Reconciling strained or broken relationships may be the key way to live the abundant life Jesus offers. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9), they will have a direct genetic relationship with God. Adopting certain practices, joining a church, calling yourself Christian, confessing Jesus as Lord – these don’t make you a child of God, Jesus said, or get you the blessings of heaven. “The decisive issue,” he said, “is whether they obey my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21 NLT).
Everyone is God’s creature; all of us “live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28); all of us are included in what we know as God’s plan of salvation. Not all of us – and this may surprise you – not all of us, apparently, can legitimately call God “Father.”
The only way we can legitimately call God “Father,” according to Jesus, is if we do God’s will. “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven,” he said, “is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50 NLT). He didn’t say you have to be part of the Christian religion or any particular religion. To claim God as “Father,” you have to do the work of God.
Here, according to St. Paul, is the work of God: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). As Eugene Peterson paraphrased it, “God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them” (The Message).
Reconciling the world is a tall order. I certainly don’t feel up to the challenge. But there is something I can do, and you can do it, too. I can work to reconcile one relationship that is strained or broken. And if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps the reconciliation of the world begins when I reconcile with one other person.
Reconciliation is not agreeing to be quiet and pretending everything is okay. It’s not pacifying someone who’s in conflict with you. You don’t reconcile with someone by making concessions that sacrifice your principles. That’s not reconciliation; that’s codependency.
True reconciliation is a process of restoring a healthy harmony and mutuality in a relationship. Sometimes it means recognizing that significant differences will continue to exist but that, even so, a healthy relationship can also exist. In fact, because there will always be differences and disagreements, reconciliation involves creating and maintaining a healthy relationship that includes differences and disagreements. And if I don’t work for reconciliation, there will be a price to pay.
First, unreconciled conflict interferes with my relationship with God. According to the first letter of John, “If someone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both” (1 John 4:20-21 The Message).
And unreconciled conflict causes your prayers to go unanswered. When Israel wanted to know why their religious practices seemed unnoticed by God, Isaiah heard God answer: “You fast [you go through the right motions of faith], but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground” (Isa. 58:4 The Message). Conflict makes your communication with God ineffective.
Well, there are five sound biblical ways of doing God’s work of reconciliation, steps you can take to address conflict in a healthy way and reconcile a strained or broken relationship.
Start by making the first move. “If you enter your place of worship,” Jesus said, “and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, and go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God” (Matt. 5:23-24 The Message). Jesus is saying, your reconciliation with others takes priority over your relationship with God. You may think it’s the other person’s fault, and it may be, but God assigns to you the responsibility of taking the first step. As soon as you recognize the conflict, make the first move and start working to heal it.
Second: Ask God for wisdom. James writes, “If you need wisdom – if you want to know what God wants you to do – ask him, and he will gladly tell you” (James 1:5 NLT). As soon as you recognize a conflict exists, take enough time to gain a healthy perspective. Count to ten, or a hundred. Sleep on it if your anger is too great to be addressed quickly. Seek the counsel of someone who is wise in such things. Search the scriptures. However long it takes, without avoiding the issue, seek the wisdom of God before dealing with the issue.
Third: Begin with what’s your fault. Jesus wants to know, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matt. 7:3, 5). Too often, the fault we find and dislike the most in someone else points to a fault in ourselves we have not recognized or come to terms with. And what makes us most angry in someone else is often the pain of an old injury we carry in ourselves.
For example, for most of my life I’ve been likely to feel some of my deepest anger when I’ve been treated dismissively and of no account, because my father treated me that way. Like the paralytic at the Pool of Beth-zatha who carried his mat with him after he was healed (John 5:2-9), I carry that old childhood injury with me. When I’m surprised by my anger and don’t know where it comes from, I have to ask whether it arises not from the situation I’m in but from that old wound. I have to deal with my own fault before I can address the fault in someone else. I have to begin with what’s my fault.
Fourth: Listen to the other person’s perspective. “Let each of you,” St. Paul wrote, “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Learn the other person’s interest before you struggle over it. In one of his books on conflict mediation, William Ury tells of two sisters fighting over the last remaining orange. Each wanted it, and they could not both have it. Finally their mother, tired of the fighting, cut the orange in half and gave a portion to each girl.
The first girl peeled her half, threw the rind in the trash, and started eating the fruit. Her sister peeled her half, threw the fruit in the trash, and started grating the rind to use as a zest for something she was baking. If each girl had listened to the interest of the other, they each could have had all they wanted, and there would have been no conflict. In reconciling any conflict, it’s important to listen – really listen, openly and receptively – to the other person’s interests and perspective.
Finally, focus on reconciliation, not resolution. In one of his sermons, John Wesley recognized that we don’t all think alike and we don’t all act or live alike. Then he asked, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may” (Sermon 39, “Catholic Spirit”).
For as much as he labored to reconcile divisions in the church, St. Paul recognized that there must be disagreements and factions to help us find our way to the truth (1 Cor. 11:19). In addressing conflict, we need to recognize that we’re not going to resolve every disagreement, and we’re not meant to try. What we need to focus on is not the resolution of our disagreement but the reconciliation of our relationship. We need to ask, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
We don’t need to reconcile our relationship with God. God has already done that in Christ and is continuing to do it. What we need to do is work out our new relationship with God by reconciling our relationship with those around us. That’s how we fulfill our purpose, participate in the work God began in Jesus Christ, and reap the blessings that come with being children of God.