When Your Reconciliation Doesn’t Reconcile

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If conflict is a roaring fire, we’d have to agree that sometimes embers flicker inside our soul long after the disagreement ends. Whether we opt to address conflict head-on or absorb the offense, handling the emotional aftermath is hard. If we aren’t careful, resentment can bubble up into a new flame and consume us.

I’m convinced knowing how to steward those emotions is every bit as important as having the wisdom to address conflict appropriately.

In Matthew 18, right after Jesus’s instruction on resolving conflict, Peter asked a probing question. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

Fortunately for Peter, the religious leaders of the day had put a numerical cap on things like this. Forgive three times, and you’ve earned the patience badge on your spiritual Fitbit meter. Peter, ever the overachiever, threw in four more just to be sure.

Jesus’s 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. The Scriptures let us 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.

Remind you of anyone?

Shortly after, this “forgiven” servant pursues a fellow servant who owes him far less than he had owed his master. He seizes 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? In these moments God gives us a taste of what forgiveness really feels like. God does not forgive worthy sinners, but guilty ones. That’s what makes forgiveness hard.

God does not forgive worthy sinners, but guilty ones. That’s what makes forgiveness hard.

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. 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.

Our gratitude for what God gives us is revealed in how merciful we are toward those who owe us.

Later in the parable, when 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.

Unstuck from 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 (Matt. 18:15–20), 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 Christ, we get stuck in resentment. Apart from Christ, conflict resolution, even when properly executed and applied, will leave you empty and disillusioned. 

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.

So what do you do with the bitterness that invades your soul, especially if the offense cuts deep? I’m indebted to John Piper who offers couple of antibiotics for this infection:

  1. 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.”
  2. Trust the promises of God. 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).

This is true of every single sin, every offense no matter how slight or vile. If you don’t start to think of how vile your own sin is—how much debt you owe to God and others as you consider this promise—you might consider praying about that too.

Take these additional actions:

  • Stop re-reading that hurtful email or text message.
  • Stop meeting with that friend who seems to enjoy hearing all about it.
  • Stop going to those place with all those memories.
  • Stop savoring a cycle of thoughts but shift your mind to the cross.

You Will See Them in Glory

When you consider that Christian who makes your heart ache as you consider the conflict that still doesn’t feel right, think of encountering in glory those with whom you quarrel—because you will—and hear the advice of John Newton:

The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore, you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. . . . In a little while you will meet in heaven. . . . View him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever. At that meeting, you will not complain of the way by which the Lord brought you. . . . I hope to hear that all animosities, little and big, are buried by mutual consent in the Redeemer’s grave.

When I think of the brokenness in my relationships, I used to long for the day where my point of view was taken to heart. Wouldn’t that satisfy my soul? The Lord answered: “Will you trust me with these hurts, these regrets, and these unpaid debts?”

And when you are tempted to seek revenge—if only in your mind—will you think on your Master who heard your promises to make things right, and, knowing you could not, forgave you anyway?


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