How to restore a damaged relationship

A sermon by Rod Benson

Matthew 5:23-24

Photo courtesy Frank Quinlin. Used by permission.

You’ve all seen them: by the side of the road, or lying derelict in the bush, or on the scrap heap – old cars, their windows broken, seats disintegrating, engines forever silent, slowly rusting away as the iron alloy is exposed to oxygen and moisture over time, producing an oxide, weakening the bonds of the metal itself, and incrementally adding to its weight.

Expose the metal exterior of a car to salt air, and it gets damaged. Expose your skin to too much solar radiation, and it gets damaged. Expose a delicate plant to drought conditions, and it will sustain damage. Expose the pages of a book to fire, and damage will consume it. Expose the soles of your runners to regular pavement contact, and damage will occur to the shoes – while your own health will most likely improve!

Expose a human personality to life in community, and sooner or later unhealthy conflict will arise, and the relationship will be put to the test, with the possibility of damage to the relationship, and an uncertain future, and possibly also physical violence.

Now violence is never an acceptable way to resolve relational conflict. But some instances of conflict raise important underlying issues that would otherwise remain dormant, and this can be beneficial.

Usually, however, we want the conflict to go away, and we are faced with the dilemma of how to achieve this. We yearn for what we had together before the conflict. We long for peace, harmony and unity. We look for advice on how to restore the broken relationship.

For Christians who take both the unity of the Spirit and the power of the Bible seriously, there is always hope. Is that really true? Is there always hope, or am I being impossibly optimistic? I thought carefully about that as I prepared this sermon, and I believe it is true. There is always hope.

The door to reconciliation may be slammed shut, but it can be reopened. God may turn up. Miracles do happen. Broken relationships can be mended, wrongs righted, wounds healed, and friendships restored. There is always hope.

Colossians 3:13 says, “Bear with one another and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Matthew 5:23-24 says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Forgiveness for the Christian is like breathing: natural, necessary, life-giving. But don’t pass over those awesome words at the end of Colossians 3:13 that I quoted above: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

What would happen if God forgave you in exactly the same way that you are forgiving someone who has hurt you, or grieved you?

The challenge of Colossians 3:13 seems incredibly audacious, ambitious, perhaps unattainable – especially when we consider all the reasons why we should not forgive that person who has wronged us or caused hurt!

But God does not only give us the challenge; he also gives us the grace and guidance we need to forgive others in exactly the same way as God has forgiven us.

This is one of the beautiful mysteries of the Christian life. This is one of the unique features of radical Christian discipleship. Through his Spirit, God gives us the resources to think and act like Jesus, and to achieve what is humanly impossible.

Forgiveness is not primarily a feeling. It is not about forgetting and moving on. It is not excusing unacceptable behaviour as though it didn’t happen. Forgiveness is fundamentally a decision you make to release someone “from liability to suffer punishment or penalty.”[1]

Forgiving someone who has wronged you is a serious business. It takes courage. It may be costly. It can be painful. It could be awkward. Genuine forgiveness in response to a significant hurt or wrong is a gift to our opponent whereby we make four promises:

  • 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.[2]

But here’s the thing: Forgiveness presupposes repentance. What if the other person isn’t sorry for the wrong done or the hurt caused? In such cases, you may need to approach the work of forgiveness as a two-stage process:

  • Express to God a genuine attitude of forgiveness; pray for your opponent, and be ready to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation when the opportunity arises (Lk 6:28);
  • Grant forgiveness to your opponent, conditional upon their repentance (Lk 17:3f).

It makes little sense, and it delivers little gain, if you offer forgiveness to someone whose attitude toward you is entrenched hostility and unshakeable intransigence. Indeed, your offer of forgiveness might exacerbate the problem, and intensify the hostility, and you may well be aware of this.

Remember that the offer of forgiveness does not automatically release a wrongdoer from the consequences of their sin. But if we believe that God calls us to freely forgive one another, as the Lord has forgiven us, then once a person has expressed true repentance, God expects us to genuinely forgive and to remove the penalty of personal separation, moving toward healing and reconciliation.[3]

There is much more that could be said about forgiveness,[4] but we move on.

What if the conflict I am experiencing is not primarily about personal issues but material issues? What if it’s not a difference of opinion or purpose, but a disagreement about some practical issue like the cost of repairing damaged property, or how a business contract should be interpreted? Again, Scripture has plenty of clear advice to follow.

Consider the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets” (Mt 7:12).

Or Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:39, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Paul gives specific advice to his readers in Philippians 2:3-4, which readily apply to conflict over material issues: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

These principles highlight the contrast between competitive and cooperative negotiation.[5] A competitive approach, usually the default mode of resolving business conflicts, may yield a good outcome but often fails to deliver the best outcome. It can be inefficient because of the tendency to rely on compromises and concessions. And the process may significantly damage personal relationships, and harm future prospects.

A cooperative approach to negotiating important differences between conflicted parties may seem counter-intuitive but it seeks the best interests of all involved. Done well, it gets below surface issues and deals realistically with underlying needs and concerns. A cooperative approach is often more efficient because less time and energy is spent on defensive posturing. And a cooperative approach to negotiation tends to preserve or even enhance and improve personal relationships.

In his book The Peace Maker, Ken Sande outlines a five-step process to successful cooperative negotiation:

  • Prepare your negotiating strategy well;
  • Affirm relationships: attend to feelings and concerns as well as objective problems;
  • Understand the interests of those involved in the dispute;
  • Search for creative solutions;
  • Evaluate options objectively and reasonably.[6]

In all our negotiations, in all our peace-making work, in all our relationships, let us put into practice the command in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It’s not easy. I understand this. But it is possible – there is always hope.

Ken Sande helpfully brings our consideration of how to restore a broken relationship with these realistic but wise words:

Peacemaking does not always go as easily as we would like it to. Although some people will readily make peace, others will be stubborn and defensive and resist our efforts to be reconciled.

Sometimes they will become even more antagonistic and find new ways to frustrate and mistreat us. Our natural reaction is to strike back at such people, or at least to stop doing anything good to them.

[But] Jesus calls us to take a remarkably different course of action: “… Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you … Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons [and daughters] of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[7]

Sermon 744 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 30 July 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (third edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), p. 207.

[2] Ibid., p. 209.

[3] Ibid., p. 213.

[4] Ibid., pp. 212-223; see also Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

[5] Ken Sande, The Peace Maker, pp. 226f.

[6] Ibid., pp. 227-245.

[7] Ibid., p. 247.

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