Conflict burns. Like that welt on your hand that takes weeks to heal after you hit the side of the oven, the reminder and pain of conflict remains long after a disagreement ends. Some of us would rather not cook up a relationship at all for fear of being scorched again! Whether we address conflict head-on or mostly absorb offenses, handling the emotional aftermath is hard. If we aren’t careful, resentment can bubble up into a new flame and consume us. Are you keeping a fire going somewhere in your relationship circle right now? In your marriage or family, maybe?
It is good to have a strategy ready for conflict. And it is important to deepen our consciousness for what to do with the emotions that follow it, and often make us sore. Having a healthy conflict and working through the aftermath both require a basis of forgiveness to end in healing and not further heartache.
In Matthew 18, right after Jesus’ instruction on moving from conflict to reconciliation, Peter asks a probing question. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
The religious leaders of Peter’s day had already put a numerical cap on forgiveness. They taught to forgive three times, and you’ve earned the patience badge on your spiritual Fitbit meter. But then after your three strikes you’re out (and in the U.S. possibly in prison forever). Peter, as passionate as ever, threw in four more just to be sure.
Jesus’ response must have been a bit aggravating: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Then he tells a story to explain his daunting answer. A servant is brought before his master to settle an account. We’re let in on a secret in verse 25. This servant who promised to pay back everything can’t pay. Yet his master doesn’t hold him to his empty promise, but personally absorbs the debt.
That reminds me of someone.
Shortly after, this forgiven servant pursues a fellow servant who owes him far less than he had owed his master. He seizes him and begins to choke him: “Pay what you owe.” The fellow servant’s reply sounds familiar: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you’’ (Matt. 18:29).
My pain instead of yours
Is this fellow servant also making a promise he cannot keep? Maybe. It’s infuriating when we’re on the receiving end of empty promises, isn’t it? Picturing such experiences in his story, Jesus gives us a taste of what forgiveness really feels like. God does not forgive worthy sinners, but guilty ones. That’s what makes forgiveness so wonderful but so hard. When we radicals actually apply the Bible and pursue the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 we are doing it as forgiven people, looking for forgiveness to bind us all in grace.
Andrée Seu Peterson writes: I asked a few people if they’d ever forgiven anyone and what it felt like. They gave me answers so pious I knew they’d never done it. . . . Forgiveness is a brutal mathematical transaction done with fully engaged faculties. It’s my pain instead of yours. I eat the debt. I absorb the misery I wanted to dish out on you, and you go scot-free.
Most of us don’t want any of that when we address conflict, if we dare to address it at all! No, we want a fellow sinner to satisfy our righteous demands—for their own soul’s sake, of course. But that seventy-times-seven thing calls our bluff.
Perhaps you theoretically think you can muster up enough forgiveness to meet the criteria. At least you don’t want prisoners to rot without rehabilitation or ex-offenders to lose their voting privilege! But have a fight with someone in the cell and they could get cut off. If your mate loves porn or other men, you might never get over it. If someone besmirches yours or the church’s reputation, they’re out. Our church has gone through long seasons when personal codes of justice trump forgiveness every week, somehow, and it would be legit to question whether we pay attention to Jesus at all.
Later in the Lord’s parable, the Master punishes the servant he forgave, calling him wicked because he couldn’t forebear with another’s empty promise: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:32–33)
Our gratitude for what God gives us is revealed in how merciful we are toward those who owe us. Our horizontal relationship with one another reveals the nature of our vertical one with God.
Forgiveness is an antidote to resentment
Walking through conflict can be tricky. As we progress through telling brothers or sisters their fault, acquiring witnesses and perhaps eventually telling it to the church, our self-righteousness can flare up and engulf our insides even as we seek to maintain a pious shell. When our adversary doesn’t seem to know the script—to repent in dust and ashes—it’s easy to be a Peter, sigh, and ask, “How many times, Lord, must I go through this with this person?”
When we dwell on the person’s behavior and not the finished work of Jesus, we can get stuck in resentment. Outside communion in Christ, the Jesus way to conflict resolution, even when sincerely followed, will probably leave us empty and disillusioned.
So what do we do when bitterness invades our souls, especially if the offense cuts deep?
- Admit: I can’t shake the bitterness. Pray something like this: “God, I need your help to stop feeling rage. I’m not sure I even want to let this go. Lord, please take this away.”
- Revisit: God promises us life. When we think of the promises of God, we often think of his unconditional love—the stuff Pinterest memes and coffee mugs are made of. But there are sobering promises, too: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). Listen to God’s implicit question in the Lord’s parable: “Will you trust me with these hurts, these regrets, and these unpaid debts?”
- Reset: Go back to square 1. We are forgiven. It is where we are born again. It is the doorway to our eternity. The very offense that causes us to go to another sinner, looking for their redemption, is a similar offense to whatever drove Jesus to the cross on our behalf.
- Recalibrate: Look toward square infinity. Some people have wrecked Matthew 18’s practical road toward harmony by making it a means to purify the church from whatever might cause them to forgive. But the Lord loves the people who sin against us, even hate us – and we just might meet them in the age to come. Their tiny faith might not be enough to satisfy us, but it might be plenty to assure them of eternity. God’s goal is redemption, first of all, not merely justice. Jesus is our justice, any other justice we experience in this world is right and desirable, but it is not the hope on which we stand. Any person we saddle with the requirement to make things right with us could easily wither under the weight of our demand.
As we labor under the burns that take so long to heal and flinch with the fear of being burned again, try these additional actions:
- Stop re-reading that hurtful email or text message.
- Stop meeting with the friend who seems to enjoy hearing all about what was perpetrated by that terrible person you can’t forgive.
- Stop going to those places with all those memories.
- Stop savoring a cycle of painful or vengeful thoughts but shift your mind to dwell on what is good. When you are tempted to seek revenge—if only in your mind— think on your Master who saw you trying to make things right on your own, making promises you could not keep, and forgave you anyway.
Forgiveness is the foundation of the life of Christ visibly alive in the church. It doesn’t begin with other people getting with it, repenting and being forgivable. It begins with each of us.