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.