By Jared C. Wilson
“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
It’s impossible to get through mature adult life without navigating personal oversights and offenses. No normal person enjoys conflict, and every normal person wishes they could avoid it. And many of us do our best to do so. But mature Christians in particular don’t have an option, biblically speaking, to live honestly and sincerely in the world.
Those of us who don’t enjoy conflict come up with a bevy of rationalizations to avoid the difficult conversation we know deep down we ought to have. Maybe we’ll make it worse. We might hurt someone’s feelings. It might “change the relationship,” so to speak. Or we just don’t want someone to get angry with us.
We think the problem might just “go away” on its own. And sometimes it might. We should always do our best to think charitably of our brothers and sisters, to overlook offenses, and to forgive in our hearts when someone has unintentionally wronged us or hurt our feelings. But if an offense isn’t a minor, if we have been actually wronged (or someone else has), or if the situation at hand is part of our larger pattern of behavior, we must take Christ’s command in Matthew 18 seriously. “He’s the one who wronged me — he should take the initiative” makes a kind of sense, and yet Christ puts the burden on the offended to take the matter personally and privately to the offender.
But if Jesus’ command doesn’t seem to apply to your situation, or you wonder about why he might position the reconciliation this way, here are some reasons you should consider having that difficult conversation you’re avoiding, despite all the ways it could go wrong:
1. Bad reactions to truth are not your fault.
One reason we avoid awkward conversations is because we fear how someone might react. They may get defensive. They may get angry. They may respond with a kind of retribution. But assuming you bring up the matter in a humble, sensitive, and loving way, someone’s sinful response is not your fault. You aren’t responsible for someone else’s sin. What that person does with the issue at hand is their responsibility. Putting the issue in hand is yours.
2. Avoidance is fear of man and lack of confidence in God.
When we avoid necesary conflict — especially in areas of Christian leadership or in the relational matrix of the church — we are essentially saying with your (in)actions that God cannot be trusted with the situation. Truth becomes subject to fear. If this is a recurring struggle for you, I highly recommend Ed Welch’s book When People Are Big and God is Small. It was a big help to me, and I suspect many conflict-avoiders in ministry would be helped just as much as I was. In any event, avoiding the conversation you need to have is frequently a way of communicating to God (and often to others) that uneasy peace is our peace and not Christ himself. You can trust him with your truth-telling.
3. You may be helping the next guy.
Maybe the person will react poorly. But often this fear is overblown. I have discovered that many times what I feared would be the response was my own uncharitable projection speaking. Whether the person you are taking the offense to responds poorly or not, however, bringing the issue to their attention — especially if it is part of a repeating pattern of behavior, perhaps a contributing factor to a culture of offense or unhelpful leadership — is a way to love the next person who may be hurt by the other party’s attitude or actions. In this way, you may feel like you’re sacrificing yourself, but in the long run you could be saving someone else hurt feelings or hurt.
Many times when we lovingly confront someone about their offense, they have no idea they had hurt you. They didn’t mean to, they will say. If they are a maturing Christian, they will listen to you and hear you out. Perhaps a brother will be “gained.” I have shared concerns with folks that I thought would be to their benefit — not simply to my own in airing a grievance or finding a fault — and found them grateful to now be cognizant of something they weren’t aware was affecting others so negatively. With that awareness now, they resolved to be more vigilant about their treatment of others.
Even if they reply angirly, however, the Lord gives us recourse for next steps in Matthew 18. If it’s an inter-ecclesial relationship, it might be a matter of bringing in outside witnesses according to Christ’s instructions. In any case, you have followed the biblical course and are loving your neighbor with your following through — both the neighbor who offended you and the neighbors around you.
Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Spurgeon College, Director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of numerous books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, The Prodigal Church, The Imperfect Disciple, Supernatural Power for Everyday People, and The Gospel-Driven Church. A frequent preacher and speaker at churches and conferences, you can visit him online at jaredcwilson.com or follow him on Twitter.