Forgiveness: It's Always About Me - Damon J. Gray
In an attempt to appear fair, the man suggested we flip a coin. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” he said as he tossed the coin into the air. Since I was only five years old, it took me a moment to catch on to his humorous deception. There was no way I could win, and there was no way he could lose. It was the same result no matter which side of the coin landed face-up.
There are times in the life of a Christ-follower when it may appear we have options for dealing with a specific situation, when the reality is no such options exist. This is the case for those times when we are at odds with another brother or sister in Christ. In that situation, the onus is always upon us to go to that person with whom we are at odds.
Just like the coin toss – if it was Heads, the man won. If it was Tails, I lost. No other outcome was possible. Regardless of how I became disenfranchised from my brother or sister in Christ, Jesus instructs me to take the initiative – to go to them and make things right. No other outcome is possible
Heads – When I am the Offender
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and, then come and present your offering. – Matthew 5:22, NASB
As Christ-followers, we know that we have no business engaging in worship while we stand unreconciled with our brother or sister in the Lord. In this one statement, Jesus has established beyond question that reconciliation and relationship are more important than temple worship.
What Jesus has described in the passage above is a case in which a non-priestly Israelite has entered the temple court with his offering. The court is crowded with worshipers as the priests are busily handling the sacrifices. Each worshiper in turn, stands with his offering outside the railing that separates him from the court of the priests. When the man’s time arrives, the priest accepts his offering over the railing, slays it, and presents it on the altar of sacrifice.1
But in Jesus’ scenario, that is not how it happened. Instead, the man is standing in the temple court, waiting for his turn, and while doing so he recalls that another brother has an unresolved issue with him. It might seem reasonable for the man to think, I’ll just present this offering, and then go make things right with Charlie afterward. Jesus says, rather, that I am to leave my gift there before the altar, go to Charlie, be reconciled, and only then return and make my offering.
Jesus did not say to simply apologize, but rather to complete the reconciliation process. Doing so may take hours. Indeed, it may take days. How can I seek to be reconciled to God when I cannot even be reconciled to my brother? How can I watch innocent blood be shed on my behalf when I have this unresolved offense hanging over my head?
It is worth noting that the charge is not to ask God to forgive me, but instead to go to the one against whom I have sinned and do whatever is necessary to be reconciled. This reconciliation will almost certainly require me to swallow my pride, to humble myself before my brother or sister, to ask for their forgiveness, and possibly to make restitution if there has been some loss.
Or, it may even be that the brother is unjustifiably sore with me. Go anyway. Be reconciled. Engage in what David Dockory calls “a greater righteousness.”2
In the ancient Church, it was customary for members of a family to ask each other’s forgiveness before going to the table of the Lord for holy communion.3,4 We could surmise that this is the heart of the instruction from the apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth, saying that one who takes communion unworthily eats and drinks judgement upon himself.5
But the truth of what Jesus is teaching extends well beyond the bread and the wine of modern-day communion, and could be appropriately applied to any act of worship we offer to God. When I am reconciled and at peace with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I can receive with humility the word that is implanted to save my soul,6 and can lift holy hands in prayer without wrath and dissension.7
Tails – When I am the Offended
Just as Jesus taught that I am to go to my brother when I am the offender, he also taught that I go to my brother when I have been sinned against.
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. – Matthew 18:15, ESV
Again, the onus is upon me to initiate the reconciliation, what Lange calls “an assault of love”8 upon the heart of this brother or sister in Christ.
Love and forgiveness are primary banners in the Christ-follower’s army. Though we are sinned against, we go in love to the offender, privately, and we do so with a gift of forgiveness, because we have been given such a gift. The gift of our own forgiveness from Jesus is the standard of measure for our forgiveness of one another.9
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32, ESV
Refusing to go to my offending brother is harmful only to me, and has been aptly described as “a wound that bleeds inwardly.”10
Bear in mind that, in some cases, the one who has sinned against you may not even know he or she has done so. Thus, it is prudent to keep the matter private, just between the two of you. Even if he is aware of the offense, keeping it private is a display of love on your part.
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8, ESV
A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression. – Proverbs 19;11, NASB
The Goal is Restoration
It is important to maintain a disciplined focus on our objective when meeting with one who has sinned against us. The objective is not to win an apology, or to expose the scoundrel. It is not to brow-beat the offending brother or sister in Christ. The objective, according to Jesus, is to “gain a brother.”11 Warren Wiersbe says, “Above all else, go to him with the idea of winning your brother, not winning an argument. It is possible to win the argument and lose your brother.”12
Confrontation of sin in the life of another believer is delicate business and must be handled with a humble heart, a spirit of submission, and a velvet tongue bathed in love.
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. – Galatians 6;1, NASB
The goal of the confrontation is restoration of the one who has fallen into sin. The platform for the confrontation is gentleness. The regulator for the confrontation is self-examination and humility, recognizing our own propensity for falling into sin.
Many years ago, there was specific sin in my life that needed to be confronted. The confrontation took place, but not in accordance with the instruction of Jesus. The individual against whom I had sinned did not confront me directly, but rather set up an ambush meeting with a friend and the pastor of our church.
The confrontation was not gentle, but harsh, with the pastor pounding his fist on the table as he shouted and cussed at me in my dining room. The sin in my life needed to be confronted, and purged, but this encounter did not reflect the “spirit of gentleness” called for in such confrontations.
The apostle Paul taught the Galatian churches that the goal of our efforts is that the one caught in sin is καταρτίζετε (katartidzete) – to restore them. The natural inclination is to assume he means to get them back into fellowship with the body – and that may be part of it – but the term katartidzete goes well beyond that.
It carries the idea of making someone or something adequate to the task and furnishing them everything they need to accomplish what they need to do. It is the term used to describe the mending or restoring of nets after a night of fishing.13 Such a restoration may require a fair amount of work on our part.
To solidify in our minds the spirit and posture we are to bring to the act of restoring one trapped in sin, it helps to understand that the call for restoration employs a term used to describe the setting of a broken bone or a dislocated joint.14,15
Think of the tenderness and skill required to accomplish such a task. If it is done harshly, we cause pain to the one trapped or injured. If done hastily or non-skillfully, we may leave the brother or sister injured for life. The spirit of humility and tenderness required for this task explains Paul’s qualification, “…you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…”
The final statement, “lest you too be tempted,” highlights the idea of one being “caught” in a sin. The idea here is not a “gotcha” term where we are playing a game – catch me if you can – but rather one in which we have been trapped in a snare, and we are in it before we even realize what has happened, or before we can put up any sort of a fight. It is the idea of running from sin, but sin outruns us, overtakes us and we are caught.
A Ministry of Reconciliation
Jesus is not a divider. He said as much in Luke 12:14, when someone in the crowd pressed upon Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus responded saying, in essence, “I’m not your judge and divider.” Jesus is interested in unity, restoration, reconciliation.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; – 2 Corinthians 5;18, ESV
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:14-18, ESV
The disciple of Jesus Christ is the one that takes the first step.
1. Hebrews 5:1
2. Blomberg, C. L. (1998). Matthew. In D. S. Dockery (Ed.), Holman Concise Bible Commentary (p. 408). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
3. Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew 4, Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 22). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
5. 1 Corinthians 11:27
6. James 1:21
7. 1 Timothy 2:8
8. Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (p. 329). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
9. Colossians 3:13
10. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1705). Peabody: Hendrickson. 11. Matthew 18:15
12. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 65). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
13. Campbell, D. K. (1985). Galatians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 609). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
14. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 338). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
15. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 65). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.