When Jesus commands us to leave our offerings at the altar and first go and make things right with anyone who has something against us (Matthew 5:24), He not only acknowledged the common experience of conflict in our relationships, but He also established the primacy of reconciliation in the Christian life. He was not impressed with church-attending, ritual-practicing, outwardly appearing believers who did not accept and practice His sacramental invitation to “live in love and peace with our neighbors” or who do not “intend to lead a new life, following the
commandments of God and walking in His holy way” (Free Methodist Sacrament of Holy Communion). Paul reinforces Jesus’ teaching when he explains that our reconciliation with Christ results in receiving from Him a ministry of reconciliation and that we are to be Christ’s ambassadors in this reconciling work (2 Corinthians 5:11–21).
The priority Christ gives to being reconciled with others and practicing the ministry of reconciliation is affirmed by current psychological studies. When people live with perpetual anger or emotional cutoff, both emotional and relational health suffer as the individual isolates from others. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation has been shown by the social sciences to be the healthy foundation upon which humans thrive. This is why counselors work to resolve conflict in every aspect of a person’s life. Everett Worthington’s book “Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application” presents the research, theory and interventions of conflict resolution. Weaving together biblical teachings and psychological practices, the most helpful process in both pastoral and professional counseling is blending the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18 with counselor and theologian David Augsburger’s options of reconciliation.” In Matthew 18, Jesus begins with the direction to go directly to the person with whom we have conflict to reconcile so that the relationship can be healed. If reconciliation is not reached, then we are to bring someone to assist us in the process (Matthew 18:15–16). In our experience, the best people to assist are trained lay, pastoral or professional counselors who can coach us in direct, respectful communication addressing the problem and how it impacts us, help us take responsibility for our contribution to the problem and offer a genuine apology, as well as offer forgiveness and commit to change in ways that heal the relationship. Effective reconciliation begins with taking responsibility for our part in the problem, confessing that truth to the other and giving a genuine apology with three distinct steps: 1. An Authentic Apology: To apologize authentically is to name specifically what we did that has contributed to this breakdown in our relationship. This confession of our sin is directed to the person we sinned against. We take responsibility for our behavior. Although we desire that the other person will forgive us, we know that God forgives us: for when we confess our sins, God forgives our sins and cleanses us of all that is not right within us (1 John 1:9). 2. A Sincere Regret: To express sincere regret that our behavior caused the other person pain allows both of us to express our feelings and gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the damaging effect of the sin we committed in both of our lives. This regret allows us to come out from behind the walls of defensiveness and bitterness that may have been built between us so that we can be open, asking for and extending forgiveness to the other and put this offense behind us. 3. A Promise to Change: True reconciliation promises to change behavior. Although we don’t intend to repeat this pain-causing behavior, keeping our promise to change is possible only with the Lord’s help. By God’s grace and power, we promise to change our harmful and sinful behavior. We must be filled with His love for the other so that we behave in loving ways. However, the transformative power of restorative reconciliation is missed when people choose lesser options instead. Augsburger suggests there are four other ways we attempt but fail to accomplish reconciliation. These four options come in sets of two and move from more obvious to less obvious in their failure to reconcile. Though seeming better, the less obvious may most often keep us from our goal of resolving conflicts.
Denny Wayman is the lead superintendent of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California and the senior pastor of the FMC of Santa Barbara. Cheryl Wayman is a licensed therapist and the director of counseling ministries at the FMC of Santa Barbara.
Attack or Avoid The two obvious failures at reconciliation are to attack or avoid. An attack aggressively expresses our anger at the other person. Although this anger engages the other because the relationship matters, it is also an attempt to hurt the other because they hurt us. A relationship can suffer a series of attacks. Repetitive attacks can keep us connected however painful they may be. As attack builds on attack, the harm to the relationship deepens with nothing resolved. Avoidance cuts us off from the other by emotional or physical distancing. Rather than continuing to attack, avoidance often feels more effective because the angry attacks cease. But the effect of avoidance is the end of the relationship. Though it allows us to escape the ongoing pain that characterizes the attacking relationship, avoidance distances us from the other rather than resolving the conflict of our now past relationship. Appease or Account The next two options move us halfway between these two least effective choices to our goal of true reconciliation, but they are seductively incomplete. Thinking that we are “dealing with” the problem, we are in fact replacing reconciliation with either ineffectual appeasement or an inadequate account. When we appease the person we offended, we offer an abject, nonspecific apology without taking responsibility for the pain we caused or intending to change our behavior so the conflict doesn’t recur. We placate the other or ingratiate ourselves to bypass the problem, often negating ourselves. It is irritating to hear someone say: “I’m sorry for anything I’ve ever done to hurt you” without owning their specific hurtful behavior or contribution to the conflict, and without a promise to change, because it short-circuits conflict resolution. True reconciliation involves an authentic apology, which takes responsibility for harm done and expresses sincere regret for the pain suffered, and a promise to make specific changes so that it does not happen again. The inadequate choice of giving an account may be the most confusing of all. Thinking that conflict resolution is a matter of proving one’s self exonerated as in a court of law, we give an explanation, excuse or disclaimer as we defend our behavior. We wrongly assume that if the other knew why we hurt him or her, the other would accept the injury as justified. Thus, the end we seek is to be right rather than to be reconciled. We try to convince the other that neither an apology for the pain the other experienced nor a confession that takes responsibility for the wrong we committed is needed. Although conflict occurs in almost every relationship, it does not have to harm us or destroy our relationships if we choose to follow Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 and go to the other and be reconciled. May we choose to be truly reconciled as God gives us strength.1