If there’s one piece of scripture I know well, it would be Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:15-17:
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.”
My husband always says that I have a sign on my forehead that is invisible to me, but that is apparently a bright neon sign to everyone else, and it says “Free Counselor.” We joke about this because throughout my whole life, even when I was fairly young, people would just for some reason pour out their problems to me. They would tell me things about themselves that were very personal even if I had only known them for a short time. Many times they would ask my advice about a situation which almost always seemed to have something to do with a relationship problem they were having. This still happens on a regular basis today.
Early on in my life, I used to get annoyed by this, thinking why is this person telling me all this stuff? How am I supposed to know what to do? Since I’ve become a follower of Christ, I’ve come to understand and appreciate that this is part of my distinct make-up…I’ve learned that my primary spiritual gift seems to be exhortation, better known as the gift of encouragement. Now this is nothing for me to boast about, and in fact I used to be very uncomfortable with any talk of my spiritual gifts simply because it sounded a little snotty to me… like I’m bragging about something I’ve acquired. But I’m much more comfortable with my own identity in Christ these days, and I’ve come to really believe how God defines us through His apostle Paul:
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” -Ephesians 2:10
I believe what God says about who I am. I know that He created me, and He made me to do good works, which He’s already prepared for me to do. It’s like I have my own personal “to-do” list written by the Creator of the universe, and no one else can check those things off except for me. But in order for me to accomplish this, I must live my life in a way that aligns with the things God says about me and the ways He’s shown me to live. Part of that means accepting, embracing and using my spiritual gifts in the way He wants me to. So, I do what I can to learn His ways of how to encourage others, not because it’s fun (although sometimes it can be!) but because this is part of my DNA.
So, back to Matthew 18. What does this have to do with any of this encouragement stuff? Well, it’s very simple. Humans are made in and for relationships. When a relationship is broken, whether it’s because of something we have done, something another person has done, or just because of strange circumstances, our heart hurts. Our deepest desire is to have that relationship restored. And there’s great news…God has told us many things in His word on how to make that happen. The passage in Matthew 18:15-17 tells us how to deal with a brother or sister in Christ who has sinned. Many times this may be against us directly, other times it may be that we’ve noticed a sin pattern growing in their lives that is going unchecked. Either way, there is a 3-step process involved in confronting them, and no… it doesn’t involve airing their dirty laundry on Facebook. Many times friends or acquaintances will come to me asking advice with this exact kind of situation. Someone has done something to them that is offensive. Someone has lied to them and they’ve found out. Their spouse is doing something inappropriate. My advice to them will always be exactly the same. I wouldn’t be encouraging them properly by doing anything but going back to God’s word.
Look back at the first part of that passage in Matthew 18 with me: “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.” Did you see that? Go privately to that person. Is that what we usually do? I don’t know about you, but when someone offends me, the first thing I want to do is call up another person who will sympathize with my sense of injustice and complain about it. For hours. But that is SO WRONG. No one should hear about the problem until you have addressed it with the person committing the offense. No one. Not your mom, your best friend, your sister, even your spouse. Go PRIVATELY to that person and talk to them. Is that so you can berate them about their sin and yell at them for how terrible they’ve been treating them? No. Look at the rest of that first step: “If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.” See it? The goal is to win that person back. To restore that relationship back to where it was. Another translation says “…you have your brother back again.” Isn’t that awesome? The goal is to point out the offense so that the person may be reconciled, not only to you, but to God. Because if we recognize our sin and confess it, the bible tells us that “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) That’s great news! So by obeying this first step in the process, we could actually win over our brother or sister, and not only allow our relationship to be restored, but also to clear a pathway for them to confess the sin and be reconciled to God, which is of course the most important thing. If that doesn’t work, and the person refuses to recognize the sin or doesn’t take you seriously, then the next step is to confide in another trusted brother or sister (one or two others–not the entire universe!) and have them go with you to the person again. Perhaps once the offender sees that other people know of the situation and agree that there is a problem, this will help them see the light and lead to reconciliation. If the person still will not listen to reason, then it may be time to “take them before the church.” Now there are different beliefs about this, but I think this would mean talking to a pastor or elder of the church to explain the situation and likely even setting up a meeting between you, the offender, and a church leader to discuss the situation all together. Since my husband is an elder in our church, there have been occasions when I have been involved in these conversations at that level. Yes, they are uncomfortable. Yes, they can get frustrating for all parties involved. But I always go back to the fact that if I believe one part of God’s word, such as what He says about me being His workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works that He’s prepared for me to do, then I have to also believe His word when He tells me how to deal with situations in my life, even if the process is uncomfortable. I can’t just pick and choose the warm-fuzzy-feeling stuff that Jesus tells us and not also accept His more difficult teachings.
So, if you’re one of those folks who can mysteriously see that invisible sign on my forehead that says “Free Counselor,” or you just happen to bring it up in conversation, my response to you will be the same when you ask my advice on how to deal with someone who’s sinned or hurt you. I will go back to what Jesus said to do in Matthew 18. I will tell you to do something that you might feel is uncomfortable. I won’t care if you feel uncomfortable because you have to do the things Jesus tells us to do if you are one of His followers…no ifs, ands, or buts. I will likely tell you to read through that passage several times. I might even suggest you read through it in several translations until you’re sure you have a full understanding of what it means. I will tell you to follow the steps in order. I will tell you if you’ve skipped a step. I will tell you to go back to the beginning if you’ve skipped a step. I’ll ask you not to speak to me (or anyone else) again about it until you’ve at least done step #1. You might take me off your Christmas list because I didn’t give you the answer or easy fix you wanted. And I will not enjoy that because I truly do love presents. But even so, I can’t direct you with poor advice. With non-biblical advice. With advice that will lead you into destroying a relationship rather than restoring it. I will tell you that if you refuse to follow these steps to deal with the situation, you are in yourself committing a sin (refusing to do what God says) and making things worse. But I will also pray for you and for the relationship you’re trying to restore.
If you ever come to me to ask my advice about how to deal with someone who has sinned or hurt you, and I don’t lead you to Matthew 18… you do have my permission to call me out on it. Please. You’re not doing me any favors if you don’t.