Learning to forgive

When you are in the middle of a fight – what do you do?

Every day we see the results of not doing forgiveness and reconciliation well. On the world scale, it is the continuing threat of terrorism, wars, suicide bombs, ISIS, etc and on a more personal scale, it is seen in broken marriages and other relationships, rifts in ministries and churches, shattered families and divisions in neighbourhoods.

Usually, we just pretend that it isn’t an issue, which means that even as Christians we don’t face the facts, and swallow our pride. Instead, we paper over the obvious cracks and carry on as if everything is normal. Some of us just avoid the other person or make sure the topic doesn’t come up in conversation or in posts on our walls.

If someone has been aggressive, dishonest, bullying, or offensive to us, then we need to confront the real evil that has occurred. True reconciliation won’t happen if we pretend that nothing happened. Forgiveness is required when it did happen, and it did matter. The solution is to deal with it and desire to love and accept each other again anyway.

Forgiveness is always crucial, but often we misunderstand what forgiveness actually is. Forgiveness is more than a feeling, or a moment, and it is not about pretending something never happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a Christian message. Rather, forgiveness is often a process, a flow that we need to be part of. You may forgive someone and decide that they are such a toxic presence, that for your own health and safety they cannot be in your life. But even in this instance, forgiveness is still crucial, because forgiveness is first and foremost an attitude of your own heart. It has much less to do with others than we commonly think.

The solution that Jesus offers us is both severely practical and ruthlessly idealistic – a fantastic combination. The sequence he recommends here is vital. Firstly, go and see the person, one on one. This needs courage, prayer and humility. The other person may well respond with a counter-accusation, and there may be truth in it which you need to recognise. There are always two sides to a story, but it certainly isn’t always the case that both sides are equally to blame. If this works, it really is a wonderful thing. As Jesus says, “you have won that person back.” Even more, when you have had that courageous conversation with them, an even closer and stronger bond is often formed.

Sometimes this doesn’t work and, after further thought and prayer you know that the wrong still remains to be settled, we move to the second stage. Jesus here tells us to “take one or two others and go back again.” They should be mature enough to be honest with both of you, even if it might make everything super awkward.

If your witnesses acknowledge that you are in the right, but the other person fails to see it or do anything about it, then you can ramp it up to stage three. This final act is to take it to the church. In the time of Jesus and the early church, this would have meant little groups of his followers meeting together, praying the way he taught them, reminding each other of what he taught and trying to be faithful to this. Above all these communities were small-scale, local assemblies of God’s renewed people.

Stage Three introduces the really hard part of this teaching. We are told that if a person still refuses to accept the church’s decision, then you should treat them as “a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” At one level, this means just continuing to love them with a fierce love. Remember, Matthew who gave his name to this gospel was himself a corrupt tax collector – but the fierce love of Jesus broke through and called him into life.

But at another level it is also clear that Jesus is telling us that if there is real evil involved, and the person just refuses to face the problem, then they have already broken the communion. There can be no reconciliation until the problem is squarely faced. This does not mean that forgiveness has failed, but that sometimes we need to accept the truth that behaviours and attitudes have consequences which cannot be resolved except through change. If someone has injured me, and they do not change their attitudes or behaviours, they cannot be truly repentant. Even if I continue to pray for them, and forgive them from my heart, reconciliation and continued relationship may be impossible.

Yet Jesus also promises us that his presence will still be with us. We will not be left on our own through all of this. Where only two or three are gathered, Jesus promises that he will be there with us. If we take this teaching seriously, there are going to be struggles and great costs – but also such joy and wonder.

+ Jesus, when relationships go south, help us to have the courage to face them squarely in your love, and continue along the path of mercy.

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