(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on November 13, 2015)
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NIV).
What do we do when conflict comes calling? It is inevitable that we will be hurt, betrayed and offended. It is assured that we will hurt, betray and offend others. And we are called to live in community, with love and peace among both friends and enemies. But how in the world are we supposed to do that? Does that mean that we have to accept unacceptable behavior from others? Do we have to pretend that we have not been hurt?
In order to answer these questions, we should be aware that there are three interrelated concepts that must be understood separately, which might help us better see how we can find a path towards God’s intentions for human community.
Reconciliation. Reconciliation what happens when two people or parties find a mutually-acceptable agreement to bring harmony or peace between them after conflict. The Apostle Paul implores us to “Live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:16a). Reconciliation is the ideal state. It is the end result of a process between two parties, meaning that it cannot be accomplished unless there is the desire and participation of both sides. If two people have had a falling out, reconciliation does not begin until both of them are ready. If one person has been hurt badly, then it might take a very long time before that person is ready, and there might be the need of a mediator to make the process safe. But have hope. I have heard of extreme situations such as when the family of a murder victim will seek to reconcile with the murderer. But you can imagine that these cases take time and intention, great courage and care. We cannot and should not force or coerce one party into reconciling with another. If you seek to be reconciled to your neighbor who does not, all you can do is be willing and patient, not arrogant and self-righteous.
Which brings us to…
Repentance. The Greek word often translated as “repentance” in the New Testament is metanoia. Metanoia means, “change of heart.” It means to turn around or change direction. Repentance requires that I recognize that I have done something wrong, have been going in the wrong direction, and I stop and make the decision to change. And the key is that the decision is followed by action. Reconciliation cannot happen without repentance. And because reconciliation takes the willingness of two parties, both parties almost always need to admit where they were wrong first. Of course, this is where people will interject “but I didn’t do anything wrong; it was the other person” or “I only retaliated after they hurt me first!” Here’s my experience: 99.9% of the time, we have something for which to apologize, makes amends, repent, even if it is a much smaller offense than the other person. Yes, there are times when the other person is completely and solely to blame, but they are so infinitesimally few and far between that I wouldn’t assume yours is the exception, even though almost everyone thinks so. And even if reconciliation never happens, each of us is responsible for “cleaning our side of the street.” Sometimes we only have a speck of dirt on our side of the street, and the other person has a pile of manure on theirs. That is no excuse to ignore our responsibility to own up to what is ours. If any amends are due, we must make them promptly, regardless of what we think is due to us. And more times than I can count, this has been the first step on the road to real and lasting reconciliation. Other people will surprise us when we have the courage and humility to repent first.
Which brings us to…
Forgiveness. If repentance is one prerequisite for reconciliation, forgiveness soon follows as the other. Forgiveness is not condoning the behavior of other people. Forgiveness is not the obligation to make yourself available to be hurt again. Forgiveness does not mean that you even have to be in the same building with the offending party. And, in fact, forgiveness really doesn’t have much to do with the other person at all. Forgiveness is when you make the decision to walk out of the prison of lingering resentment. Resentment is anger that we don’t let go of, which we often repress. Resentment towards someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It can make us bitter, lonely and afraid. And when someone else has hurt us, it makes no sense to add self-inflicted injury to it. Forgiving the person is the act of letting go of the resentment, so that we (not the other person) can be free. And it is difficult to do! Which is why the Bible again and again points to God’s forgiveness of us as the source of the power to forgive others: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3:13). I would say that without God’s forgiveness of us through Christ, then we have no power to forgive others.
If the work of reconciling, repenting and forgiving were easy, and if they were unnecessary for the kingdom of God, there wouldn’t be such an emphasis on doing them in the Bible. If you are a human being, you probably have the need for reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness in your life. I say that not with judgment, but with sympathy; life can be painful. And so I pray that you find the strength to walk such a path, that you have faithful companions for your journey, and know the grace of God which shall sustain you.