We should always take the first step to fix our damaged relationships, no matter which side of the breakdown we’re on
There’s an old cliché in Christian circles – often said half-jokingly, but through quietly gritted teeth: “I love everything about Christian ministry apart from people.” It’s a cliché laced with bitter irony because, of course, so much of the Christian life and ministry is about people and relationships. Yet it acknowledges the painful reality that relationships are always difficult, because people are always flawed and sinful. We all make mistakes. We hurt others, and we get hurt.
The Bible is the most realistic of books, dealing directly and honestly with the reality of our sin. And that means it contains forthright, practical wisdom on handling broken relationships.
Two of the most important biblical passages on dealing with relational breakdown are Matthew 5:21-24 and Matthew 18:15-17, where the words of Jesus are recorded for us. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not: I’m convinced that if we followed the instructions Jesus gives in these seven little verses, most of our relational and pastoral problems would be solved.
What may be most striking about our two passages is this: No matter which side of a relational conflict you are on – whether you have wronged someone else or you have been wronged – it is ALWAYS your responsibility to seek to restore the relationship.
Matthew 5: If you’ve wronged someone, seek reconciliation
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. ’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool! ’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:21-24)
Our first passage is part of ‘the Sermon on the Mount’, where Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to live as his people. Superficial adherence to the letter of the law will not do; following Jesus means allowing God’s word to penetrate your heart in a way that leads to a life of deep, far-reaching righteousness.
In the realm of relationships, Jesus says this means killing off the ‘respectable sins’ of anger or insults towards others. He drives home his point by comparing these things to murder. It’s no good sitting back and saying, “Well, I haven’t physically done them any harm.” If we harbour anger and dish out insults, the intent of our heart is evil.
The alternative, reconciliation, is all-important. It must always be the goal. In this context, Jesus addresses his command to those who have wronged someone else: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
When we know we’ve sinned against someone, it can be easy to sit back and wait for the other person to act. “If he has a problem with me, let him come and sort it out,” we say defiantly. Or perhaps our shame gets the best of us and we can’t admit our fault. Perhaps we assume the other person won’t want to hear from us, or that the damage is too great to repair.
Jesus’ instruction cuts through all that. Don’t busy yourself with important ‘religious’ activities. Don’t make excuses. Instead, seek out the person you’ve hurt. Make the first move, and do all you can to reconcile.
But what if you’re on the other end? What if you’re the one who’s been hurt?
Matthew 18: If you’ve been wronged, seek reconciliation
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
Let’s be honest: when someone sins against us, we find countless ways to compound their error with sin of our own. We start to assume the worst and to read evil into all their actions. We sulk quietly, nurturing bitterness and resentment, perhaps even beginning to lash out at others. We play the martyr, and forget that we’re imperfect sinners who’ve hurt people, too. We share our hurt and pain with friends (aka: we gossip). We claim the moral high ground and say, “They did the wrong thing – let them make the first move to sort it out!” If you can’t recognize all those responses in yourself, you’re much more godly than I am.
Wonderfully, mercifully, Jesus gives us the alternative. We begin by approaching the person who has wronged us individually. If they see their fault, that’s the end of the matter. Their repentance and your forgiveness bring reconciliation. If, however, they don’t see their fault, approach them again, this time with one or two others. If that fails, tell the entire Christian community. At each step along the way, the goal is not to embarrass, take revenge or air dirty laundry; the goal is genuine reconciliation between the offender and the offended.
But notice again where Jesus lays the responsibility. In Matthew 5, when you wrong someone, make the first move. In Matthew 18, when someone wrongs you, make the first move (“if your brother sins against you…”). This is no contradiction. This is Jesus living in the real world, addressing real relationships, where we can all tend towards standing up for our ‘rights’ and letting someone else sort out the problem.
Jesus says – no matter where your broken relationships, no matter how you arrived at this point – step up. Take the initiative, and seek reconciliation. It’s not a magic formula, because real healing always requires a right response from the other person. But to each person, Jesus says: do whatever is in our power to mend what is broken.
Restoring damaged relationships is not easy. It takes humility, and it takes effort – sometimes an effort that will seem unbearable, depending on the nature of the rift. In the very worst cases, this process will take a long, long time, and other factors will need to be considered. But the alternatives – lasting bitterness, anger, insults, gossip and the like – are far worse, bringing their own damaging ripple effects, even poisoning our whole lives.
Jesus knows what he’s talking about. And he didn’t just speak about this issue from afar. Far more than anyone else in human history, Jesus embodied this dynamic – leaving the very throne room of heaven for the humility of the Christmas manger and the cruel suffering of the Easter cross – all so we can be reconciled to God. Instead of sitting back, he made the first move – and he calls us to do the same. His words call us back to the gospel, and offer us grace and hope for our relational challenges.
Christmas, in particular, can be a time of relational extremes – extra joy as we celebrate with those we love, but extra pain as we notice the damaged relationships more than usual. This Christmas, where do you need reconciliation? Whether you’ve hurt or you’ve been hurt, what positive step can you take to experience the joy of healed relationships? No matter where we stand, Jesus urges us to take the first step.
 Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2007) contains two excellent (and challenging!) chapters on anger.