Resolving conflict is the most difficult task in pastoral work. Helping two parties who have been at odds – or even at one another’s throats – work through sin issues to reach a point where they can grant and receive forgiveness from one another is a special manifestation of the applied gospel. Like the heavenly miracle of dew from Mt. Hermon falling on Zion is the giving of the Spirit that brings brothers separated by conflict to dwell together once again in unity (Psalm 133).
Yet if years of ministry have taught me anything, it is that this hard-earned peace can be fragile. Wounds take time to heal. Trust requires effort to rebuild. Old patterns of avoidance in the relationship die slowly. Communication can be awkward. Suspicions that others in the church are talking run high. A small slight by one party can reignite flames of indignation. How is reconciliation not only to be maintained but flourish?
We can learn a lesson about reconciliation from the story of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers. After all his brothers put him through by betraying him and selling him into slavery, we know that twenty years later, as recorded in Genesis 45, Joseph, the ruler in Egypt second only to Pharaoh, revealed himself and dealt mercifully with his brothers. Yet the Bible makes it clear that further reconciliation needed to take place.
For seventeen years after that reunion, we read in Genesis 50 that the brothers feared, after their father Jacob had died, that Joseph would now retaliate for what they had done to him and “pay them back in full” for it (Genesis 50:15). Despite the fact Joseph had shown them nothing but kindness, their consciences still plagued them. It appears in Genesis 45, probably overwhelmed with surprise and shame, that the brothers never asked Joseph truly for forgiveness like they do in Genesis 50. Joseph’s response to them is instructive.
After uttering those famous words of how the brothers meant it for evil, but God meant if for good to save many people alive, we see Joseph speak and then act in an incredibly gracious manner.
Joseph said, ‘So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:21).
Here is where we can fall short in our efforts toward reconciliation. The person who has forgiven must overflow with graciousness toward the other. Joseph provided gifts. Joseph comforted their conscience. Joseph spoke kindly to their souls. We must do likewise.
For is this not what Christ does for us? He does not offer just a bare forgiveness and then send us packing. Rather, he lavishes grace upon us (Ephesians 1:7-8), reassuring us again and again of his love (Jeremiah 31:3), friendship (John 15:13), and willingness to take our burdens (Matthew 11:28-30). If we are to forgive others as Christ forgave us (Colossians 3:13), then we need to work as hard after reconciliation in reestablishing the relationship as before it in reaching forgiveness. We cannot see forgiveness as something we simply complete, but rather an act we continue to build upon.
The Peacemaker Ministries encourages making four promises of forgiveness.
- “I will not dwell on this incident.”
- “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
- “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
- “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”
Perhaps this story suggests a fifth one or at least a corollary to the last one?
5. “I will reassure you again and again of my forgiveness of you, my love for you, and my commitment to our relationship.”