Q. I am afraid to go directly to the person who has seriously sinned against me as it says I should do in Matthew 18:15. I am afraid because I think by going it would make matters worse between us. What should I do because I want to follow the Bible and be reconciled?
A. Thank you for respecting the authority of God’s Word. That, I believe, is the core issue confronting Christianity: Is God’s Holy Word as found in the Holy Bible worthy of absolute authority because it is our Creator’s binding revelation to us? You seem to have settled that question in your own mind by how you have asked your question. You indicate that it is binding on you and you do want to obey it. Again, I commend you for this view. And because you desire to honor God by following his principles laid down on the pages of Scripture I will attempt to do the same by speaking truth in love to you.
“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace” (Amelia Earhart, Aviator). I am quite sure that Miss Earhart, not especially known for her theological acumen, did not write those words in the context of your question. She was, however, an extremely confident and brave person. Her words capture an important biblical principle central to an answer to your question. That principle is that the fear of man (the controlling power of the opinion or actions of others) cannot be allowed to override your holy and awe invoking fear of God.
Psalm 27:1 asks rhetorically, “Whom shall I fear?” “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?” All of Psalm 27 calls us back to that eternal perspective that frees us to be confident and courageous, with the hope of encouraging peace.
The prophet Isaiah, called to serve God as a covenant prosecutor bringing God’s charges and his condemnation against a people who had turned from him, issues the same call as Psalm 27 to people of enduring faith; those needing hope and encouragement as the faithful remnant who would survive God’s judgment: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you’” (Isaiah 35:4). Verse 51:7 also seems appropriate because you have God’s law in your heart: “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults.”
One thing that we can certainly say of the Christian faith is that it is not a faith for the timid or cowardly; the Lord changes such people into confident warriors by placing in their hearts an awesome and rejoicing fear of God that dwarfs the fear of any man. You can be strong and courageous because you are “in Christ,” the spiritual reality of your faith given to you through grace, so that you can know for certain the source of all strength.
At the same time, however, God calls us to be wise. It is right for you to carefully examine the reasons why you are fearful of this confrontation. Is this person in a position of authority over you; are they socially more powerful? Is that other person known for anger, violence, or irrational behavior? By pinpointing exactly what you fear (loss of the relationship, tainting of your own reputation, your physical safety or the physical safety of others, etc.), you can make a decision that both honors God and displays wisdom.
For example, taking another person with you to fulfill Matthew 18:15 does not necessarily mean you have overlooked the requirement to go personally to the one who has sinned against you. Taking another person along for this first encounter not as a “witness” as used in the sense of Matthew 18:16 but for wisdom’s sake does not violate the spirit of the biblical process. We must remember that that process is designed to reclaim the one whose sin has hurt you and broken fellowship with you and with God.
(And a note from Tara … We must also remember that there are limits to what we can accomplish in the peacemaking process. Romans 12:18 states that, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This means that we cannot “make peace.” All we can do, and all the Lord requires of us, is to do what is possible, so far as it depends on us. When teaching on this topic, I like to use a phrase that one of my blog readers gave me when I asked a similar question to yours:
“How far should I go in this peacemaking process? I want to be reconciled, to be sure. But I don’t want to be a reconciliation stalker.”
God will honor your efforts to boldly speak the truth in love and you never know how your courage to confront in love may be used by God to deeply affect others. But you never want to be a reconciliation stalker.)
Instead, remember what Ken Sande has so cogently stated in The Peacemaker: “Our only job is to be faithfully obedient; God’s job is to bring the result. Keeping those responsibilities separate and clearly before you will lead you to a right and God-honoring action, even if things get a little “messier” in the short-run.
Blessings to you—
Dave Edling & Tara Barthel