Much more needs to be said about applying the gospel, God’s sovereignty, the doctrine of sin, personal holiness, forgiveness, and reconciliation etc. to conflict between Christians. For further study I recommend starting with Charity and its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards.
I want to wrap up by touching on a few practical issues related to forgiveness: issues that are seldom addressed and yet are troublesome to our emotions.
Christians can be pretty fuzzy about forgiveness, which makes this point from John Piper particularly important:
“[F]orgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person. In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.”
What do we do when there is no repentance to respond to? Or how do we respond when someone talks and acts as if they have not sinned against us? Do expressions of affection from someone who has betrayed us mean we should all go back to the way things were? In this post I’m considering these questions in light of sins by another Christian such as slander, hostility, cheating, stealing, lying, or deceit.
Given our fuzziness on forgiveness, we need to press in and better understand what Scripture says about forgiveness and friendship, and also what it does not say.
If we are to live at peace with all men so far as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18), we have to understand exactly how far it depends on us. Our question must not be: What do other people expect from me?Rather, we must ask: What does God require of me?
Answering this question brings clarity. It helps us to move forward with a clear conscience, even if we are swimming against a current of expectations from others; and it clears up a lot of the confusion that follows in the wake of broken relationships.
1.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must agree.
Nowhere does Scripture require us to agree in order to resolve a conflict with another Christian. We are to love them. We are to refrain from retaliation. We are to pray for them. But we are not required to agree with them.
In fact, we must not agree if agreeing means violating a biblical conviction. To hold your ground on a moral or ethical issue is not unkind, unforgiving, or stubborn, but right. It is not un-Christian, but uniquely Christian.
Even if well-meaning people encourage us to agree for the sake of unity, we must graciously resist that pressure when biblical issues are at stake.
Charles Spurgeon humorously put it this way: “I have known good men with whom I shall never be thoroughly at home until we meet in heaven: at least, we shall agree best on earth when they go their way and I go mine.”
2.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must trust.
“You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don’t trust you” insists John Piper. This is not rude or unforgiving. It is wise.
If a person has betrayed you and shown a disregard for the truth or for your reputation, you are not obligated to trust them again, even if they ask for your forgiveness.
Sometimes as Christians we experience false guilt on this point. When someone asks for our forgiveness, or acts like nothing has happened, we may feel like we are withholding forgiveness by not trusting them again. One insightful pastor explains:
There is confusion between forgiveness and restoration….To explain: If a friend seriously betrays me, I am mandated as a Christian to forgive him if he asks for it. But I think I would be foolish to restore him to a position of trust. I often drew the analogy with babysitting—if someone babysat my kids but neglected them, I should forgive them if they repent; but it would be delinquent to let them babysit again.
It would be unwise to trust an individual who, through lying or slander, has violated our trust. We must be cautious and careful in how we relate to that person in the future.
If someone has betrayed our trust, they must re-earn it, proving over time the genuineness of their sorrow and the fruit of repentance in the form of godly character. This is possible, by the grace of God, and I have witnessed, as you may have as well, the sweet restoration of trust that can flow from repentance.
But a glossing over of the issue, a half-hearted apology, or an expectation of immediate restoration does not obligate us to trust someone, unless or until they have proven themselves trustworthy.
3.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must remain close.
Sentimentality muddies the waters of forgiveness. A longing for “the way things were” is not a reliable guide for friendships. A close friendship in the past does not obligate us to remain close.
Friendship is a significant category in Scripture, and we must hold it in high regard. If we pretend that certain sins don’t have a devastating effect on a relationship, we deny what Scripture says about the meaning of friendship: trust, loyalty, honor, truthfulness, constancy, and sacrificial love.
True closeness is only possible under these conditions.
If someone betrays us, but fails to acknowledge that sin or make restitution, then to relate to them as if nothing has happened would be to undermine the meaning of biblical friendship.
But if a person realizes their sin, asks your forgiveness, and proves their trustworthiness, your relationship may be restored; you may even be closer than ever before. However, we are under no biblical obligation to be close again. We have not fallen short of forgiveness, or failed to honor God, if we graciously go our separate ways.
It may be that we now find ourselves in a different place or situation than before. God, who brings good out of every trial, may have used this broken relationship to move us into new areas of service and caused new, godly, friendships to blossom.
We must recognize these as blessings from God and move forward to serve him in the new ways to which he has called us. God does not expect us to maintain the same level of closeness with every Christian for the rest of our lives.
4. Forgiveness does mean we trust God.
Finally, as we try to carefully pick our way through the rubble of a broken relationship, we must leave the remaining confusion and questions in the hands of our loving, heavenly Father. Take this wise counsel from Dr. Cotton Mather:
It may not be amiss for you to have two heaps: a heap of Unintelligibles, and a heap of Incurables. Every now and then you will meet with something or other that may pretty much distress your thoughts, but the shortest way with the vexations will be, to throw them into the heap they belong to, and be no more distressed about them.
You will meet with some unaccountable and incomprehensible things, particularly in the conduct of many people. Throw them into your heap of Unintelligibles; leave them there. Trouble your mind no further; hope the best or think no more about them.
You will meet with some [unpersuadable] people; no counsel, no reason will do anything upon the obstinates: Throw them into the heap of Incurables. Leave them there. And go on to do as well as you can, what you have to do. Let not the crooked things that can’t be made straight encumber you.
And remember, above all, that God is good and wise as he rules over every aspect of your situation. I leave you with these encouraging words from John Piper:
God is not just showing up after the trouble and cleaning it up. He is plotting the course and managing the troubles with far-reaching purposes for our good and for the glory of Jesus Christ.
“The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.” Ps. 37:39
A broken relationship with another Christian leaves all manner of pain and disillusionment in its wake. But as we talked about last week, God’s character and closeness give us comfort in the pain of un-reconciled relationships.
He also gives us clear guidance as we navigate the confusing emotions and difficult realities of a broken friendship. First of all, Scripture spells out what is required of us when we are sinned against. John Piper expands on Thomas Watson’s definition of forgiveness, which includes:
“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19)
not returning evil for evil,
“See that no one repays another with evil for evil.” (1 Thess. 5:15)
wishing them well,
“Bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28)
grieving at their calamities,
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Prov. 24:17)
praying for their welfare,
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44)
seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:18)
and coming to their aid in distress.
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.” (Ex. 23:4)
Ask yourself: Do these verses representmy attitude and actions toward those who have wronged me? If so, then you can walk through even the most painful and messy situation with a clear conscience.
But if we are resistant or hesitant to treat those who have hurt us in the way that God requires, we must ask him to help us repent from any remaining bitterness in our hearts.
Prayer makes all the difference here. It is very difficult—impossible really—to pray for someone and persist in bitterness simultaneously. One crowds out the other.
To love those who have rejected or betrayed us is not easy, especially when we used to feel close to them and trust them. The temptation to simmer in our resentment, retaliate, or secretly rejoice in their pain may be strong. It may take longer than we expect for truth to come to light. But we are called to obey. It’s that simple.
We are following our Savior after all, the one who made us, his enemies, to be his friends.
The One who calls us to do good to those who hate us first loved us, even when we hated him.
The One who says “I will repay” paid the penalty for our sin (and the sin of our Christian friends who betray us).
The One who tells us to bless those who curse us was made a curse for us.
The One who urges us to “be at peace with all men” has made peace with God on our behalf.
How can we look our Savior in the eyes and hold bitterness behind our backs?
To forgive is to be free. It is to be free from those sins of anger and resentment that dishonor our Savior and make us miserable. It is to be free to love our faithful friends who remain, to enjoy the many blessings God has given us, to live a fruitful life for his glory.
But how do we relate to former friends who are unrepentant for their actions toward us? And how do we respond to shallow apologies? What do you do when someone has sinned against you and wants to pretend as if nothing has happened?
Q. I’d be grateful if you could talk about emotions in response to when we are hurt by other Christians, particularly when there has been no reconciliation.
Few things dredge up so much emotional pain and confusion as broken relationships with other Christians. In poetic, haunting language the Psalmist describes the acute nature of this pain:
“For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
Within God’s house we walked in the throng.
“It is not an enemy” that causes me pain, writes David. I know what to do about him. I can handle his attacks just fine.
“I could hide”
“I could bear it.”
So for us, it is not the enemies of the Christian faith, the insulters of the godly everywhere, whose words and actions pain us most.
“But it is you,” says David. My companion. My familiar friend. My sweet co-counselor. My fellow worshipper. It is your betrayal that hurts the most.
The friends we welcomed into our home and into our lives, the friends we confessed sin to and worshipped with and shared the gospel alongside—these broken relationships are painful in direct proportion to how sweet they once were.
In other words: give me a vicious enemy, any day, over a false friend.
Many of you know the pain of a broken friendship:
~You’ve been through a church split and lost half of your friends.
~A close friend has rejected you and the Christian faith.
~Your former friend still sits in the same pew at church but refuses to speak to you.
~You’ve had to leave a church because of the slander or persecution from other church members.
How do we handle the jagged edges of un-reconciled relationships? How do we process the grief, guilt, regret, hurt, anxiety, confusion, and even the loss of faith?
Before we do anything else, we must bring our grief to God. The answer is right here in Psalm 55. The Psalmist cries out in unbearable pain over this broken relationship, and then he turns to God.
“But I call to God,
and the Lord will save me” (v. 16).
We must not allow our disillusionment over another Christian’s actions lead us away from God. Rather, in our pain, we must turn to Christ.
For it was never other Christians in whom we were called to put our faith. It is not other Christians who save us. It is God who has rescued us from the power of sin and hell and only he can save us from the pain of these broken relationships.
We must call to God. We must pour out our heart to him. We must ask for his mercy on this relationship. We must pray for forgiveness for our own sin and a spirit of forgiveness toward others. We must bring our questions, our confusion, our hurt, our pain, our guilt, and our indecision over what to do next to the God who saves.
Who after all, knows more intimately the pain of false friends than our Savior, Jesus Christ? Who knows the rejection of sinful humanity whom he has created and blessed? In the moment when we feel rejection and pain, we must remember that we first rejected him. But he has reconciled us to himself. He is the great reconciler.
He is also the great comforter. And you are not the first saint he has comforted in this situation. Let these words from Charles Spurgeon encourage your soul:
Has it fallen to thy lot, my brother, to be forsaken of friends?... [H]as it come to this now, that you are forgotten as a dead man out of mind? In your greatest trials do you find your fewest friends? Have those who once loved and respected you, fallen asleep in Jesus? And have others turned out to be hypocritical and untrue?
What are you to do now? You are to remember this case of the apostle; it is put here for your comfort. He had to pass through as deep waters as any that you are called to ford, and yet remember, he says, “Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me.”
So now, when man deserts you, God will be your friend. This God is our God for ever and ever—not in sunshiny weather only, but for ever and ever. This God is our God in dark nights as well as in bright days. Go to him, spread your complaint before him. Murmur not.
If Paul had to suffer desertion, you must not expect better usage. Let not your faith fail you, as though some new thing had happened to you. This is common to the saints. David had his Ahithophel, Christ his Judas, Paul his Demas, and can you expect to fare better than they?
Be of good courage, and wait on the Lord, for he shall strengthen thy heart. “Wait, I say, on the Lord.”
“When man deserts you, God will be your friend.” And there is no greater, no truer friend we could ask for. Therefore, in the pain of broken relationships, call to God.
Sunday morning it was raining buckets and I woke up late because one of my children kept me up during the night.
As I reheated my coffee—which had already brewed, stayed warm, and shut off before I woke up—I stared at my kitchen counters which were covered with grocery bags full of non-perishables I had yet to put away from last night’s grocery run.
After a swig or two of Sumatra, I managed to find a pair of not-too wrinkled pants for my oldest son that he had prematurely thrown in the laundry hamper, and miraculously dug up four hair bands from the bottom of the pretties box because my girls wanted matching pig-tails (they are sisters, after all).
Of course, I couldn’t find anything for me to wear. And did I mention it was raining buckets?
I raced around, getting everyone ready for church, and the mess seemed to grow around me: cereal bowls unwashed, clothes on the floor, barrettes spilled everywhere. I knew it would take all afternoon to straighten up.
The thought passed through my head that what I really need, more than anything right now, is a quiet morning at home.
But on its heels came another, truer thought: No, what I really need, more than anything right now, is to hear preaching from God’s Word.
This, this is what I really need, more than anything.
“Yes, I hear the sermon; but who is speaking? The minister? No indeed! You do not hear the minister. True, the voice is his; but my God is speaking the Word which he preaches or speaks. Therefore, I should honor the Word of God that I may become a good pupil of the Word.” ~Martin Luther
I need to hear God speak to me.
And this conviction changes everything. For when I believe that God is speaking to me, each and every Sunday, through His Word, delivered by my pastor, then there is no moment of the week I look forward to more.
My pastor’s sermon is no longer an inconvenient interruption to my self-focused and hectic life; it is not one of a smorgasbord of equally good options whereby I can receive God’s Word; it is not boring or irrelevant or, at best mildly entertaining.
No, for one hour or so each week we gather to hear God speak to us through his Word. There is nothing we need more, nothing we should anticipate more.
God is speaking!
How quickly I lose sight of the wonder of this truth.
But my eagerness to hear God’s Word preached on Sunday is a measure of my hunger for God’s Word. If I am passionate about the Bible, I will be passionate about hearing God’s Word preached. If I am a “good pupil” of the Word then I will want to sit under gospel-centered, biblically faithful preaching more than I want to get some rest, clean my house, go shopping.
In other words, I can’t be passionate about the Word of God and indifferent to the preaching of God’s Word at the same time.
To love God’s Word is to love to hear God’s Word preached.
“You are more wicked than you ever dared believe but you are more loved than you ever dared hope. Don’t be too proud to accept what the gospel says about your unworthiness. Don’t be too despondent to accept what the gospel says about how loved you are.” ~Tim Keller
“If the only thing you have to offer is a broken heart, you offer a broken heart. So in a time of grief, the recognition that this is material for sacrifice has been a very great strength for me. Realizing that nothing I have, nothing I am will be refused on the part of Christ I simply give it to Him as the little boy gave Jesus his five loaves and two fishes—with the same feeling of the disciples when they said, ‘What is the good of that for such a crowd?’ Naturally in almost anything I offer to Christ, my reaction would be, ‘What is the good of that?’ The point is, the use He makes of it is His blessing.”
If you are trying to figure out what to give your pastor’s wife for Christmas, look no further than Nancy Wilson’s new book: True Companion: Thoughts on Being a Pastor’s Wife. Writing as an older woman (“And if I sound motherly, it’s because my husband has been a minister now for over three decades and I have a silver mine growing in my hair”), Nancy provides exactly the kind of biblical, practical, time and trial-tested advice that every young pastor’s wife needs. Her counsel comes verified by her godly character and thirty years of fruitful ministry to her husband, family, and local church.
If you are a pastor’s wife wondering how to figure out your role in the church and in women’s ministry (“take it slowly”), how to best help your husband (“Who takes care of him? Surprise answer: you do!”), how to handle friendships (“Everyone needs friends, and the minister’s wife is no exception.”) and trials in the church (“One thing a minister’s wife is going to need is thick skin.”), Nancy has written a series of brief essays that provide clarity and impart faith for your role. This is a book I wish I had when I first married a pastor around the same time as Nancy did. And it is a book that I will be handing out to many future pastor’s wives that pass through this seminary town. I pray and joyfully expect this book to bear much fruit in many marriages, homes, and churches for the glory of the gospel and advance of his kingdom.
What are the most urgent needs for Christian women today? We believe that the greatest need for Christian women today is to be women of God’s Word. And so we began our “Timely Cautions” series back in the spring by urging all of us to not neglect our pastor’s preaching.
The pastor’s preaching tops our list because God has appointed gifted men to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1, see also Acts 2:42, Heb. 13:7) and to deliver his Word to his church. If preachers are God’s messengers, called to bring his Word to us, we best pay close attention (J.I. Packer). We must also continually encourage and exhort one another to make it our “first great and primary business” to be in God’s Word on a daily basis (George Müller).
Which brings us, these many months later, to our second concern: that the Word of God “would not be reviled”—that we would not deny our doctrine with our lives, open a door to gospel-ridicule by our behavior, or give the enemies of Christ a reason to say evil about us, but that as Christian women, we would show forth the beauty and power of the gospel (Titus 2:5,8,10). How can we accomplish such a daunting task? Paul tells Titus:
“Older women…are to teachwhat is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3-5).
This list of goodness, as with any list in Scripture, is not exhaustive. Discipleship of Christian women includes more than the teaching of Titus 2, but never less.
Here is an explicit agenda for a home-focused curriculum to be taught by older women to younger women that we dare not neglect if we are to remain faithful to Scripture. Paul’s instructions do not limit or restrict Christian discipleship for women, but they should shape our priorities.
If our one-on-one or church-wide discipleship for women ignores or neglects passages like Titus 2—if we (intentionally or accidentally) leave the application of sound doctrine to a woman’s life and home in the back supply closet with the broken chairs and old wedding decorations—then we need to reconsider whether our ministry priorities line up with the priorities of God’s Word.
Does this mean women must not teach beyond Titus 2 or biblical womanhood? Of course not! Christian discipleship entails a variety of topics that arise from God’s Word, and I rejoice when I see God raise up godly women who are gifted to teach other women, and who are in a season of life where they can do so while remaining faithful to their God-given responsibilities in the home.
But as we shape ministry to women and define discipleship in our local churches, a healthy church, like the one Paul is describing for Titus, needs a pastor who preaches sound doctrine, and older women who teach younger women how to live according to that sound doctrine.
The pastor cannot do our part any more than we are called to do his part in leading the church. A pastor must teach sound doctrine, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), but there are many lessons of godly womanhood that a woman needs to learn from the example and instruction of another woman. Therefore we must not marginalize or shrug off our assignment. And what does our assignment involve? Elisabeth Elliot explains:
It is doubtful that the Apostle Paul had in mind Bible classes or seminars or books when he spoke of teaching younger women. He meant the simple things, the everyday example, the willingness to take time from one’s own concerns to pray with the anxious mother, to walk with her the way of the cross—with its tremendous demands of patience, selflessness, lovingkindness—and to show her, in the ordinariness of Monday through Saturday, how to keep a quiet heart…. Through such an example, one young woman—single or married, Christian or not—may glimpse the mystery of charity and the glory of womanhood.
To teach biblical womanhood is not shallow or frivolous. Titus 2 is not the Pinterest passage of Scripture. It is “the way of the cross.” It is a call to Christian women to help other Christian women glimpse “the mystery of charity and the glory of womanhood.”
Titus 2 calls women to a deep and profound understanding of the gospel that issues forth in a genuine and sacrificial love of family and home, a counter-cultural purity and self-control that is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a lifestyle that proclaims in a loud and joyful voice to our dying world:
[T]he grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us toredeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).
This question—what do Christian women need most?—is personal and immediate before it is church-wide and global. What do you and I need most? What does the young woman sitting next to me in church need most? We all need a “Titus,” a pastor to teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. We all need to delight in and meditate on God’s Word day and night (Ps. 1:2). And we all need older women to help us apply gospel-centered teaching to our daily lives—all for the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
My friend, Joy, recently told me about a conversation her family had with author Jerry Bridges. He was preaching at our church’s Sunday service, and Joy’s family invited him to their home for lunch. Joy asked him about how he got into writing and Mr. Bridges told her that he did not publish his first book until he was in his mid-forties. He may have gotten a late start, he told Joy, but he thought it was necessary to have gone through all he had experienced in order to be able to write what God had called him to write.
I, for one, am grateful that Jerry Bridges wasn’t writing books in his twenties. His biblical wisdom is valuable precisely because it has been refined for years in the daily grind of obscure obedience. He didn’t write fresh out of a trial or high off an accomplishment. He learned his lessons slowly, over decades of walking faithfully with God, with no one watching or publishing.
There is a time for living and a time for writing. A time for every season, the wise teacher tells us (Ecc. 3:1-8).
A time for sowing and a time for reaping.
A time for teaching and a time for learning.
A time for speaking publicly and a time for serving silently.
For young women, yours is primarily a time to learn and sow. Young women, full of zeal and overflowing with desires to serve Christ’s kingdom, let me encourage you to channel your energies to learning from older women, to striving after maturity, to seeking out lowly places of service.
Mothers of small children, yours is a season for gathering up seeds of wisdom from older women and planting them in the fertile soil of your family. Each day you stand at the head of an endless row of seeds to be sown—disciplines to be lovingly administered, squabbles to be settled, splinters to be extracted, plates to be cleared, lessons to be taught to little ones. Make it your aim to faithfully sow.
And may I encourage you, young woman, not to despise the sowing time? You may feel as if your kingdom influence is small at best. You may feel as if your time and talents are going to waste. You may feel as if everyone else is teaching and you are still stuck learning. You may feel as if your seeds will never sprout.
But I think, perhaps, that the church needs young women like you most of all. More than young women teachers, we need young women learners. More than young women leaders, we need young women doers. More than young women bloggers and speakers we need young mothers and sisters to raise the next generation in the ways of the Lord.
The church desperately needs young women who are fervently learning and faithfully sowing today so that they can become the older women of tomorrow. If the present dearth of qualified, older women has taught us anything, it has taught us this.
So let me encourage you, young woman. Do not chafe at the learning and do not despair in the sowing. Delight in this season, in this time appointed by our gracious Lord. Toil and struggle, learn and sow, with all his energy that he powerfully works within you (Col. 1:29).
So how did you benefit from your pastor’s sermon yesterday? One girltalk reader wrote in to tell us how:
I’m a 20 year old student at the University of Arkansas. I attend and serve in faithfully a wonderful, Christ-centered church, so when you began the latest series on preaching, I must confess that I paid little attention. I thought, “Oh, I don’t really need this. This is for those other people that look for excuses not to go to church or are always critical of their pastors’ sermons. That’s not me.” So I lightly skimmed the articles, closed the webpages, and went on with my life. Then, this morning, it all came flooding in. When I sat down [for the sermon], my pastor continued our series on Zephaniah. I almost immediately tuned out. All my homework, life questions, and even convictions of my own sin swarmed and clung to me like so many wasps of hell, with only one purpose—distract me from the sermon. Praise be to God, it only took Him a matter of moments to bring that realization home, and I thought of the little I had gathered from your blog on the importance of preaching. I flung the thoughts and worries off as best I could and trained all my focus on what my pastor was saying. It was not easy, but I forced myself, at the exclusion of all else, to take in his message from The Word. Not surprisingly, I came away joyful and refreshed. I was renewed in my fervor to find my satisfaction in Christ alone and to live with a bright, eternal mindset rather than my grimy, earthbound one. Our Lord was faithful, and the sermon was precisely what I needed to hear (what I REALLY needed, not what I thought I needed). So thank you for writing about preaching. I intend to go back and read those posts all the more carefully, and come to the house of God with prayerful humility in the future.