Why do relationships have to be so complicated? Why do good friends get “wrapped around the axle” with each other? Why do family members become so alienated they may not speak to one another for years? It is because we are sinners who are, by nature, enemies of God and of each other. However, the message of the Gospel is the message of reconciliation (that is, putting together divided parties; Jesus’ bringing God and man together). “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).
Paul’s use of the word reconciliation to describe God’s movement toward men implies that there was the need for an end to enmity, animosity, or malice. God’s communication with His creation had been disrupted, the connection broken. Isaiah 59:2 states: “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” Radical repair was necessary in order for God to again show His love for people. This radical repair came in the form of Christ’s death on the cross. God was willing to count our trespasses against Christ, rather than against us. The recipients of God’s grace become His messengers of reconciliation.
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). The power that raised Christ from the dead raises His followers to new life. Old thinking, old behavior, old opinions, old personality traits, and attitudes have passed away; they are dead. As new creations, men and women are called to communicate the message of reconciliation. How is this message communicated? The same way God communicated His work of reconciliation to us, in the radical repair of relationships by showing love to offensive people.
C.S. Lewis has written that Jesus “told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences” (Mere Christianity). God is the one “chiefly offended” in all conflict. Yet it is so difficult for mere mortals to forget their own hurt and anger and to remember that the sin causing them so much suffering, is ultimately against their heavenly Father. The problem lies in the fact that the communication of this reconciliation necessarily comes about as God works through human sinfulness and emotions to bring about the need for reconciliation. Obviously, there would be no need for reconciliation in the world if there were no conflict.
People sin against each other, or think they have been sinned against, and conflict is born. Pride, false assumptions, anger, and bitterness can result from the behavior or attitudes of others. Reconciliation, indeed, becomes a tricky business when a man believes he has been sinned against, yet the other person seems unaware of his or her transgression. Perhaps it is a simple misunderstanding. The best course may be to overlook the sin: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11 NIV). Scripture also states that men are to “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NIV). However, if the sin is particularly hurtful, or has serious repercussions, or is grievous enough to warrant church discipline, the example given in Matthew 18:15–17 is to be the model for reconciliation: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…but if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Certainly, private communication is more comfortable and more pleasant for everyone involved in a conflict. Clear and gentle communication, coming about as early in the conflict as possible, guards against false assumptions and the “taking counsel in” one’s soul that leads to constant sorrow (Ps. 13:2). We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), that is, speaking it without impatience, unkindness, boasting, arrogance or rudeness, irritability, or resentment (1 Cor. 13). The ability to speak the truth in love is the essence of the communication of God’s message of reconciliation that is to be shown to the watching world.
Why should we do this? Why go to this trouble? Jesus prays to the Father for the unity of His people in John 17:20–23, stating that this unity was to be illustrated “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” The reputation of Christ’s bride is at stake when conflict undermines relationships. Unresolved conflict may lead us to either fight back in anger or flee in fear of contact. Bitterness and resentment dull appreciation for God’s goodness in our lives. Avoidance prevents the enjoyment of free and open relationships with others. At the root of each of these reactions is pride. Perhaps words have been the weapon of injury, or maybe an actual knife or gun has taken the life of someone dear. It may have been an auto accident caused by a drunk driver, or gossip that led to character assassination. For a man to wonder why such a thing has happened to him is a natural reaction. The Psalms are filled with rich descriptions of the emotions of anger and fear in the face of loss and hurt. Yet, there is the awareness that the sin is ultimately against God. Men’s anger is to be a righteous anger focused in the direction of seeing to it that God’s good name is preserved (Pss. 37:7–13; see also 4:4–8; 13:3–6; 55:12–14, 19–23). “Be angry and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent” (Ps. 4:4). Ponder, or think about, what? The sweetness and richness of the truth that we were alienated from God, and now we are reconciled. Free forgiveness and the desire to reconcile results in treating the other person’s sin as God treated the sins of His people, removing them as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12) and remembering them no more because of His great love.
Sometimes reconciliation seems to fail. There appears to be no way to re-establish communication and a viable relationship. Does the process cease and the animosity continue to grow between two who will not be reconciled? No, the Scriptures also speak to this opportunity to communicate God’s message of reconciliation: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). Jesus is teaching that there will be enemies, those who cannot be reconciled as friends. Yet, God’s people are to go on loving (see Rom. 12:17–19). How can God ask this of His people? Because that’s what He did for us: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10).
Reconciliation can be a painful process. God understands this. It took the life of His Son to reconcile sinful man to Himself. He has not called His people to sacrifice their children in order to appease an earthly enemy. He has called us to sacrifice our pride in order to model His message of reconciliation to others. He has called us to live peaceably with all men. When that fails, He calls us to love unselfishly, from a heart that has been reconciled to God. He calls us to remember that we are new creations, with new affections and new behavior, and that we were first loved when we were enemies.