Conflict, Forgiveness, and Speaking the Truth in Love

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right.

And sometimes I want others to know that I think I am right.

And sometimes it doesn’t matter whether I am wrong or right.

Because when it comes to a disagreement or conflict, there’s more at stake than whether one is wrong or right. There is also the relationship between the people who disagree. There is the effect their disagreement has on others. Conflict between two parties can often have a powerful gravitational pull that draws others into its orbit.

That, and conflicts consist of a great deal more than reasons and arguments and opinions. Being the whole creatures that we are, emotions play a huge role in disagreements too. While someone once said, and I think it’s true, that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” the opposite is also true in personal conflict. Feelings also don’t care about your facts. It’s not always what we say but how we say it. And even whether we choose to say it now or later or at all. Maybe some things don’t need to be said.

But even when something has to be said, we need to take much more into consideration than our reasons for believing we’re right and the other person is wrong. How will our words land when we say them? Are we saying them just to prove a point? And if we’re all worked up over the issue, are we speaking simply to vent and express our emotions?

Ephesians 4:15 tells us that followers of Jesus ought to be people who practice speaking the truth in love. Practice, indeed. Because I can do neither of these things perfectly. I don’t have exclusive rights to the truth. Others have their perspective on the issue causing conflict. Nor am I capable of speaking anything true in a 100% loving way. Pride and self-centredness infiltrate every word I try to speak in love.

Paul’s words, though, at the very least make one thing clear. Always avoiding conflict to preserve relationships and to keep the peace isn’t the answer either. I grew up with that idea, however. I know what it’s like to be in an environment where people swept hard feelings under the living room rug. It could make for an uncomfortable situation where I was made to feel like I was in the wrong simply for disagreeing or being critical. I learned to avoid conflict, to push emotions away, and even as an adult I can find it very hard to have difficult conversations. Confrontations are not my favourite thing. On the flight or fight spectrum, I am on the far end of the flight side. That’s not always a good thing.

Yet I also understand. I get why people don’t want to face conflict. Words can wound. Even when that’s not our intention. We don’t always mean to say hurtful things. Funny that as kids we were taught to say “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, let’s call that what it is: a lie.

Even Scripture knows this is a lie. In James 3:5–6 it says How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. Later in verses 9–10 it says this of the tongue: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. James is speaking to Christians here, not non-Christians. Believers do this sometimes.

Conflicts and disagreements are not centrally about issues but about people. And people–you and me–are messy. Sometimes we want our way. Sometimes we argue out of spite or out of a sense of self-righteousness. We want to be right, believe ourselves to be right, and we want the other person to accept that we’re right. And sometimes when someone speaks hard words to us–even if we know those words are true–we don’t want to admit it. We dig in our heels. Our defenses go up. Maybe we say things we regret. In the worst of conflicts, bridges are burned and relationships rent asunder. When this happens, who cares if we’re right? Not if we end up hurting and being hurt. Not if homes end up broken and churches end up split. No one wins when this happens.

What answers do I have? Can I pass on 3 easy steps to prevent disagreements and confrontations? You know, to make sure we never get ourselves into such a mess?

Unfortunately, no. I think we will often get these things at least a little wrong. Indeed, sometimes we handle them very poorly.

And when this happens, as it inevitably will, what will we do? Paul, in Colossians 3:13 says that disciples of Jesus ought to make a habit of forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. True, we could spend hours talking about forgiveness, what it means, and how to practice it in the church and in our lives.

But in the context of conflict, I think it can mean that even if we’re right, we might have to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness for how we handled a conversation. Forgiveness for the way we tried to get our point across. Forgiveness for ignoring how someone else feels.

We all need to give and receive forgiveness for how we use our words and for how we misunderstand the words of others.

If we’re Christians, we don’t really have a choice. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven–not just by other sinful people, but by God himself. To live into the forgiveness we have received through our Lord, we need to become forgiving people.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12), Jesus teaches us to pray these words:

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Is Jesus making our forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others? Perhaps see it this way. If we refuse to forgive, do we really understand what it means that Jesus forgives us of our sins? If we have received forgiveness from Jesus, won’t we become the sort of people who are willing to extend forgiveness to others who hurt us? Didn’t we hurt Jesus with our sin profoundly more than anyone has ever hurt us?

How good is Jesus to give us such words to pray? Don’t we all need them as a regular reminder?

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right. But whichever is the case, a conflict is not primarily about winning the argument but winning the relationship. When we speak the truth, we ought to do so in love. And when we or someone else fails to do one or the other, forgiveness ought to follow close behind.

Lord, have mercy.

Douglas Murray and the Need for Forgiveness in a Culture Where It Seems Impossible

I’ve been reading Douglas Murray’s excellent book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. Before the final section of the book, he has an interlude with the title, “On Forgiveness.” Given what some call the “Cancel Culture,” which seeks to punish people interminably for real or perceived misdeeds or mistakes, his words are particularly striking and even convicting. And this from a thinker who is ostensibly not religious. Is he not right that perhaps learning to forgive is the only way out of our present cultural morass? Alas, while I appreciate his words, as a Christian it is difficult for me to see both a motivation, basis, or power for forgiveness apart from the reconciling work of the cross and the power of the good news. Yet maybe someone like Murray can at least draw our attention to the matter at hand. He’s raising some important questions here while offering interesting historical analysis. This is how he puts it:

The consensus for centuries was that only God could forgive the ultimate sins. But on a day to-day level the Christian tradition, among others, also stressed the desirability–if not the necessity–of forgiveness. Even to the point of infinite forgiveness. As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered. Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity

My Resurrection Sunday Message

This morning during our Easter service, I shared the reflection below by Karl Vaters. I then shared some reflections of my own.

“The Gospel Of Failure (A Good Friday Reflection)” By Karl Vaters / April 1, 2021:

“The gospel was built on failure.

The good news started as very bad news.

It was never supposed to work. For a long time it looked like it never would.

It started with a young, pregnant, single girl in a backwater town too small to be mentioned in most ancient records.

She gave birth in a barn far away from home.

The most powerful man in the country tried to kill her baby.

Her people, the Jews, were ruled by an empire of such stunning strength and ferocity that a local governor could (and did) execute thousands on a whim.

They had

• no idols

• no monuments

• no army

• no right to try their own capital cases

• no power

Just a book – which told them about a deliverer.

But even that hope was fading.

Into this hopeless setting came yet another traveling preacher.

He spoke like a revolutionary. But he had no home and minimal, if any, formal education outside his local synagogue.

Yet he astonished his listeners with his intellect and wisdom from a very early age.

He had the wrong kinds of friends from the wrong sorts of places, including the women he relied on for much of his financial support (Luke 8:1-3).

Not only did Jesus’ own religious establishment not support him, they openly despised and opposed him.

His most reliable followers were so unruly that he had to break up a fight almost every time he came into their presence, then scold them for lack of faith.

They were so poor they had no money to pay their taxes.

The disciples never understood what their leader was trying to do.

His own brothers didn’t believe in him.

His enemies hated each other. But they hated Jesus so much more that they joined forces to kill him.

One of his closest followers sold him for a small bag of coins – silver, not even gold.

When he needed them the most, his friends fell asleep.

When they woke up, most of them ran for the hills.

One of the few who stayed nearby swore he’d never met him. Three times.

His trial was a farce, but his torture was real.

On the cross, he hung naked and bleeding. His flesh hung in strips from his barely-recognizable body.

As he died, Jesus didn’t just feel forsaken by God, he actually was forsaken by God.

Jesus’ life, ministry and message looked like a failure.

Until the resurrection.

That changed everything.

For you. For me. For everyone.

Forever.”

I love Karl Vaters’ reflection. The resurrection changed everything.

What about you this morning? What does Jesus’ resurrection change for you?

Are you trying to live on your own terms?

Are you resisting God’s call on your life?

Are you letting fear and worry control you?

Are you hiding from your need for forgiveness?

Are you trapped in feelings of guilt, failure, or shame?

Are you stuck in past hurts and mistakes?

What do you think God sees when he looks at you?

What do you think God wants for you?

And how does Jesus’ resurrection help us answer these questions?

What does the empty tomb mean for you and me now?

Most importantly: Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

Let me put it this way.

Roughly 2,000 years ago a dead man walked out of a tomb.

And not just any man—a man who claimed to be God in the flesh.

And because he did, we can have hope.

Because he did, we can know we’re never alone.

Because he did, our wounds can be healed.

Because he did, this life doesn’t have to bear the weight of all our dreams.

Because he did, there is more to life—to being alive—than we can ever see.

Because he did, we don’t have to invent meaning and purpose for ourselves.

Because he did, our sins can be forgiven.

Because he did, our failures don’t have to end us.

Because he did, we can have a joy this world can never provide.

Because he did, we can have peace—with ourselves, with one another, and, most importantly, with God.

Because he did, we can have everlasting life. This is never all there is.

This day—Easter Sunday—we celebrate all of this. This day we celebrate that everyone can have hope.

Do you still need to put your hope in Jesus?

Do you need to have your hope in him strengthened and renewed?

Do you still need to confess Jesus as the risen Lord?

The question is: are you willing and ready to receive the life, the hope, and peace he is waiting to give?

Because he is alive. He is here. And he can give you peace in the present and hope for the future.

God Forgives

God’s forgiveness means this: nothing we do can make him love us less or love us more. His forgiveness is not based on who we are but on who he is.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his faithful love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.

Psalm 103:11-14

Here’s a prayer for the assurance of forgiveness from The Book of Common Prayer. As it happens, it’s a prayer God always answers.

“Grant to your faithful people, merciful Lord, pardon and peace; that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

A Prayer of Confession

In a day when too many avoid personal responsibility for their actions and blame external factors, other people, and institutional systems for their wrongs, prayers like the one below remind us that each of us is a sinner. If I do something wrong—something sinful—I am to blame. I am culpable.

Too often we behave like Adam and Eve in the garden, passing the blame for our misdeeds onto someone or something else.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, reminding us that Jesus was crucified for our iniquities. He bore the consequences for all of us.

So may we each, seeing him suffering and dying on the cross, have our eyes opened to our need for forgiveness—not only because we have wronged one another but God himself. And may our hearts be kindled by the realization that he took the penalty owed to us, freeing us from condemnation and for life everlasting.

Here’s a prayer that reflects this reality:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.”