Offenses, Part IV: What if a conversation doesn’t work?

Someone says something that catches you off guard. It offends you. Maybe it was gossip about another person. Maybe it was sounded like they didn’t care about you. Maybe someone stole your lunch from the fridge and you know who it was. Maybe someone gossiped about you to other people. Maybe someone took over your ministry at church without asking. And maybe you tried to overlook the offense—to no avail. Maybe you went to the person to try to express your hurt, your concern, or to gain clarity about what it was they meant when they said that hurtful thing. And maybe it didn’t work

You knew it all along! Pastor Branden’s advice on his blog was junk! But wait! I never promised 100% success rate. The Bible describes the steps in the process to seek reconciliation. And that’s what we’ve been following—the process. Try to overlook. If you can’t, then go talk to the offender—approach them with a spirit of forgiveness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, in a posture of grace and mercy and have a conversation. 

But sometimes that may not turn out as you would have hoped. Maybe they actually did mean that hurtful thing but didn’t have any interest in confessing and asking forgiveness for it. Maybe the whole meeting blew up in your face. Maybe they didn’t acknowledge your hurt or their sin at all—any number of things can go wrong. What do you do now?

Well, thankfully God’s Word is sufficient for all of “faith and life” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). Therefore, we pick up where we left off last week in Matthew 18. The whole passage we were drawing from last week reads as follows:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Matthew 18:15-17 ESV

In this passage, Jesus describes a four-step process to try to “gain your brother.” First, you and talk to the offender about what they’ve done. Try to work it out one-on-one. However, if that doesn’t work proceed to the second step: take one or two others along with you. If that doesn’t work, third, tell it to the church. Fourth, excommunication (kick them out of the church). Let’s walk through these briefly. 

Preliminary questions before the next step

After you’ve done step one and tried to talk to the person one-on-one (we’ve already talked about this step), before proceeding to the next step its always good to ask yourself one more time—is this matter worth electing to the next level? Am I still unable to ‘overlook’ or ‘cover’ the offense? If not, then proceed to step two. 

Also, some sins may be of such a nature that they cannot be ‘overlooked’ or ‘covered.’ Perhaps you seemingly witnessed a friend possibly committing adultery. Maybe you saw someone steal some money. Maybe a friend is addicted to a substance and it’s getting dangerous. Maybe a person has certain personality traits (fits of anger comes to mind) that they need help with. In the case of such serious sins, it may not be fitting to ‘overlook’ or ‘cover’ those offenses. 

It’s also important to pause here for a moment and we consider why we shouldn’t overlook an offense and carry on to the next step. It should always be coming from a deep care for the offender’s soul. In fact, that’s one of the main purposes of this process (formally called church discipline)—“the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” The other two reasons why it may not be fitting to ‘overlook’ or ‘cover’ an offense and proceed to the next step are “the glory of God” and “the purity of His church” (PCA Book of Church Order 27-3).

One more thing to be sure of before proceeding to the next step—it’s important to ask ourselves: Did this person commit an actual sin (against me or someone else or group of people) or did they do something I just didn’t like? Did they commit an actual sin before the Lord, or were they just not being nice? Its easy, especially in our southern culture, to confuse nice-ness with godliness. It’s easy to confuse not being nice with committing a sin. To elevate the process to the next step, we need to be as sure as we can that what the other person did was an actual sin. 

Step two: taking one or two along with you

Those things aside, what is the next step towards trying to reconcile with a brother or sister if we decide to do so? Jesus states it plainly: “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.“ If step one doesn’t work, Jesus says “Go back with one or two others!” In other words, relationships are important enough, especially within the church, that it’s not okay to give up on them after one fight. Also, souls are important enough not to give up on after a fight. A person’s relationship with you or their relationship with Christ is at stake when an offense has been committed and the matter hasn’t been resolved. 

So, ‘take one or two others along with you.’ Why? No doubt, the goal is still the same as the first time Jesus commanded you to go: “tell him his fault.” Here are a few things to remember when carrying out the process:

Who should you take as your plus one (or two)? Obviously, you want these to be mature Christians. Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” What does Paul mean? People who have the Spirit and demonstrate fruits of the Spirit, mentioned just prior in Galatians 5:22-23, should be the ones to go with you. Perhaps these are elders or deacons in the church. Or maybe they’re just really mature, really wise members of the church. Either way, take wise, mature Christians. They may be needed as witnesses in the next step should the offender not repent. They also need to be men or women that can help move the offender towards repentance, which leads to the next important thing to remember…

Go with grace, mercy, and humility. While going this second time with a person or two along with you, you (and your fellow goers) still want to go with grace, mercy, and humility. How does Paul say to restore the brother? “In a spirit of gentleness.” Again, no conversation where any party approaches with anger and resentment will likely end well. So, go with grace, mercy, and humility. Go with gentleness. Begin the conversation with hope that it will work, that the problem can be resolved. 

What to do? What do you do when going back with one or two witnesses? Explain your hurt. Explain the perceived sin. Talk through the offense. Speak from God’s Word. Quote Scripture with grace. And trust in the Spirit to work in their hearts to produce godly sorrow, ask for forgiveness, and repent. Only the Spirit can cultivate “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Might it be awkward? It most certainly will be. However, awkwardness was never a really good excuse for not doing something biblical, commanded by Jesus.

What if it still doesn’t work? If the offender really has committed a sin (and the same is attested by the one or two witnesses) and still has not repented, move to step three. We’ll pick up there next time. 

Offenses, Part III: The Duty of the Offender

So far in our series on relationships, offenses, and how to respond to them, we’ve talked about overlooking offenses and what to do when we can’t overlook an offense. This time, I want to side-step and look at the responsibilities of the offender instead of the responsibilities of the offended. Whereas, in my last post we looked at Matthew 18:15 and the Christ-given duty of the offender to talk to, to have a conversation with, the offender about the offense, in this post I’d like to look at the responsibility of the offender to the offended

In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says this, “23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus proposes a situation in which a person is about to engage in a solemn act of worship (offering a gift) and remembers that he or she may have done something that offended another person. It’s important to read the passage carefully. And there are a few things I’d like to draw out in particular.

Get ahead of it.

Your going does not depend on an actual sin being committed, it depends on the state of the brother (or sister). Notice It does not say “leave your gift there before the alter and go” if you actually committed a sin. It does not say “leave your gift there before the alter and go” if you actually committed a sin worthy of them being offended by. It says “leave your gift there before the alter and go” if your brother has something against you

Let me clarify. The duty to go to the offended does not hinge on whether or not an actual sin was committed. The duty to go to the offended also does not hinge on whether or not you are offended.1 The duty to go to the offended hinges on the state of the offended—the very fact that they are offended. Further, it does not really matter if you did anything actually sinful. If you did anything, and you are aware that what you did offended someone, it is your duty to go to them and work through it. The idea is to get ahead of conflict, anger, resentment, or any kind of relational distance that may arise because of your action and the offended state of the other person. The goal is for brothers (and sisters) to “dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1) and not in animosity against one another. It’s important to be proactive in resolving relational problems rather than reactive

Go quickly.

When should we go to the offended person? We go as soon as we become aware that the other person may be offended. It’s obvious that we can’t go to people that we don’t even know we’ve offended, hence the need for Matthew 18:15. However, if we realize someone may be upset with us, we are commanded to go to them not wait for them to come to us. As Pastor Jason has pointed out to me before, Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15 ought to have these two parties meeting in the middle—both coming to the other to resolve the wrinkle in their relationship. 

So, maybe we realize a certain person won’t look at us during worship. Maybe we realize we haven’t talked to someone in a while, and they haven’t talked to us either. Maybe someone else tells us we should go talk to someone. Or maybe the Spirit reminds us of something we did that had potential to offend someone else. Whatever the case, once we realize another person may be offended, we should go—immediately! The worshiper in Matthew 5:23-24 is commanded to “go” and “be reconciled” even before they offer their gift at the alter. Go as soon as possible—time is capital for the building up of anger and resentment. 

The goal of going: “be reconciled.”2

Why do we go? Jesus states the goal of our going plainly: “be reconciled.” The need to “be reconciled” implies the need to bring together two parties that have otherwise been separated. This is a gospel principle: the Scriptures speak of the need for us to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-21). We have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed. He is holy. We are not. We need to ‘be reconciled to him’—a work that Christ does for us by being our perfect righteousness and dying for our sins. Christ has reconciled us—brought us back to, restored our relationship with—God. Christ satisfied the righteous wrath of God against us so that we could enjoy fellowship with God. When we speak of Christ’s reconciling us to God, we are not primarily talking about our being clothed with the righteousness of Christ (justification), but we are primarily talking about Christ appeasing the righteous wrath of God on our behalf. Christ satisfied the wrath of God against us. He did away with it for us. God had reason to be angry with us (our sin). Christ did away with that anger in his life and death on the cross. He reconciled us to God. He brought us back in.  

So when we think about being reconciled with others, we need to think of how Christ has reconciled us to God—that’s the reason we seek reconciliation and why we have the ability to be reconciled. But also, he has given us the pattern for reconciliation unto others: appeasing, doing away with, or working through any problem or offended-ness someone may harbor against us. We are not primarily going to them for our own good but so that our relationship might be restored. Now, it may be in the course of that conversation we discover actual sin that we committed against them. In that case, the process is the same as always: as the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and we become truly sorrowful over it (Godly sorrow), we confess our sin (both to God and to the person we sinned against) and ask forgiveness for that sin (from both God and from the other person). 

We fit in both categories.

Some of you, perhaps, would have preferred for me to write this installment in the third person, using pronouns such as “them, they, he, and she”—primarily talking about other people. However, the reality is that all of us fit into both categories—sometimes we are the offended (see this post) and other times we are the offender as I’ve described above. It is just as much our responsibility to go to someone if we may have sinned against them as it is for us to go to someone if they may have sinned against us. And it’s at this point we realize that we not only need boldness and courage, gentleness and grace to go to others when they sin against us. But we need humility, that we might go to someone when we may have sinned against them. So, that’s why we need both Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15 in the first person (I, me, we)—because it is likely that we are the offender just as often as the offended

1 See John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (2015), page 31.

2 Ibid, 29-39.

Offenses, Part II: Responding to Offenses that Can’t be ‘Overlooked’ or ‘Covered’

In my first installment last week on relational reconciliation, we talked about what an offense was (when someone sins against us) and the Bible’s instruction to cultivate a spirit of love and forgiveness for our neighbors that overlooks offenses, or sins, committed against us. To be clear, when we make the decision to “overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11) or let our love for neighbor “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8), we are committing to not interact with or treat that person with respect to the sin they committed against us. If we determine in our hearts to overlook a sin committed against us out of love for that person, we are committing to forget, in a sense, the sin they committed. We are committing to move on in our relationship with that person, to continue to love them well, as if they had not committed that sin.

But the question we left off with in our last installment was, what if we can’t simply overlook the offense? What if we can’t get something a person said or did to us off our minds? What if we’re tempted to become angry about it? What if resentment begins to build? Well, the Bible provides helpful instruction for what to do in that situation as well.
If we have been sinned against and can’t seem to shake it or overlook the offense, Matthew 18:15 explains in exact detail what Our Lord expects of us: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” In light of Jesus’s words, what’s the first step, what’s the duty, of the Christian who has been offended? To go to the offender (the person who committed the offense) and talk with them about your being offended. Here are five helpful things to remember when we think about having a conversation with someone about a possible sin they committed against us:

1. Don’t go to your friend first.
Notice carefully what Jesus does not say: “…go and tell your friend” what the other person did to you that offended you. Jesus does not say to go straight and tell other people how you have been offended, but go and tell the offender directly what they may have done. This kind of talking to people other than the offender about the offense will only lead to deeper, greater problems that harm and tear relationships apart. It is a Christ-given duty that we go to the offender first, not other people.

So, instead of talking to or with others about the offense, go and tell that person that what they said or did hurt you or bothered you—go and make him or her aware of their offense. Why? Because they may not know they did anything wrong! The point is, to give the offender a chance to speak for him or her self. The goal is to resolve, to work through, to talk through the issue one on one.

2. Be gracious, not grouchy. Be casual, not confrontational.
One might ask, “Okay, what does that kind of conversation look like?” And the answer is that it doesn’t have to be confrontational. In fact, it’s best if you go to the brother or sister with humility, meekness, and gentleness—most conversations have a better outcome if your posture and tone are more gracious than grouchy.

Instead, work towards making the conversations as casual as possible. Speak plainly. Be direct and clear without being abstract and abrasive. But speak casually. Something like this: “Do you remember when you said (fill in the blank) to me last week? That really caught me off guard and hurt me.” Asking questions like, “What were you really trying to say? Did you mean what you said? Did I misunderstand you when you said ‘(fill in the blank)?’” These kinds of questions help clarify if what the person said (or did) was meant. Or, maybe you misunderstood them altogether (this is a great way to approach these kinds of conversations from a 1 Cor. 13:7 point of view, “love hopes all things”).

3. The goal is always forgiveness and reconciliation, not justice and retribution.
The offender deserves the opportunity to speak for him or her self, clarify what was said, and confess and ask forgiveness for the sin if need be. Indeed, confession and forgiveness (if an actual sin has been committed) is the ultimate goal of these conversations. And if both parties act according to the grace and mercy given them in Christ through the gospel, it can be achieved. So, we realize ultimately that no matter if you overlook the offense or confront the brother or sister about the offense by way of casual, gracious conversation, both responses to the offense end up at the same destination: forgiveness that leads to relational reconciliation.

Additionally, the goal of these kinds of conversations is not to make an accusation, mount up evidence, declare the person guilty, and make demands that must be fulfilled in order for forgiveness to occur. That kind of posture and attitude is anti-gracious and anti-gospel—those sorts of actions are not how God deals with us in Christ, and as a result, not how we should deal with other people. We want our horizontal relationships (relationships we have with other people) to mirror our vertical relationship (the relationship we have with God, and that God has with us).

4. Conversation as preventative maintenance
Don’t be overcome by anger. Don’t let resentment take root. Jesus commands preventative maintenance for your heart—preventative maintenance that will protect you from the bitterness that anger and resentment produce. Go and have a conversation. Go talk. Go tell them how you feel, and how you have been offended. Work through relational sin by way of conversation.

5. Remember the gospel, and the power thereof
We are all sinners. And we are all sinners in need of grace and mercy which we have received in Christ Jesus. If we have a good and deep understanding of our own sin and therefore a good and deep understanding of our own need for grace and mercy in Christ, we are equipped and enabled by the Spirit to naturally extend that same grace and mercy to others who have sinned against us. That’s what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 4:24 when he says, “…forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” That’s what it looks like to not only believe the gospel, but to live the gospel.

Up next: Offenses, Part III: The duty of the offender.

Offenses, Part I: Overlooking an Offense

There are two types of offenses: those that can be overlooked and those that can’t. First, those that can be overlooked. Proverbs 19:11 says “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”1 The proverb is pretty self-explanatory, but the main point is that it is not good for a person to get angry easily. It is good for a person to overlook—to look past, to look over, to look beyond—an offense against him or her. It is good to “brush it off” when someone says or does something to you has potential to offend you. First Peter 4:8 gets at the same truth: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Love for neighbor covers, or enables one to overlook, a lot of offenses. 

The Bible gives us a category for being sinned against and not becoming angry over that sin. The Bible gives us the option to look past someone’s sin against us and still be able to love that person, to treat them no differently after that sin than before it. The Bible gives us the option not to blow up, not to avoid, not to ghost, not to functionally excommunicate (a loaded term, I know; see 2 Cor. 2:5-11) someone who has sinned against us. In other words, there may be sins against us that we can simply forget about—we can forgive without even being asked to forgive. 

I would even go so far as to say that the Bible encourages us to overlook as many offenses as possible, and only confront the offender (the person who sinned against us) when we can’t bring ourselves to forget, or forgive, the sin automatically out of love for that person. The Bible encourages us to cultivate such a spirit that we are not easily offended by other people’s actions. The Bible encourages us to love our neighbors, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, with a patient and kind love that mirrors the steadfast love of God for sinners (Ps. 136). The Bible encourages us to cultivate a love for those around us that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things to the extent that, because of our love for our neighbor, we are not easily offended by their actions (1 Cor. 13:4-7). 

But how do we do that? How do we cultivate that kind of love that “overlooks” or “covers” real offenses, real sins, that have been committed against us? We look to no other source than the deep, deep well of the gospel itself. As we reflect on all of redemptive history, we know God to be a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Ex. 34:6-7a). God, throughout redemptive history is a God who remains faithful to a people who are repeatedly unfaithful to him, just read the prophet Hosea. We see a God who became clothed in flesh to the end that he might save sinners (Mk. 2:17). We have a God who, while we were dead in the trespassers and sins, was rich in mercy and made us alive in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:1-10). As we look at our incredible sin debt, and as we look unto the Lord Christ Jesus, who saved us from that sin out of sheer grace, we see a mine from which to dig the grace and love to forgive and pardon others of their sin without their even asking

How do we overlook offenses? How does love cover a multitude of sins? How might we be sinned against, yet move on and never talk about or even think about that offense again? We do that by remembering all the grace and mercy that the Lord has given us in Christ, whose grace abounds over and above our sin. By internalizing the gospel itself, by God’s grace through the Spirit we are enabled to cultivate a spirit of forgiveness and love for neighbor that is not easily offended and regularly overlooks real sins committed against us. 

But what if we can’t “overlook an offense?” What if we can’t get a particular thing a certain person said or did to us off our minds? What if we’re tempted to become angry about it? What if resentment begins to build? The Bible offers a category for sins of this nature as well. We’ll pick this up next time. 

1 Scripture quotations are in the English Standard Version.