Reconciling With Those You've HurtErwin W. Lutzer | May 18, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Reconciliation should be our highest priority. First and foremost, we must be reconciled to God. Because believers are members in God’s family and because God is a reconciling God, we need to be interested in reconciliation as well.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer gives us reasons why sometimes reconciliation may not be possible. Then he gives us the first three of seven principles for reconciliation. The second set of principles is in the message: When Others Won’t Forgive You.
Let me begin today with a question: Why should we bother to connect with other people? Why should we bother with trying to be reconciled with people whom we have hurt or people who have hurt us? Isn’t it enough to have a wonderful relationship with God? Why should we bother with the messy relationships that sometimes develop with people who are so, so imperfect? Why bother?
Let me begin today by giving you three reasons why we should be reconciled to the people of God, and why reconciliation should be our highest priority. First of all, it’s because we belong to a reconciling God. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, the Scripture says. And because God is interested in reconciliation, we should be interested in reconciliation. It is sin that divides, and it is grace that always unites. And the closer we are to God, the closer we want to become to the people of God. In fact, whenever there’s a great work of the Holy Spirit of God in the life of an individual or a church, one of the sure proofs of that work is a desire to get close to others, to lay down long-standing bitterness, and to be reconciled and to be brought together under the foot of the cross.
There’s a second reason. When we’re talking about believers, we’re speaking about those who are members of the same family. Jesus said to Mary, “I ascend to my father and to your father, and to your God and my God.” That means that we’re all brothers and sisters. It’s one thing to have a dispute, you know, with people who are outside the family that can’t be reconciled. But how serious it is to have unresolved disputes within the family, God as our father, brothers and sisters but we can’t put it away and be reconciled.
There’s a third reason and that is to clear our own conscience. The Apostle Paul says in Acts 24:16, “I strive to keep my conscience clear before God and before men.” And you and I should be able to look every person in the world in the eye, and we should be able to say that we’ve done whatever we could to be reconciled. Now, sometimes reconciliation is impossible, and I’m going to give you some reasons why reconciliation is impossible. And then we’re going to be answering a whole host of questions about this business of forgiveness and reconciliation.
As you know, this is a series of messages titled After You’ve Blown It – Reconnecting with God and Others. And we’ve had four messages on the topic of reconnecting with God and what that means. And now we’re going to have two messages on reconnecting with others. And you’ll notice that I have seven principles that we’re going to be getting to, of reconciliation and connecting. But I want to tell you today that we’re not going to get through all of them.
As I was working through this message it dawned on me that this is really two messages because we want to go slowly. I’m going to be giving many different examples of practical wisdom hopefully on this business of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as a result of that, I hope that your own life is changed. And so these are very sensitive issues that we’re going to be dealing with. And because they are so sensitive, for some of you, reconciliation is going to cost you so much, we can’t be in a hurry. So this message is going to go for a reasonable time, and then we’re going to stop, and then we’re going to pick it up next time.
I was speaking at a graduation service yesterday and as a gift they gave me a clock. And I thought to myself, “Maybe there’s a message here that I’m supposed to get.” And so you’ll notice that I don’t have my clock, but I do have my wrist watch up here, and it’s my responsibility to speak. It’s your responsibility to listen. And as I told you, I hope to God we end at the same time. (laughter)
Why is it that reconciliation sometimes is impossible? Let me give you some reasons. Number one, it’s because we deny our sin. We deny it! Eighty percent of all abusers, when confronted with the abuse that they did to their children or to others, deny it. Sometimes it may be because of repressed memories. Sometimes the accusation may be false because possibly the child has a bad memory or a warped memory, or even an untrue one. Those get into some very complicated matters. But the simple fact is that there are people who have been abusers, who have been evil who, when confronted with the evil, deny it and take that denial to their grave. In a case like that, all that you can do really is to simply say, “I’m convinced that you did this, and I leave this with you and with God.” But there can be no reconciliation unless there is an acknowledgement of wrong doing. That’s one reason.
Let me give you a second reason why reconciliation sometimes is not possible, and that is that not only do we deny our sin, but oftentimes we minimize it. True story! I’m at an airport, and sitting there in the lounge at a gate waiting, and I like to strike up conversations with people and I begin to talk to this woman who tells me her story. A Christian woman, married for 30 years to a childhood sweetheart! She thought that they had a model family. In fact, she said, “We were a Focus on the Family kind of family.” Because her husband was interested in ministry she actually worked to put him through both Bible school and seminary. And he pastored several small churches.
It turns out that even though they had four children and seemed to be getting along quite well, he was not only a womanizer, but actually had also been guilty as a pedophile. Suddenly, because the sock comes unraveled, so to speak, she confronts him. When he can no longer deny it, he finally admits to it and says, “Okay, so I did this. Now you, as a good Christian wife, have to forgive me. And furthermore, not only do you have to forgive me, but if I do it again, you have to forgive me again (Seventy times seven, said Jesus) and you can never bring up my past once it is forgiven.
This woman told me that she was naïve enough to believe that the relationship might work so she forgave him until it happened again and again. She told me she had no idea of how deep these roots of sin actually were. And then he added these words, and this is very important. He said, “Not only do you have to forgive me but,” he said, “if you do not forgive me each time and receive me back, I fear for your soul before God.”
Now hang onto that phrase, because that is characteristic of abusers. Abusers will always say, “It is really your fault. You’re the one who has to fear God, not me.” And when they become really evil… You’ve heard me say this before but it is so crucial here, understanding the nature of evil. The truly evil person does not see the evil that is within him. He sees the evil that is within him as residing in others. And he honestly does not see the evil that is within his own heart. And so he says, “I fear for your soul if you don’t forgive and reconcile.”
Well, we’re going to be talking about issues such as that in this message, and in the next message to follow. But I need to stop here and say that this message is not just for those of you who have been wronged, because some of you are saying, “You know, I can identify with that.” Some of you women, God bless you, may be saying, “That’s something like my husband was.” But I want to also identify those of you who are the abusers, those of you who are the manipulators, those of you who are doing the wrong, those of you who are pushing upon other people your sinful agenda without your repentance. I’m speaking to you too. Do you see why this is a hard message? And it’s not going to get any easier as it goes on. Oh, by the way, regarding this man, when his pastor said he needs therapy, his response was, “Not me. That’s for people who are sick.” Alright!
A third reason why sometimes reconciliation is impossible is because the parties cannot agree on the facts. Here’s a Christian man who does printing, and so he’s asked by another Christian to do this printing, and they agree on a certain price, but there’s a cost over-run because of some specialties that weren’t taken into account, and so one man expects the other to pay, and the other says, “I didn’t agree to pay that price. I agreed to pay this price.” And on and on it goes. And they refuse to be able to see what happened in the life of the other person. They refuse to stand in the other person’s shoes, and see it from his viewpoint. And when you hear their stories independently, you’re absolutely convinced that each person is absolutely right.
And I’ve heard stories where I say, “Wow!” You hear both sides and you begin to wonder. You know that in cases like that, the only way reconciliation can be really brought about is with a mediator, somebody who can listen to both sides of the story and then make a judgment, because what happens is these people are oftentimes so deeply entrenched in their own viewpoint, and oftentimes feelings of hostility and betrayal are so deep that they can’t even see the facts any more. And that’s why reconciliation is so important. And reconcilers are so important to the Body of Jesus Christ.
There’s another reason, and that is it is sometimes said that there are some crimes that are so serious that they should never be forgiven, nor should reconciliation ever be attempted. In Dostoyevsky’s book Brothers Karamazov, there’s a story of a little boy who was throwing some stones at some dogs, and the owner, in order to teach the villagers a lesson, forced the boy’s mother to watch as he turned his big dogs on the little boy, and they tore him to shreds. Can that woman ever even think of forgiveness and reconciliation? Possibly forgiveness! Hopefully forgiveness, as we shall see later, but reconciliation? I doubt it!
Now what I’d like to do is to begin today giving you these seven principles, and there’s no one passage in all the Scripture where you find all seven together. That would be very nice. The main passage is in the book of Colossians. It talks about forgiving one another and so forth. But what I’ve done in giving you these seven principles, some of which we’ll cover today, and the others [that we shall continue on] in the next message in this series, is to simply give various passages. And then, as I mentioned, I shall give some very specific concrete examples to help you to understand how I think these principles are to be applied, because the Bible doesn’t cover every specific. It gives us the principle, and then wisdom must come along, and I trust under God that what I’m saying to you is wise.
I ran this message past Pastor Worley. I actually let him read some things I had written because I wanted his input. I want to be a wise man when it comes to these difficult issues, and so what we’re going to do is look at the Scripture, look at the principles, and then ask this question: What do you have to do, what do I have to do to be wholly right before God and man? What a question, and how desperately we need the answer.
Principle number one: We must confess our failures to those we have wronged. For that you can turn to Matthew 18, the very famous passage that Jesus gives us on the topic of forgiveness. Matthew 18:15 says: “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.” But if he will not listen, then you get other people involved. In this instance Jesus is talking about the offended person going to the person who has done the offending. And he’s saying reconciliation has to happen, but of course, Jesus would also teach that reconciliation must come the other way. If you know that you have offended someone, if you know that there is someone who is out of sorts with you, it is your responsibility to go and to seek reconciliation because God is interested in reconciliation. In fact, in this context Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst.” We sometimes use that passage in prayer meeting. We say, “Well, you know we only have a prayer meeting with two or three, but thank God that where two or three are gathered together, Jesus is there.” Well listen. Jesus is talking about the context of reconciliation where two or three are gathered together. He said, “I am there to effect and to bring about the reconciliation.”
Now let’s suppose that there is an offense between you and someone else. And let us suppose that their responsibility in the offense is 80%, whereas yours is only at the very most 20%. That’s the way it usually comes out when you do counseling. “Yeah, well you know maybe, but…” (chuckles) Alright, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. What you and I must do if we think that our offense is 20% and somebody else’s is 80%, we cannot trivialize our 20%. We must consider, when we are asking for forgiveness, our 20% as really the 100%. We’re responsible for our part in the offense. And therefore we go to people with humility and we ask them for forgiveness. And we don’t go there hoping then that they will confess their 80%. We know that they might because oftentimes the bridge is set up through our own asking for forgiveness. It is then a bridge that they can cross over as well, but we leave them in the presence of God. What we are interested in is our fault and our responsibility, and we leave them to God.
And when we go we don’t say, “Now, if I’ve done something wrong…” What do you mean if? If you know that you’ve done something wrong, then don’t say if. “If” is an attempt to water things down and say, “Well, you know, maybe I did something wrong and maybe I didn’t, but if I did….” Listen, if you know it and God knows it, and the other person knows it, then don’t go with your “if’s.” You say to them, “Because I have wronged you, I seek your forgiveness.”
Now here it gets tricky. What the other person might say is, “Well, it wasn’t really that big a deal.” Don’t you dare be satisfied with that, and I’ll tell you why. What they want to do is to keep the teeter totter balanced. You see, what they want to say is, “You know, if I actually forgive this person, if I say, ‘I forgive you,’ then the weight and the responsibility is now with me, and the teeter totter is no longer in balance, but all the weight now comes on my side, and now suddenly I become responsible for my responses. And I would much prefer if I could just continue to fester this hatred and this dislike for this person. And if I forgive him, God knows what’s going to happen. It’s all going to fall on me, so I prefer to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t that big a deal.’”
Then what you say, with a smile on your face, of course is (All of this is happening with smiles.), “You know, I’d just find it so wonderful if you could find it in your heart to forgive me, and I’d love to hear you say those words, ‘I forgive you for X, Y and Z.’”
Now if the person isn’t ready and says, “I can’t forgive,” then you simply say, “When you’re ready, then come and tell me.” But reconciliation with you is a very, very high priority within the church. And the more powerful the Holy Spirit of God works, the more powerful people overcome all kinds of barriers and bitterness, and long-standing family feuds and arguments and who was right and who said what. And it’s all laid down because Jesus forgave us, and therefore we are quick to forgive, forgiving one another even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. We seek reconciliation through forgiveness. That’s the first principle.
The second principle is that our confession must be as broad as the offense. Look at what it says again… I’m reading again Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” At this point there is no use bringing others in. If it is a personal feud and a personal offense, then what happens is you go to the people who are involved and at that point it doesn’t have to go beyond that. Later on some member of the church may get involved, as Jesus said, if there cannot be reconciliation, but you don’t begin at that point. You go to the person whom you’ve wronged, and you ask their forgiveness and you receive their forgiveness.
Now, of course, there are all kinds of complicated situations. Anyone who has done any counseling knows that immediately this question is asked. What about a man who may have an affair, or a woman who may have an affair? What do we do then? A couple of months ago I told you that after a worship time in Minneapolis, two or three hundred men came forward when an invitation was given for all those who were involved in adulterous relationships that needed to make something right. And it dawned on me that that’s just like men because men are oftentimes the aggressors. And then in my more sober moments, it also dawned on me that meant that there were two or three hundred women also involved in this.
What happens then? To whom does this man have to confess now? He confesses to the person with whom he had the relationship most assuredly because there has been wrong there, but he has also wronged his wife because of the delicate nature of the marriage relationship. And yes, in order to have reconciliation in that home, in order for that to take place, there must also be reconciliation with the spouse who has been wronged. And I suggest to you today that if you are in that category that you talk to one of the pastors who can help you, and maybe meet with a pastor as they guide you through the process, because that can be a very difficult process. But at the end of the day, our desire is that our conscience be cleared because if not, what we will discover is that something will always be in the way when we really want to walk with God.
You say, “Well, do we have to confess long-standing sins?” Well, that depends. There are some things, of course, that after a period of years might be less relevant. But have you ever noticed this? How long does it take you to forget someone who lied to you? Can you forget that in about a month? Huh? What about a year? Ten years! Do you still remember it? Or do you remember their birthday much better than the fact that they lied to you?
How long does it take you to forget someone who cheated you out of $5,000 and they cheated you out of money? How long does it take you to forget that? Is that something that you forget about, and lo and behold, you meet them six months later and it doesn’t even come to mind. It doesn’t even cross your pure mind that they cheated you out of $5,000.
I’m glad that some of you are smiling. I’ll tell you, we remember offenses much better than we do blessings. And that’s why offenses sometimes are such a huge stumbling block, because there are people who have had offenses in their life for ten years, for twenty years, for thirty years, and they keep harboring it and they keep nurturing it, and they keep reminding themselves and God of it. I read a quote the other day that just happens to come to mind right here. And that is you really know that you’ve remade God in your own image when He ends up hating the same people that you do. (chuckles)
Someone came to me and said, “What about lying under oath?” This person lied under oath 25 years ago, and now they want to be fully right with God and with man. In a case like that, the issues may no longer be relevant. Perhaps confessing that to a pastor or to someone else and seeking resolution may be possible. As I am saying here, it is a matter of judgment that goes into this. I think it’s so important to realize that there are times when you’ve done things in the past maybe where you should not seek forgiveness. For example, a man came to me and said, “I really wronged a young woman when I was in college.” And he said, “This is upon my conscience, but she is now married to someone else and has children.” Does he go to her in the midst of her marriage and try to drag up the past, and to say, “Look at what happened in the past, and will you forgive me?” Probably not! Probably not!
There are some things that can be forgiven by God, and then forgiven by others who know about it, who absolve you on a human level. We do not have the ability, of course, as counselors and pastors to forgive sins. I don’t mean that. But sometimes people need to be affirmed in the fact that they are forgiven. I encourage you to seek God at this point with all of your heart and to ask Him this simple question: What do I have to do to be fully right with God and with others?
There is a third principle and now it begins to hurt. Are you still all with me? God bless you. Every once in a while you know I feel a little lonely up here. I could use an Amen, you know, if you’re with me. (sighs) All of this was prologue. Do you want to really keep going here? (applause) You do? Praise God! (applause)
When necessary reconciliation necessitates restitution. You know the Bible has a whole theology of restitution if you look at the Old Testament. It was always assumed that reconciliation involved restitution if it was possible.
Remember the story of Zacchaeus? Jesus comes to Zacchaeus, and he was a chief tax collector, and he was wealthy, and he wanted to see who Jesus was. And he says, “Jesus, come to my house.” We used to have a little chorus we sang in Sunday school – come to my house for tea. I guess the chorus was made up by someone in Britain – coming to the house for tea. But it says in verse 8 that Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor (And now remember he’s a tax collector, and these folks were not always examples of honesty) and if I have cheated anybody out of anything I will pay back four times the amount.” Wow! I think God would be satisfied with the amount, but he says “four times the amount if I cheated anybody.” Can you imagine how much salvation, restoration cost Zacchaeus? In the very next verse Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Wow!
I have a friend who went into the garage to pray. I’ve prayed in the garage many times. When I was growing up I used to sometimes go into the garage to pray. And he was praying, and this time he really wanted to pray (Do you ever have a desire to say, “Boy, I really want to get through to God on this?”) because his daughter was getting married and he wasn’t sure that she was marrying exactly the man that the parents would have chosen. And he really wanted to connect with God. He gets down on his knees to pray, and God seems to say to him, “Henry, don’t bother.” Wow!
Why would God not want someone to bother to pray? Fifteen years earlier in college he cheated. And actually the cheating wasn’t that big a deal. The professor in one class said, “I want you to do new work in this course.” He said, “I don’t want you to use research that you’ve used in some other course.” But he was in a hurry. Is there a college student who is not in a hurry? Is there a college student who is not poor – and in a hurry? And so what he did was he took one paper that he had used in another class and he submitted it to the other class. He got an A, and he was honored when he graduated because of his distinction and his very, very good grades.
Fifteen years later when he really wants to connect with God, God says, “Henry, why bother?” So he doesn’t know. Are they going to take my degree away, or whatever? He goes to the university and confesses what he did. They did not take his degree away from him. I wonder how many college students would have their degrees taken away from them if cheating was a basis for withdrawing a degree.
I interviewed a man one time who said, “Pastor Lutzer, I want you to know today that revival (God was working mightily in their church) cost me thousands of dollars and it has left me in the poor house. He was a contractor who built houses, and what he did is he built the houses with inferior material. You know, he said he was going to build them with this, but actually in point of fact, he built them with inferior material. He was cheating the people, telling them they were getting one quality, and he was giving them another quality. And now suddenly he asked the question, “What do I have to do to be right before God and man?” And the Holy Spirit won’t let him sleep until he answers that question, just like the blessed Holy Spirit of God won’t let you and me sleep, if we’re honest, until we answer that question.
And so he did what he knew he had to do. He went from one person to another and confessed and agreed that he would pay them back. He said, “I had to go to the bank and borrow money.” He said, “I mortgaged my house so that I could pay them back.” I said, “Was it worth it?” He said, “It was worth every single penny to be right with God and right with man.” How much might reconciliation cost you?
One more story and then this message has to be over. You can understand now why it’s going to be two. God knows it might be three. In 1973 a young teenager murders a neighbor’s wife just to see what it was like to murder somebody. Do you know that there are teenagers like that today? Thank God I don’t believe that they are here. How we thank God for our teenagers, and we pray for them, but there are kids today, because of the violence of our culture, who murder just to see what it’s like.
He gets by with it. The police question him, but they don’t have any hard evidence, so he grows up, gets married, has children, and says to himself, “I have a secret in my life that I will carry to my grave.” But then he gets saved. You know, people think that getting saved always makes your life happy, happy, happy! Listen, sometimes it just makes it miserable, miserable, miserable, because the things you live with before your conversion you can’t live with them anymore, and you’ve got a history, and you know right well that you’ve got to do something about your past.
What should he do? In 1997, 22 years later, he turns himself over to the authorities, and he goes to jail. And he is in jail today as I speak. This is what he says: “Yet God was faithful to His promise to uphold me. At the moment of truth, though I am now a prisoner of the law, I was set free before God for the first time in my life. I cannot describe the feeling of that burden completely lifted. The Lord now held his once disobedient child in His loving arms, and true to His promise He did not let me fall. A wonderful peace came over my soul such as I had not known before. I am now confined to a maximum security prison, serving time for second degree murder, but I am more free and more at peace than at any other time in my life.”
How much might it cost you to be reconciled to God? I really do believe I have a pastor’s heart, and so it’s hard for me to say what I’m going to say now, but I’m going to say it and then we’re going to end this message. What about those of you who are in the United States of America illegally because of falsified papers? Have you ever talked to the Lord about that and asked Him what He might have you do? And what about those of us who are in America legally? What is God saying to us? What does He say to us?
Today we are going to observe communion. The whole point of communion is reconciliation with God, but also with others. You see, the reason that the early church always had a loaf of bread is because they wanted to say that there is one body actually, and we’re all members of the same loaf, and we’re all members of the same cup. What is there in your life you may have to take care of? Maybe you shouldn’t participate today until you’ve been reconciled.
I had a wonderful ending to this message, but it’s going to end here, and we’ll pick it up. What is God saying to you? And for those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior, you know the basis of this whole thing is God’s forgiveness, so if you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior you are not forgiven by God, therefore, you really probably are not too interested in forgiving others, and you say, “This is just messy business.” But it becomes important business when we experience God’s gracious forgiveness.
Will you join me as we pray?
Father, would You just come to us in our need because there’s no doubt that decisions are being made, and issues have arisen in our minds that need to be dealt with? And we ask, oh Father, show us the way. Give us the wisdom that we need to make wise decisions, but also, Father, to pay any price that You ask us to pay to have a conscience void of offense before God and before man. We love Your people, and we grieve for Your people, and we ask, oh Father, make us an obedient people. And even as we remember our Lord’s death, make this a transforming experience because we honor Him who we love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.