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The Ministry of Reconciliation

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

When I consider the difficulty of mending broken human relationships, I’m reminded of the nursery rhyme about how “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”  Any professional counselor is able to relate cases of marital or other interpersonal conflicts where the alienation of the parties from each other is so deep as to seem irreparable.  In such cases, the counselor will try to help each party to understand how the matter appears to the other person or persons, since the conflict developed in the first place and deepened because each side assumed that its way of seeing things is the norm.  Therefore, each one interprets every action and argument of the other to be either dishonest or perverse.  If the two are to come together again (that is, be reconciled), one or both of them must take the risk of reaching out toward the other.

Matt. 5:23-25 lays out the importance of reconciliation among humans who are spiritual siblings: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  These words are addressed to people who purport to be followers of Jesus and therefore are expected to respond to His words as a spiritual command.  In that light, it is significant that the person who knows he is alienated from his brother has an obligation that goes beyond whether the “something against you” is valid or not.  Even if (in the honest opinion of the one being accused) the brother who has taken offense is wrong, it is so important to take steps toward reconciliation that one is not even to participate in a worship service until every effort is made to bring about reconciliation.  This is a step that goes beyond the common sense of trying to settle a dispute out of court, rather than run the risk of losing a lawsuit.  What Jesus commands in this case is in the same spirit of not insisting on one’s own right that is commonly referred to as “going the extra mile” (see Matt. 5:28-32).

There is no way in human terms to understand the basis of Jesus’ teaching about selflessness in the Sermon on the Mount without reference to a much larger and more significant reconciliation that has been brought about by God’s initiative.  It is only as a reflection of that move of God toward us that we can effectively carry out reconciliation between humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:8-11)

Paul uses this truth as a rationale for how we as believers are to act:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

John pointed out that we love (indeed, are even able to love) only because God has first loved us (I Jn. 4:7-12), even to the extent of sacrificing His Son when we didn’t deserve it.   In the same way, we also seek reconciliation with others because God has first gone more than “the extra mile” to be reconciled with us, even while we were fallen creatures.  Another aspect of basing our response to others on what God has done for us is demonstrated in the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though forgiven an unpayable debt by his master, refused to forgive a much smaller debt owed by a fellow servant (Matt. 18:21-25).  Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the unforgiving servant, and He states this condemnation even more bluntly in a comment attached to His giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:14-15): “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Loving our siblings in Christ, even beyond what is reasonable, forgiving them beyond what they deserve, and seeking them out for reconciliation beyond what seems justified are God-enabled reflections of His unlimited desire to be in fellowship with us.  These principles are especially difficult to apply in a culture and a society which places a very high value on standing up for our rights, but if we are to have the privileges of fellowship with God, the price is a willingness to give up our “rights,” if necessary, in order to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Note: A word of caution is in order about applying the normal principles of reconciliation outlined above.  A desire for reconciliation should never become a means of enabling an abusive person to continue his or her behavior.  Nor should an abusive person be allowed to use emotional blackmail to pressure a tender-hearted reconciler to submit to abuse. Being a willing victim of physical or emotional abuse is never an acceptable price to be paid for some kind of surface reconciliation.

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Twilight Musings: “The Heady Cocktail of Righteous Indignation”

 

By Elton Higgs 

Recently I have been made aware of some confrontations between Christian brothers and sisters that highlight how easy it is for people who differ to retreat into opposing fortresses of righteous indignation, thereby effectively guaranteeing that there will be no resolution of their contentious differences.  Of course, this happens in the secular realm as well, as the present polarization of political groups in our nation illustrates.  But this kind of standoff is especially distressing in a Christian context, where humility and mutual charity are the prescribed norms for attitudes and behavior.  It’s worth examining why Christians are so easily led to indulge in the heady and dangerous cocktail of righteous indignation.

As in every human argument, the fleshly way of dealing with conflict is to concentrate on defending one’s own point of view.  Particularly is this true when the opposing point of view is seen to be unjust, unfair, or unscriptural.  That perception pushes us toward taking on the role of defender of the faith or champion of the oppressed.  Certainly it is sometimes necessary to launch bravely into these roles, but doing so always carries with it the danger of very easily slipping into the feeling that we are morally superior to those we oppose.  This attitude will lead quickly to the mutual entrenchment that leads to church splits and divorce, as well as to political deadlock in the secular realm.

How do we avoid getting to this kind of impasse?  A good place to start is the admonition of the Apostle James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19b-20).  Anger is one of the first ingredients to go into the cocktail of righteous indignation, following immediately on the shock of learning that we or somebody we feel responsible for has been abused or treated unfairly.  Taking the trouble to listen carefully to someone we feel in conflict with slows down the kindling of anger, and delaying speaking provides time to examine whether we have correctly understood what we have heard.  Speaking too quickly tends to harden our position prematurely, to lock us into our words and make it more difficult to make concessions that can lead to a middle ground of agreement.

Another key element to avoiding intoxication from that “heady cocktail” of self-righteous rigidity is the cultivation of humility, coupled with its companion, a desire to think the best of others, so as not to assume that their actions or opinions necessarily indicate malevolent intent or perverse objectives.  As Paul puts it, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Humility enables each side in an argument to reaffirm that we are all fallible and subject to error, even when we behave with the best of intentions.  Humility is a retardant to assuming the worst about our opponents, because we value them as much as we do ourselves.   Humility makes us keenly aware that all of us are of equal value in the eyes of God, all equally in need of and receiving His love and grace.  Humility prevents the emotional detachment that enables us to demonize and depersonalize an opponent.

Finally, just as going into battle gets the adrenalin flowing, so sometimes the thrill of defending what we regard to be a just cause or belief tempts us to make an emotional investment in it that overcomes both our objectivity and any desire to do the hard work of maintaining or restoring harmony.  The battle assumes a life of its own that perpetuates and escalates the conflict, each side feeling increasingly justified by the literal or figurative atrocities committed by the other.  In other words, we imbibe in the emotional high of battle, rather than sipping on the profounder and more complex nectar of swallowing our pride and giving up our partisanship in order to pursue the sober work of being peace-makers.  We are instructed to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3-4).

Although Paul’s words in Eph. 5:18 are addressed to literal drunkenness, they also apply as cautionary words against tippling in the heady cocktail of righteous indignation: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”