This Relationship is Broken! Now What?
We would expect the heroes of the early church to get along. So it is surprising to read of the apostles Paul and Barnabas: “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left” (acts 15:39–40). The reason for their quarrel? Barnabas insisted on bringing his cousin Mark, who had abandoned the team on an earlier mission. Paul strongly believed this disqualified him from further service.
Even the best friendships can hit rough spots. Coworkers can turn a worksite into a battlefield. Churches divide over personality conflicts. Family members who ought to love and care for each other instead exchange angry threats—or worse.
So what are we to do? It seems the only way to avoid the pain of broken relationships is to live alone on a remote island.
The idea of a lone soldier storming a well-fortified city seems the stuff of legends and action movies. The whole concept is absurd! Yet the Bible says that trying to win back the friendship of an offended person is like trying to capture an armed city. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel” (proverbs 18:19).
So how are we to approach a person hunkered down behind the walls of their anger? It’s hard, but not impossible. In the Bible, we find a plan of action modeled by God Himself. In the person of Jesus Christ, we see the steps that God took to repair the broken relationship between Himself and His creation. Christ’s loving actions restored an alienated world to His heavenly Father. As Paul wrote: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 corinthians 5:19).
In Jesus’s example we see the steps necessary to make peace with others. He loved, He humbled Himself, He suffered, He invited, and He forgave.
God didn’t wait for us. He took the initiative for peace by sending His Son. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 john 4:9–10).
Loving people we are fighting with is not easy. But if a work of restoration is to be achieved, we must take the initiative. This step is so important we must be sure we understand what it means. First we will look at what love is not.
Love Is Not Merely Feelings. In a broken relationship, negative emotions overpower positive ones. It may be quite some time before we regain a sense of warmhearted acceptance. Forced smiles and false expressions of kindness are superficial. They lack the genuine quality necessary to correct the problems in a broken relationship.
God’s kind of love is out of our league. Since we can’t produce it, someone else has to. That person is the Holy Spirit, who lives in all Christians. Under His guidance, we can truly love those whose acceptance we seek to regain.
When mistreated by others, He helps us choose what is right. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (luke 6:27–28). Choose to do what’s right toward others, regardless of their response.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of loving others is to examine our own attitudes. Before we try to straighten out the other person, we need to make sure our heart is right. Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (matthew 7:5). It’s hard and often painful, but it can be done. Once again, we are dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit. His work is to give us renewed hearts and minds. With His assistance we can replace anger, bitterness, and malice with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
Love Makes the First Move. Our natural inclination is to avoid those with whom we have relational strife. However, if we are going to remedy the situation, we must be willing to initiate the process. Loving them means going to them to work things out.
HE HUMBLED HIMSELF
One of the biggest hindrances to settling our disputes is pride. Our egos get in the way. Any peacemaking action can be viewed as weakness. Since we don’t want others to think we are weak, we protect our dignity by not approaching them or by making ourselves unapproachable. But this kind of obstinacy for the sake of personal esteem is wrong. If God in Christ could humble Himself to be at peace with sinners, we can humble ourselves to be at peace with each other. With this in mind, it’s important to understand what humility really is.
Humility Defined. Humility means we should not think of ourselves more highly than we should. We should take an interest in the needs and concerns of others. When we think this way, we are showing that we have the Spirit of Christ.
Humility in Practice. First of all, genuine humility doesn’t consider any deed too small or any sacrifice too big to make things right. Second, if we are sincerely interested in what concerns other people, then their feelings and opinions will become as important as our own. Finally, if we are humble, we will respect people even when we disagree. We will try to serve them in helpful ways even if they do not appreciate our efforts. Relationships can be mended if we have the mind of Christ and humble ourselves as He did (philippians 2:5). Then we will also be prepared to accept personal suffering, which is the next important step.
Sin ruined our relationship with God, and only a painful sacrifice could make things right. Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit” (1 peter 3:18). In giving His Son to die, God made that sacrifice for us so we could live in peace with Him.
Peter urged us to imitate Jesus in His example of suffering: “Since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude” (1 peter 4:1). Jesus Christ was the God-man dying for the sins of the whole world. In that sense, the suffering of Christians could never be like His. But there are many ways we can follow His example. No one wants to suffer, but it develops the following Christlike characteristics in us:
Commitment. Christ was determined to do the Father’s will, regardless of the suffering. In the garden of Gethsemane the night He was betrayed, Jesus faced the ultimate broken relationship—separation from His heavenly Father. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will” (matthew 26:39). By accomplishing His Father’s will through His death on the cross, Christ made the way for our broken relationship with God to be mended.
It is our heavenly Father’s will that we live peaceably with all people. When conflicts arise—and they will—we work toward reconciliation, aware that suffering is a part of the process.
Courage. Christ knew that His suffering would be great, yet He faced it bravely. Luke tells us, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (luke 9:51). When things go wrong in our relationships, we may lack the heart to confront the problems because of the pain. Even though suffering may be involved, we must courageously face the issues.
Confidence. Jesus placed Himself into the hands of the Father in spite of the things He suffered (1 peter 2:23). This is the key to getting the best out of bad situations. When we put our confidence in God, He not only strengthens us, but He also works everything out for His good purposes.
Empathy. Jesus identified with us completely in our sorrow. His expressions of understanding and compassion attracted people who needed to be reconciled to God. We too can greatly influence the people we are alienated from when we share their problems and pain. The apostle Paul echoed Christ when he said, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (romans 12:14–15).
Endurance. Christ set the standard. He faced His suffering with patient endurance, and so should we. Suffering because of a broken relationship is hard to accept. Criticism, misunderstanding, and rejection cause pain that we naturally seek to avoid. But if personal conflicts are to be resolved, the pain of the process must be endured. That’s what it takes to regain a lost friendship or repair a broken marriage.
Through Christ, God has made an offer of peace based on the sacrifice of His Son. We have the opportunity to face the reality of our separation from God and come to Him. “He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (ephesians 2:17–18). The door of access to the Father is open.
When we dispute with others, one of the hardest things to do is to sit down and calmly talk it over. It’s so easy to avoid them or to allow angry emotions to spill out during what we intended to be a quiet discussion of our differences. But a confrontation is absolutely necessary if relationships are to be repaired. Whenever conflict arises, we must invite the other party to talk about the issues. Our differences cannot be resolved without this vital step.
The Command. Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (matthew 18:15). An invitation to reconciliation is an expression of obedience to that command. Whether we have knowingly offended others or they have offended us, our responsibility is to go to them and resolve the problem. Getting them to cooperate may be difficult, but the Lord has instructed us to do it. We have no reasonable option but to obey.
The Need for Honesty. A face-to-face encounter has no value unless we are open and sincere. If someone has wronged us, we are to tell them. If we are hurt or angry, we must say so. However, this should not be done for the sake of argument or to get even. Rather, we should let the other person know that we are being candid because we want things to be right between us.
The Importance of Privacy. The conflict is often made worse when the problem is not confined to the parties involved. We must be discreet. Whatever we have to say should be said privately to the one who is at fault. This keeps us from the sins of slander and gossip. It also guards the reputations of all involved and shows respect to the individual, increasing the likelihood of restoring the relationship.
The Time for Mediators. If a face-to-face encounter with the other person does not resolve the problem, Jesus instructed us to “take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (matthew 18:16). The wisdom and influence of others can be helpful. Even if the problem persists, they are witnesses to guard against any misrepresentation of the things discussed. Then, if we’re still unsuccessful, the next step is to take the issue to the church.
When we have strife with others, we must invite them to confront the issues and work with us to resolve them. That’s what Christ commanded us to do.
A Sunday school teacher was explaining forgiveness to her first-graders. She said that if a classmate mistreated one of them, they had to be kind in return. And if the offender said he was sorry, it was not to be held against him. The class members looked at one another with troubled faces until finally one of the little girls blurted out, “But teacher, that’s hard!” She was right. It’s hard for all of us. Yet broken relationships cannot be repaired unless we are ready to do what is difficult. We must be willing to acknowledge our offenses and forgive one another as God has forgiven us. But how is our response to others to reflect God’s forgiveness?
Judicial Forgiveness. What is judicial forgiveness? Simply this. Judicial forgiveness is not a matter of overlooking or excusing the offenses of others, but recognizes the wrongness of what people do to each other and the rightness of proper punishment. It also recognizes that since Jesus has already taken the punishment, we are free to forgive without violating the just law of retribution. The harm people do to each other still hurts, but Christ has paid the penalty. Forgiving each other is the right thing to do.
Conditional Forgiveness. As God has forgiven us, we must be willing to forgive each other. But that forgiveness is not complete unless those who have offended us are willing to repent. Jesus taught: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (luke 17:3–4). Without a genuine acknowledgment of the wrong done, relationships can’t be repaired.
Decisional Forgiveness. We must choose to forgive in spite of our feelings. Even though God is grieved and angered by our sin, He chooses to forgive us. We must also be willing to forgive, regardless of what may have been said or done to offend us.
Emotional Forgiveness. Forgiving each other not only involves the use of our will but also the attitude of our heart. Paul pointed this out in his letter to the Colossians. He said that we should have heartfelt compassion toward others, along with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. He wrote, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (colossians 3:13).
Admittedly, these ideals are not easy to put into practice when someone has wounded us deeply or is still hurling insults our way. But we can respond graciously when we allow the Holy Spirit to control our hearts. Paul points us to the right attitudes. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (galatians 5:22–26). If we truly want to honor God, we must let His Spirit work in us so that ours will be a forgiveness that comes from the heart.
Rather than hold our sins against us, God wants to forgive us through His Son. This undeserved kindness can be hard to comprehend if we live by the slogan, “I don’t get mad; I get even!” God doesn’t want to get even; He wants to restore us to a right relationship with Him. If we are willing to be restored, He will freely forgive us.
God’s Pattern/Our Practice. It may seem unlikely, but many people choose to ignore God’s pattern for repairing broken relationships because they actually enjoy the conflict. Some neighbors express no desire to be on good terms with the people on the other side of the fence. Business associates continue to battle it out as they move up the ladder of “success.” Some church members seem to feel it is their calling to stir up trouble at business meetings.
The Bible tells us that the reason for these wrong attitudes is rooted in people’s hearts. James tells us, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (4:1). In contrast, God’s way is the unselfish way. In His effort to reconcile us to Himself, He modeled love, humility, suffering, invitation, and forgiveness. It is the ultimate in ingratitude to receive such grace and then refuse to show the same grace to others who have wronged us. If we truly recognize all that God has done for us, we can determine to follow His pattern as we live with people.