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If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt 18:15-17).
“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you (Luke 17:3-6).
You probably know these passages pretty well. You’ve probably read them several times, and know that they—particularly the version from Matthew—are generally seen as a model for dealing with interpersonal trouble.
The problem is that it’s so easy to forget step one.
Myself, I’ve forgotten it many times. It was because I realized I’ve been forgetting it a lot that I realized I should probably write about it today.
In our culture, even in church culture, you often say, “This person wronged me. I’m ready to forgive; they just need to come to me.” It is the onus of the one who did wrong to bring peace by coming to the person they wronged, confessing their wrong, and asking forgiveness.
You have heard it said you must forgive when a person comes to you for forgiveness, but Jesus said to you: go to the one who wronged you and confront them about their sin.
I think it’s very easy to say, “I’m willing to forgive if they’ll just ask.” You feel it gives you the moral high ground—after all, they wronged you, and you are willing to forgive, right? And after all, didn’t Jesus tell you to forgive?
Yes. Yes, he did. But he also told you to seek out the one who wronged you and talk to them about it. You must forgive, but you can’t leave the process solely in their hands.
Like all things in a relationship, forgiveness takes two people. Both people have the whole of the responsibility; it’s not divided neatly in halves.
And it’s awkward, isn’t it, rebuking someone for the wrong they’ve done you? Which is why, I think, you forget Jesus’ command so easily: in our society, it’s almost socially inappropriate to confront someone over something they did wrong. We have this perspective that a person who does that is some egomaniac, calling out everything that offends them.
Well, there’s a couple things there.
First, I’d say that whether it’s socially appropriate or not, it’s what Jesus commanded you to do. And how did the disciples respond to Jesus’ teaching on this? “Increase our faith!” This is absolutely a step of faith.
Second, you can rebuke someone without being a jerk about it. I’ve gone over this before a year or two ago, but it’s worth mentioning again: there is a right way and a wrong way to confront someone about wronging you.
“Hey, jerkface! Why were you a jerk to me? What’s wrong with you?” This puts people on the defensive from the very beginning.
“Hey, why did you do ____ to me?” This is better than name-calling, but it still actually puts people on the defensive. It’s an accusation: “you did ____.”
So why not start with how it impacted you? This is called an “I statement,” and it’s great for de-escalating a confrontation:
“Hey, I was hurt when you said _____.” The emphasis isn’t on the fact that they did something wrong, but that damage has been done to your relationship. It lets them know that you’re not looking for moral high ground, trying to make yourself out to be better than them, but that you’re looking for friendship.
And be specific when you say this. Try to match their words as closely as possible, or accurately describe their action. Try not to just summarize, because that can come off as an accusation.
Let’s say someone said that you look like a Chihuahua, for example. What do you say to them? “I was hurt when you said that I look like a Chihuahua,” rather than “I was hurt when you called me ugly.” They may not have even meant that you are ugly—some people think Chihuahuas are cute, or maybe they were saying you look mischievous or full of energy or something.
One of those was a statement of fact (“You said that I look like a Chihuahua”), the other was your interpretation (“You called me ugly”).
And it’s important to keep in mind that they may not have meant their words or actions in the way that you received them. There have been plenty of times that I’ve gone to someone like this and they didn’t even realize that I was hurt, because that wasn’t at all what they’d intended.
But if you go in accusing them of malice, their first reaction is going to be to defend themselves. You’re coming in on the offense, so they immediately go to defense. You’ve created the conditions where you are automatically opposing each other, and that’s not an environment for the restoration of relationship.
Don’t wait for someone who’s wronged you to come to you and ask forgiveness. It’s not enough to say you’re willing to forgive if you aren’t willing to go to them about it. You both have full responsibility for your relationship. They may not even know that they hurt you, so how would they come to you?
Be active in forgiveness!