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.
After church on Sunday I was chatting with a friend about friendships. Friends are a big issue for us as women. Our friends and family are often the center of our world. They consume a majority of our time and attention. And that’s a good thing. God made us to be relational creatures.
But often, we are more passive than purposeful in our relationships. People drift in and out of our lives. We don’t usually pause to consider why we pursue one friendship and neglect another. Our feelings (such as having an emotional connection) often guide our friendships more than God’s Word.
As we make new plans for the New Year, it’s a great time to consider our relationships in light of Scripture, to develop, as my dad likes to say, “a theologically informed” approach to friendship.
Do our relationships—the friends we choose and the time we spend with them—bring glory to God?
“The righteous should choose his friends carefully” (Prov. 12:26, NKJV). Here are a few kinds of friends Scripture tells us we should choose:
Friends Who Sharpen
How would you describe your ideal friend? Is she lots of fun? Easy to be with? Loyal? Does she buy the same blouse or laugh at the same movie lines or cook the same food? All plus points to be sure.
But Scripture says the best kind of friend is someone who sharpens us as “iron sharpens iron,” (Prov. 27:17, NKJV), who “[stirs us] up…to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).
We need at least one and preferably many friends who inspire us to serve, provoke us to love, help us to grow in godliness, correct us, encourage us, strengthen our faith, and spur us on to passion for the Savior.
Do you have friends who sharpen and stir you up?
Maybe you need to take a current friendship in a new direction, inviting a Christian friend to encourage you in the gospel or hold you accountable in your walk with the Lord.
Or maybe you need to make some godly friends. This may require a step or two outside the old comfort zone. But even if it’s a little awkward at first, we all need friends who sharpen us.
Friends Who Mentor
Biblical friendship should be educational. According to Titus 2, the older women are to teach the younger women “what is good”—that is, a lifestyle of love and commitment to home and family and to godly upright character, all in accord with sound doctrine.
Those of us who are younger should be studying and learning. We ought to doggedly pursue other women to teach us how to grow in godliness. And if we possess the teaching credentials of an older woman—proven character and a fruitful life—we should be teaching “what is good” to our younger friends.
So ask yourself: In my friendships am I learning and teaching “what is good”?
Friends Who Need Friends
It’s so easy to get comfortable with our close friends. But choosing our friends carefully means we must guard against selfishness and laziness. While life-long friends are a blessing from the Lord, we are also called to reach out to the new person, the lonely, the foreigner. “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb 13:1-2).
Have you ever been “the new girl”? Remembering that uncomfortable feeling can motivate you to reach out to the new woman in your church. How can you show sisterly love to a woman who needs a friend? It can be as simple as introducing yourself to a visitor at church, inviting a quiet woman out for coffee, or inviting someone to come along with you and your friends. Let’s help new girls not feel new for very long.
Friends Who Need the Gospel
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders,” Paul tells us, “making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5-6).
Often we get so comfortable with our Christian relationships that we neglect the priority of evangelism. But Scripture expects us to be having gospel-sowing conversations with non-Christians. We need to walk around campus, through our office cubicles, or to the mailbox on the lookout for friends who need the gospel. They are not that hard to find.
Biblical friendship isn’t all duty and no fun. The pleasures of friendship, among them companionship, comfort, and laughter, are all good gifts from God and flow from his character (Acts 14:17, 1 Tim. 6:17, James 1:17). God wants us to enjoy our friends! And when we choose friends carefully we will receive these blessings and many more.
I only remember two things about Margie. She had long brown hair, and she was smarter than me. Maybe she recited her multiplication tables faster or got better grades or turned in tests sooner than me and the other dozen or so kids in the third grade—I don’t remember, exactly. But do I remember crying to my mom, feeling sorry for myself that she was so much better than me.
And the reason that I remember Margie at all is because of what my mom said next: “You’ll always have a Margie in your life, Nicole. There is always going to be someone who is better than you. No matter where you are, who you know, how much you excel, God is always going to put people close to you who are better than you.”
Boy, was she was right. I don’t think Margie returned to my school the following year, but she’s been with me ever since. Sometimes she is a mother who is a more consistent and creative mom than me. Other times she’s a writer who can write circles around me. She’s the woman who is much prettier than I am. She has more friends than me. She has more money and a nicer house. She’s more artistic than me.
Everywhere I turn, every time I try my hand at something, every time I think, even for a split second, that maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally earned a blue ribbon, she shows up, just in time, to grab the grand prize.
What would I do without her?
I would be puffed up and self-satisfied. Apathetic. Unmotivated. Hard-hearted. Unhappy. That’s why I thank God for all the Margies in my life. Not always right at first, but sooner than I used to; because I have come to see each one—not as a threat to my happiness and success—but as a gift from God: a token of his particular, adopting, sanctifying love for me.
God uses Margie to expose my heart. She shows me what the wise old preacher once said: “What hurts ain’t dead yet.”
God uses Margie to challenge me to grow. She shows me that I really haven’t “arrived” in the Christian life but that I can, and I should, make progress.
God uses Margie to purify my heart for service. She eclipses my glory, and so, with the silt of my ambition strained out, I’m more apt to serve for God’s glory.
No doubt you have a Margie or two in your life. She’s probably the woman you’re thinking of right now. If so, thank God. He loves you, and he is not done with you yet.
The messages from Next are online and I’m working my way through all of them. I love how the Internet makes it possible for a thirty-something mother of four children to benefit from a conference for teenagers and twenty-somethings that happened two weeks ago, a thousand miles away.
But I wanted to mention one session in particular, because in his message The Church and Friendship, Kevin DeYoung touches on a topic we’ll get to later in our series—that of technology and friendship:
“Friendship is wonderful when you can get it, but it is frequently hard to come by…There is a real sense in which that technology can foster friendship… And yet as good as the technology is…the danger with friends today is that we have friends everywhere and friends nowhere. We have a lot of relationships but how many friendships? We have more acquaintances than ever before, we have more people in our networks than ever before, we are known by more people and can know more people than ever before and yet have no friends.”
Do you have friends? Or, more importantly, as Kevin asks, “What kind of friend are you? A fake friend, a foul friend, or a faithful friend?”
Listen and learn how to be a biblical, better, friend.
Are you a fake, a foul, or a faithful friend? Kevin DeYoung is part-way through a series on what the Bible has to say on the important topic of friendship In “Talking Shop” Nancy Wilson has wise words for young moms on how to give and receive advice from friends. And Paul Tripp exhorts us to bring God’s wisdom to bear on our relationships.
“For we ourselves were once…passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” Tit. 3:3 I wonder if part of Jesus’ motive for rebuking Peter’s sinful comparison was to preserve Peter’s relationship with John. Envy is a relationship destroyer. It squelches love and stifles kindness. We cannot cherish our friends and envy them at the same time. “Love…does not envy” (1 Cor. 13:4). And as Jonathan Edwards put it, “Surely love to our neighbor does not dispose us to hate him for his prosperity or be unhappy at his good” So, for the sake of our relationships, the Savior asks: “If it is my will that she ___________ what is that to you?” Genuine love rejoices with those who rejoice (Rom 12: 15). It is happy when someone else gets honored, gets a promotion, gets married, gets pregnant, gets any good gift from the hand of God. So let us put away all envy and love one another.
Today we conclude our discussion on friendships for the single woman by taking a look at Colossians 4:5-6. This verse tells us to, “Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” One application from this verse is our conduct with unbelievers. Obviously, in writing this verse Paul assumes that we have contact with those outside the faith. So if all of your friends have grown up in a Christian home or been a Christian for twenty years, you’re missing someone—friends who need salvation. Often it can be so easy for us as women to get consumed by our school or work and we neglect the priority of evangelism. It’s like we walk around campus, through the office cubicles, in and out of the store, and across the street with our head down and blinders on. But we are supposed to be reaching out and having gracious, gospel-motivated conversations with non-Christians. You don’t know any? They are not that hard to find. Maybe all you have to do is look up! So, we’ve considered: Friends who sharpen Friends who mentor. Friends who need a friend. Friends who need salvation. May all these friends be found in your network of relationships. When we choose friends according to God’s criteria, much blessing will result
For the single woman, friends are one of the best deals of your season. As it says in Proverbs 12:26, “The righteous should choose his friends carefully” (NKJV). Yesterday we considered friends who sharpen and spur us on to godliness. Today we want to look at two more friends that Scripture exhorts us to pursue. First we should pursue friends that mentor. Titus 2:3-5 commands the older women to be training the younger women. We should all be aggressively seeking out other women to help us grow in the admirable qualities of biblical femininity. And if you are that older woman, I want to encourage you to consider passing on your experience and wisdom to those behind you. We need it! So, stop a moment and consider your friends. Young women, we should ask ourselves: “Do I have a friend from whom I am learning some aspect of biblical womanhood?” And older women, ask this question: “Am I faithfully imparting biblical womanhood to at least one friend?” And secondly, let’s look for friends who need friends. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to get comfortable with our close friends? While longtime friends are a huge blessing from the Lord, we are also called to reach out to the new person and the lonely. “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” exhorts Hebrews 13:1-2. Remember what it was like to be new or not know anyone? To see other women chatting excitedly and to have no one to talk to? To choose our friends carefully means we must guard against selfishness and laziness. So let’s take a look around us: “Who is one woman I should reach out to?” It can be as simple as introducing ourselves to a visitor at church, or inviting a quiet woman out for coffee, or including someone new at our weekly lunch with friends. May we all commit to helping new friends not feel new for very long. Let’s not miss out on these two great friendship opportunities. Somehow I think we may all be surprised to find that we are the ones that end up with the good end of the deal.