Lesson 7: Go and Restore, Part 1
For the past three weeks, we’ve talked about dealing with our own sin in conflict. Before that, we talked about how to approach conflict in general. Now, we are moving into the third section of our material, which has to do with how to lovingly confront sin in others. I use the word “confront” because that’s probably the word that we use most often to refer to these kinds of conversations, not necessarily because it’s the best or most accurate word. Sande prefers the word “restore,” but I’m not totally satisfied with that, either. Regardless, what we’re talking about is a personal conversation with the other person in which you lovingly expose his sins so that he can confess them, you can forgive him, and the relationship can be restored.
We’ll get into the nuts and bolts in a bit, but I’d like to start out with another story
Janet waited patiently for all of Larry’s students to file through the door. When she saw that he was finished with his work and placing papers into his briefcase, she walked casually into his classroom.
Giving him a friendly smile, she asked, “Larry, do you have a few minutes to talk?”
Larry looked up, his eyes filled with suspicion. “I’m pretty busy right now. What do you want to talk about?”
“I’d just like to ask your forgiveness for the way I spoke to you last week and talk about how we are relating to each other, but if this isn’t a convenient time, I could come back later.”
His surprised look showed that this was not what he was expecting to her from Janet. “No, that OK. I’ve got a few minutes.”
“Thanks. Well, like I said, I need to ask your forgiveness for what I said in the teachers’ lounge last Wednesday. When you joked about me in front of Steve and Joyce, I lost my temper and lashed back at you. I was wrong, and I’m sure I embarrassed you. Would you please forgive me?”
Taken off guard by her transparency, all he could think to say was, “That’s OK. I know I can be sort of abrasive at times. Just forget about it.”
“Forgetting can take a long time. I’d appreciate it if you would say you forgive me.”
“Sure, whatever. I forgive you. Let’s just drop it.”
Janet had been planning this conversation for days with the help of a trained reconciler in her church. They had anticipated that Larry might try to brush their differences aside, so they had role-played how to keep the conversation going. Janet now put the planning into practice.
“Since I blew up at you in front of Steve and Joyce, I want you to know that I plan to go to them and admit I was wrong. Is there anything else I can do to make this right with you? Anything else I’ve done to offend you?”
“No,” he responded, “Not that I can think of.”
“Maybe you can help me understand something. If I haven’t done anything else to offend you, why do you say sarcastic things about me in front of others?”
“Hey, I’m just kidding around. Can’t you take a joke?”
“Maybe you don’t mean to hurt me, but it doesn’t feel like a joke, Larry. It’s embarrassing to be made fun of in front of the people I work with every day. I don’t think they find it funny either. And I don’t think I’m the only person who’s staying clear of the teachers’ lounge just to avoid your jokes.”
“Oh, so now I’m the big bad wolf,” he responded sarcastically. And all the little pigs need to run home to hide!”
“That’s just what I mean, Larry. You seem to have a habit of calling people names and tearing them down. It’s not a good example for our students. And I’m sorry to say that I’ve overheard some of the staff mocking your faith behind your back. Do you know what they’re saying?”
Larry didn’t actually want to know, but he felt compelled to say, “What?”
“They’re calling you a hypocrite, Larry. They can’t understand how you claim to be a Christian and yet speak so critically all the time.”
Larry cringed at Janet’s words, and be began looking for a way to end the conversation. Before he could speak, however, Janet spoke gently.
“I don’t think you mean to do it. I believe you want to have a positive witness, but it seems like you’re stuck in the habit of saying hurtful things to people. I’ve struggled with the same problem, Larry. I’ve hurt so many people with my words. Just ask my family! But God is so forgiving. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. And he wants to free us from our hurtful habits. He doesn’t want you and me fighting with each other. He would be so pleased if we forgave each other and worked together to improve our friendship and our witness around here.”
Larry had never been approached like this in his life. The truth in Janet’s words stung, but her tone of voice and her reminder of God’s forgiveness held out a glimmer of hope. He slumped in his chair and sighed with weariness and regret.
“I don’t deserve your forgiveness,” he said. “I’ve torn you apart all year, just like everyone else. I’ve always used sarcasm when I don’t know how to relate to people. I go home night after night knowing I blew it, but I just can’t seem to change. Is there really hope for a jerk like me?”
Of course there is! Janet replied as she pulled up a chair across from Larry’s desk. “If God can help me get control of my tongue, he can help anyone. Let’s pray right now and ask him to show us how we can turn our past differences into an opportunity to demonstrate his power in our lives.”
Was there anything that stood out to you about that story? It did a good job of illustrating the spirit we should have when confronting as well as well as several helpful communication techniques.
So let’s talk about that some more. What are some practical guidelines regarding how to confront?
How to Confront
- Deal with It Face-to-Face.
What’s the first verse that comes to mind when you think about confronting? (Mat 18:15) So go ahead and turn there (Mat 18:15). When the Bible talks about confrontation, it consistently envisions a face-to-face conversation. If your brother sins against you, do what? (“Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”) Now I should note, some translations drop the “against you” from v. 15, and that is because a few manuscripts do not include those words. So, for instance, the NKJV and ESV include “against you,” but the NASB and NIV leave it out. My preference would be to include the phrase; but even if you don’t, there is indication from the text that personal offenses are in view. Take a look at v. 21. “How many times shall my brother sin…” what does it say? (“against me”) And then Jesus goes on to talk about personal forgiveness. So Matthew 18 is addressing issues that relate to interpersonal conflict
The case for taking Matthew 18:15 as a reference to interpersonal offenses becomes even stronger when you consider the parallel passage, which is Luke 17:1-4. Now, depending on which translation you are looking at, you may have noticed that there is a footnote after the phrase “against you” in v. 3–it is missing in some manuscripts. So we would appear to be in the same quandary here as we were in Matthew 18, except for one thing. How do we know this passage is referring to interpersonal conflict, even if the “against you” in v. 3 is left out? (the word “offense” in vv. 1-2, the phrase “against you” in v. 4 [which, by the way, is not disputed], and the discussion about forgiveness in vv. 3-4) Based on the rest of the passage, interpersonal conflict is the only possible thing v. 3 could be referring to! And the fact that this passage is parallel to Matthew 18 confirms that Matthew 18 is also about interpersonal conflict.
All that to say that in both passages, the process for dealing with significant conflicts starts with a private, face-to-face conversation. Now, to be fair, they didn’t have telephones or email in Jesus’ day, so when Jesus said, “Go to him,” He could not have meant “go to him” as opposed to calling him on the phone or writing him an email. He appears to have meant “go to him individually” as opposed to going to others and gossiping about it or holding it up inside. But as a matter of practical wisdom, face-to-face conversations are often the most effective when it comes to confrontation. Why do you think that is?
- You can see facial expressions and read body language.
- There is opportunity for give-and-take, which is necessary in order to correct misunderstandings and hear both sides of the argument.
- We tend to measure our words more carefully when speaking face-to-face than we do in writing. (It’s harder to say something mean in person than it is in an email.)
- You’re less likely to vilify someone if he’s sitting in front of you.
Can you think of a situation in which it might be better to confront over the phone or FaceTime, via text or email, or through letter-writing?
- If distance makes a timely face-to-face conversation impossible (better to deal with it quickly than to wait for the next family reunion)
- If you have a difficult time collecting or expressing your thoughts in person, for whatever reason
- Only Confront Significant Sins.
How do we know that Matthew 18 is dealing with significant sins rather than minor offenses? (The process ends in church discipline, if the offending party does not repent.) Now, that does not mean that we should only confront if we are willing to go to church discipline over it, because as we are going to see, there are other passages that deal with confrontation but not church discipline. However, especially since for some of you, this is your first Sunday with us in this series, I wanted to make sure to say that the Bible tells us to overlook minor offenses. Proverbs 19:11 says, “The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, And his glory is to overlook a transgression.” And there are many other verses that say something similar. That’s why we said you should overlook as much as possible. You should only confront if you can’t overlook. You say, “How do I know the difference?” That is a personal discernment issue, but here are some guidelines that I gave. if you’d like more of an explanation, you can find it in lesson 4 on the website. 1) Don’t overlook if the conflict has created a wall between you and the offender. 2) Don’t overlook if the offense is hurting others. 3) Don’t overlook if the offense is hurting the offender. 4) Don’t overlook if the offense is damaging God’s reputation. 5) Don’t overlook if you’re becoming bitter. If none of those things is true of the situation, you should overlook the offense. But, if one or more of them is true of the situation, you should probably confront the offender
- Match Your Manner to Your Motive.
If we were to take Matthew 18:15 out of context, we may get the impression that it condones harshness. I’d like to give you three reasons from the context why that is not the case. First, take a look at vv. 10-14. How do these verses reflect on v. 15? (They illustrate the tenderness and love we should have when confronting.) Second, the parable of the unforgiving servant, which follows this passage, suggests that we should approach confrontation with the desire to forgive, even if formal forgiveness has not yet been granted. Third, what is the goal of confrontation according to the last part of v. 15? (“to gain your brother”) How would having that goal affect your approach when confronting someone? (You would seek to avoid unnecessary offense and would try to be as compelling as possible.)
Matthew 18:15 does not condone unkind words, a harsh tone, or thoughtlessness. All of the other speech commands still apply! In Matthew 12:36, Jesus said that every idle (or “careless”) word that men shall speak they will give an account of on the day of judgment. That means that you may not mindlessly unload on another person, even in the context of confrontation. You must carefully measure your words in order to bring about clarity, repentance, and ultimately, restoration.
In both Matthew 18 and Luke 17, Jesus is drawing from the same OT passage. Please turn to Leviticus 19:16-18. Once again, I would argue that there is indication from the text that v. 17 applies to interpersonal conflict, even if it can apply to other situations, as well. First, v. 17 says “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Hate tends to grow out of personal offenses and not just character flaws, although that is not always the case. Second, v. 16 warns against being a talebearer. Third, v. 18 warns against taking vengeance or bearing a grudge. Once again, these sins tend to grow out of personal offenses. So when someone sins against you, rather than gossiping about it or taking vengeance or hating him in your heart and bearing a grudge, you should do what? (“rebuke him”) In doing so, you will avoid personal culpability (v. 17 says you will “not bear sin because of him”) and also fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
The command to love your neighbor as yourself obviously has far-reaching significance; but specifically, in its original context, God is telling the children of Israel that by rebuking your brother to his face, you are loving him as yourself. That being the case, we must always rebuke in a loving manner.
- Confront Privately.
If there’s anything Matthew 18 teaches us, it is what one commentator calls the principle of minimum exposure–that is, we should involve others only when the private approach has failed. Now, Sande will argue that there are exceptions to this principle, that there are times in which it is best to involve others right from the get-go. And I would agree with him. But I wish he wouldn’t stress the exceptions quite as much as he did. This is actually one area in which I disagree very slightly with the book. For one thing, I don’t think we should be following Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, or Joab when it comes to conflict resolution. (Those of you who bought the book, Sande refers to them in chapter 7.) Also, I know I’ve been tempted to try to control a situation rather than just getting the two parties together and having the conversation. Sometimes we’re tempted to think, “If I don’t involve a third party to keep the peace, this situation is going to blow up!” But that’s not always true. If the confronter approaches the situation with the right spirit, the offender will often respond positively. And even if he doesn’t, the situation will have been clarified, and you can move on to the “next step.” Does that make sense? Are there any questions about that?
One exception to “confront privately” that Sande lists with which I would totally agree with is abuse. Sande says, “Many abusers are very adept at manipulation and intimidation, and they will use the conversation as an opportunity for further abuse. Therefore, it is usually best to involve others in the confrontation process.” To me, the thing that makes abuse an exception is that it is the type of sin that usually precludes a private solution. Physical or sexual abuse is not the kind of sin that can be kept “just between the two of you.” In order for it to be properly dealt with, other people need to get involved. So it is often wise to involve those other people right away. Does that make sense? Are there any questions about that? Can you think of any other situations in which it would be good to involve a third party right off the bat?
I’d like to close by discussing, what are some excuses people give for not having a personal conversation with the person who sinned against them?
- “It’ll never work!” Unfortunately, this is very common. Pass judgment on what the other person’s response will be without ever giving him a chance. Usually, this is just an excuse used by someone who wants to maintain the facade of moral superiority without obeying God on this issue.
- A corollary of #1 is “I already tried that, and it didn’t work.” I’m not saying that biblical confrontation always “works” in the sense that the relationship is immediately restored; but in many cases, the reason it didn’t “work” was that the confronter gave a half-hearted effort or confronted with a sinful attitude. Maybe you failed to get the log out of your own eye first. Maybe you got angry and said a lot of things you shouldn’t have said. Maybe you simply failed to express yourself clearly because you didn’t give the conversation adequate forethought. If that is the case, then you should probably go back and have the conversation again.
- “It’s not that big of a deal.” This is a big one. The problem is, if the person is still talking about it a year later, then it obviously was a big deal! If it’s not a big deal, then stop thinking and talking about it and move on. But if you can’t stop thinking or talking about it, maybe you need to have a conversation with the other person.
- “I’ll be polite in public, but I don’t want to be friends anymore.” This one is very sad because what you’re essentially saying is, “I’m abandoning this relationship.” It’s not worth salvaging, so I’m just going to throw it away. It is especially sad when Christians have this attitude toward fellow believers. You don’t abandon family; instead, you pursue them. If they, by their words or actions have proven that they are not interested in the relationship, that is on them. But if you have never given a whole-hearted effort to peace-making by having a conversation about your differences in which you confess your own sin and confront theirs, that is on you. Are there any questions about that?
Next week, we’ll continue the topic of biblical confrontation.