will be unsympathetic towards them. The Lord prefaces this parable by appealing for His people to ‘judge righteously’ because His judgment is about to come (Lk. 12:57 Gk.). By forgiving our brother and reconciling with him, we are judging righteously; we are in essence deciding our own judgment which is to be revealed at the Lord’s return.