For Christians who are experiencing conflict with each other, mediation doesn't just offer hope for a settlement. It can do more, offering a chance at authentic reconciliation.
"The problem with that idea is," I was once told by an experienced lawyer, "when people are mad enough to sue each other, they just ain't feelin' very Christian!"
Well, that's right. The process of Bible-based, Christian reconciliation is pretty strong stuff. Most likely, if you are in a dispute -- especially if you have been sued or are thinking of suing someone -- you ain't feeling very Christian right now. This is not a blog post for the ordinary person. It is only for a committed Believer. If you don't fall in that category, why should you want to even consider Christian conciliation? On the other hand, if you are a committed Believer, my question to you is, are you willing to try the Biblical way?
For the Christian Believer, the first step in Christian reconciliation -- your first decision -- is to investigate the concept of Christian reconciliation and what makes it different from other forms of conflict resolution. You are reading this. That's a big step. Thanks for being here! Now for the hard part ... the spiritual part.
The offer of hope for reconciliation doesn't mean that parties to a conflict are expected just act like nothing every happened. Acting like everything is okay, when it's not really, is to "fake peace" rather than "make peace". I'm afraid this is the sin I personally am most prone to.
When I was a young child growing up, Sunday School was a place for hats and white gloves. The appearance on Sunday morning was that everything was perfect: in order, perfectly coiffed, unruffled. In real life, Christianity where the tire meets the road is a bit more messy than this. In real life, there are days when one's hair is ruffled. Indeed, in real life there are days when one's friend commits suicide, when one's spouse is diagnosed with a terminal illness, when one's boss gives a pink slip, when the bill collector is calling and there is no way to pay the bill. So, nothing is perfect. It's only when we acknowledge that -- when we acknowledge our own brokenness or the brokenness of our relationship with another person -- that we can begin to take positive steps to address the causes of that brokenness and to heal it.
So, the first step is to acknowledge that things are not really okay.
There's another, important part of our requirement to acknowledge when things are not okay. We must be on the alert to whether we have done something that causes another person to not be okay: Our natural inclination is to be "on the lookout" for times when someone has wronged us. It's less natural, but just as important, for us to be aware of (and be sensitive to) ways in which we have offended others.
The second step is to do our part. If I have offended someone, it is my duty to make restitution. These are subjects for a different day.
What I want to write about today is actually the part that comes next: If I am the one who has been offended, the Bible commands me to forgive.
This is something I've personally struggled with. What does it mean to forgive? What if it seems impossible? What if the other person has not even acknowledged that they've done something wrong? What if they haven't even acknowledged that they need forgiveness? So, I'd like to dwell on this a bit.
Authentic reconciliation requires more than just "saying sorry" and then acting as if nothing ever happened. Nor does it mean that there are no consequences. We can't change the past, we can only change the future. I suggest that when a person seems focused on the past, it means they are not quite ready to move forward to forgiveness. Do you find yourself focusing mentally on wrongs from the past, on how evil someone was? Are you having trouble "letting bygones be bygones"?
What reconciliation means, is that we are offered an opportunity to change that path. We can't change the past, but we can deliberately change the shape of the way we move forward in the future. Changing this path, adopting the path of reconciliation, is not easy. But if we seize the opportunity for reconciliation, what we are seizing is an opportunity to move beyond the brokenness of a wounded world, to give and to experience forgiveness. If we address conflict at its emotional root, by giving and accepting redemption and reconciliation, then the wound can heal. This frees us to move on emotionally from a conflict. When we move on emotionally, we are then freed to experience genuine peace.
Imagine the experience of peace! Breathe deeply, sigh, let go of tension. Imagine a peace that passes all understanding. Imagine the restfulness of that. Does it sound too good to be true? That's the vision.
Perhaps all this "forgiveness" stuff sounds complicated and theoretical. How do we put it into action? What steps do we take to get there? How can we capture that vision and make it reality?
I suggest that the first step is to pray. Begin by praying about your conflict.
Prayer opens doors to new ways of perceiving conflict
Read scripture. Think on what it really means to "forgive ... as we have been forgiven". (Matt 6:12) Indeed, the entire possibility of reconciliation of one with another begins with God's ultimate gift to us of redemption and reconciliation with HIMSELF. Jesus provides the model of what to do in response to sin.
Wow, that's a tough one. The Bible doesn't say for us to forgive if the other side meets us halfway. Nope. It's pretty straightforward:
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus had done nothing wrong, yet he just stood there and took it. He was a man who, though blameless, willingly gave his life in order to reconcile God with Man. We in turn -- who have been forgiven so much -- have an obligation to extend that same, sacrificial level of forgiveness to others. As I said, this is a difficult thing to wrap our minds around. It's not only hard to read about and to understand on an intellectual level. It's even harder to apply in our own lives. Nevertheless, through reading and understanding the principles, we can begin to believe in the possibility of forgiveness. Now time for more prayer. Take time to plow deep furrows in the field of our own willingness to be changed.
Jesus as a model for how to respond to a wrong? The guy allowed himself to be crucified for a crime he didn't commit! Does this mean I have to be a martyr?!!
Step three is simply this: to give it time. For right now, the idea of forgiveness may seem to be an impossible fantasy. I think it's perfectly natural to feel as if a wrong is so evil that it can't be forgiven. The easiest case to visualize is those few-and-far-between cases where a parent forgives the person on death row who murdered their child.
Prayer invites the Holy Spirit to work miracles
"How," we ask, "could a parent actually forgive the person who murdered their child?" It is only through a miraculous act of Grace. And moreover, it is not my place to judge you for what you can or cannot forgive. Who could judge someone if they feel they could not forgive their child's murderer? I surely will not cast the first stone on that one! All I can say is, the teachings of the Bible say what they say, and there is nothing easy about them. If we are able to forgive, surely it is through the miraculous workings of God's grace. So, that's why I say the first step is prayer. And the second step is prayer. And prayerful reading of scripture. At least, that's the way it is with me.
In terms of pursuing the activity of mediation, there's also the issue of, what if the other person is not willing to even talk or consider a mediation? I recently was reading a statistic that of every ten cases referred to mediation, only five people are interested in mediating. The other five just want to proceed to a lawsuit. And then, of those five cases where the person is interested, only about 20% of the time is the other party also willing to mediate. What does it take to bring the other side to the table? Well, that is a discussion for another day. The key for discussion here, today, is whether I have a duty to "go it alone" on this forgiveness thing even if the other side won't even come to the table. And also, what exactly does that mean? How can I forgive something if the other side doesn't even acknowledge he's done something wrong?
I don't have the answers. All I can say is that, one can have great faith, even in the face of grave doubt. If you have doubt, you are also in good company. One man who doubted, spoke candidly to Jesus about his doubt. The man had approached Jesus and asked him to heal his son. But he didn't say it just that way. Instead, what the man said to Jesus was put this way: please heal my child "if you [Jesus] can".
Jesus exclaimed to him, "If you can!?" I can almost hear the outrage in his voice. Jesus doesn't seem to have much patience for this man's doubt. But he answered the man, "Everything is possible for him who believes!"
The man replied, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:23-24)
Prayer opens doors to possibility
When we have doubt, the next step on the journey is to pray for God to help us overcoming our unbelief. Perhaps, with God's help, forgiveness might be possible.
Over time, with God helping our unbelief, we may find ourselves beginning to imagine a world where forgiveness might be possible not just in theory, somewhere else, but in this case. Here. Now. Me.
How to pray about this?
Well, first look at this picture, then put it aside and read on. This is an exercise and I'll come back to the picture after "talking" some more:
“Forgiveness is the final form of love.”
Prayer enables us to imagine a better future
In your prayer journey, be imaginative. Imagine what a world would look like, and feel like, in which you have forgiven. Imagine a world in which you have peace, individually, whether or not the other person does. Imagine a world where your children were free to be friends with the children of the person who had wronged you -- a world where even the kernel of bitterness was gone. Is that a nice thought? Perhaps it would take a miracle. Imagine that miraculous grace.
Now, suppose the person who wronged you is willing to talk. If you are preparing for a mediation, ask yourself, "What exactly would it take for me to be open to the idea of forgiving this person? What do I need to hear from this person -- or see them do -- that would remove obstacles to my forgiving them?" Sometimes, it will be impossible to come to terms with another person. But it sure makes forgiving easier when the other person meets us halfway. Or maybe even all the way. Gee, in my own life, sometimes even a baby step is a help.
This is where the mediator can play a role. The mediator can discuss issues with each person, together, separately, and can literally be a "go between" when things are just too hard to talk about. The mediator can also provide some feedback, assessment, and other tools that just might shake the tree enough to help parties get beyond entrenched positions. (See for example, Breaking Impasse in Mediation, HERE .)
Bear in mind also, that this process -- discussion, communication, forgiveness -- does not mean either party is expected to become buddy buddy or to just kiss and make up and act as if there has never been a grievance. Sometimes there are consequences of actions that cannot be undone.
The mediator's role is to help parties reach a peace, a place where they feel right with each other and with God. A place where the party can pray, honestly, "Forgive me my many debts, Lord, in the same manner as I have also forgiven the one who owes me." What that means is a matter between the parties and God.
On our own, this type of forgiveness might seem impossible. But it is something God asks us to do, and therefore, it is not impossible. As Christians we walk by faith and not by sight. No matter who we are, or what we have done, or what may have been done to us, there is a path to forgiveness. It may not be easy, but with time and prayer we can find it.
Prayer illuminates the steps on the path to peace
It's also a path that goes two ways, back and forth. In our prayer journey, each of us needs to also ask ourselves, "What do I need to ask this person to forgive me for?" The path to peace involves not only bestowing forgiveness, but also acceptance of and appreciation of the gracious act of being forgiven. Sorry, but it's a Biblical mandate: "Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." (James 5:16). Rarely is hurt purely one sided.
Prayer heals wounds
Life wounds us. We need healing. Failure to forgive results in bitterness. Bitterness festers. It's as if a knife remained embedded in the wound. No matter how many bandages we put on the wound, the wound will not heal until the knife of unforgiveness and bitterness has been removed. Unfortunately, I'm afraid, many of us know people who have lived their lives this way. Bitterness eats at them like a cancer and robs their days of joy.
Luke 17:3-4 says, "Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him."
This requirement of forgiveness prohibits us from holding grudges; it prohibits us from even having bad feelings toward our fellows. Matthew 5:21-24 says:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Our society also seems to put great weight on the principle of "righteous indignation". Sorry, but there's no such thing. Romans 3:10 says, "There is no one righteous, no, not one." This cuts both ways. It reinforces that your feelings are normal. None of us are perfect. As we also know from Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God. Yet also, this passages reminds us that there is no such thing as "righteous indignation". We are all under an active obligation to forgive, as we have been forgiven.
Prayer reminds us to have compassion
Still got indignation? Pray about it. If you're having trouble letting go of a wrong that someone has done to you, I suggest that over a period of time, you meditate for a few minutes per day over the following story, and how it might be applied in your own life:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
As this passage shows, what's really at stake is our reconciliation with God. We are given a commandment to forgive "as" we forgive others. This is incredibly difficult. But ultimately, it also holds out the promise that we can achieve an authentic peace not just with each other, but with God.
This brings me back to the picture I included above. This is a famous drawing designed to illustrate the concept of "gestalt". When we see it for the first time, we only see a group of random dots. Over time, however, the picture changes. Our mind brings order to the dots and we see a scene of something else. This is similar to what I am suggesting prayer can do. Applied over time, using scripture as a reference, prayer can actually change us in miraculous ways. We begin to see things in ways we never would have thought possible. We become able to do things we perhaps never would have thought possible. We may even be able to relate to another person in a way that ... previously we never would have thought possible. Perhaps, miraculously, we become able to forgive.
I conclude with Colossians 3:12-17:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Peace to you!