My friend, Bill,1 became quite upset in a church board meeting one night. He was mad because a vote had not gone his way. Those who witnessed the outburst later talked with me about it. Bill was a well-respected, influential leader in the church I pastored, so I was quite concerned about this incident and its effect on his credibility. I was also concerned about his feelings and perception of the church’s love for him.
I decided to follow the advice of Galatians 6:1, which says, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (NIV). So, I wanted to kindly show him his error and the need to change. What I thought would be a reasonable conversation turned into a very difficult one.
It did not go well
Bill got very defensive, feeling I had unfairly singled him out. He named others in the church, including me (I wasn’t practicing what I preached), who erred more frequently than he, yet they were not called out. I was seeing a demonstration of Proverbs 18:19: “An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city, and his disputes are like the bars of a fortress” (ISV). Bill was twice offended—first, when he displayed displeasure with things not going his way and then again when I challenged him regarding his mistake.
When I suggested that his show of emotion was self rising and it was prideful, he referred to the intense emotion of Jesus when He tossed the money changers out of the temple, implying that His display of emotion was not sinful. I never cease to be amazed at how people can find excuses for what they do or even defend their expressions of anger by referring to this incident in the life of Jesus.
I have learned that when I care enough to get hurt or upset about what is happening to others, it may be Christ living through me on behalf of them. However, when I get upset because of something that is not going my way, that is virtually always self life.
My agenda in approaching Bill was to try to gently point out his mistake and lead him to apologize to those who had witnessed it. However, when the conversation was over, the message I got was that I was a bigger sinner than he, and I was the bad guy!
At one point, he did apologize to me; however, it was the kind that went, “I apologize but . . .” Then 90 percent of the exchange followed the “but.” There was no contrite spirit, remorse, or sense of repentance. The next day, Bill also sent a note of apology to the others, but his apology touched only the tip of the iceberg and did not address the core issue of his sin. He apologized, yet he also blamed others for the problem, somehow excusing himself.
When we talked, I tried to show him his mistake, but I just had to listen, realizing he was on such a roll and self was so alive that he would not even hear me. I made a few attempts to be heard but without success. Bill had a different perspective on our talk. He felt so positive that he emailed me the next morning saying, “We are good.” The problem was I did not feel good at all. But he did not know this. I did not agree with him; he did not listen; he was not ready to hear it or acknowledge it. Now I had a challenge.
Bill and I are good friends, and I highly value his friendship, so I did not want anything coming between us. Yet, rightly or wrongly, I believed that if I returned to the subject, he would still be unable to hear me, and I might seriously damage the relationship and further reinforce self in him. I asked myself, “What do I do? This type of situation can ruin a good relationship.”
God led me to four spiritual approaches. First, He reminded me that Jesus has forgiven me in depth and frequency far more than I needed to forgive Bill. Moreover, I was not in a place to judge Bill or hold a grudge against him.
Second, God showed me that I did not approach this issue in the wisest way. Instead of talking to him when he was still emotional about it, I should have waited until things cooled down a little. Moreover, instead of trying to show him his mistake, I should have acknowledged my own error first, made myself vulnerable, and expressed my conviction that I first need God’s changing grace and help. Then I should have shown that I appreciate him for so many things. Only after that should I suggest that it is better to speak calmly regardless of whether he was right or wrong.
Also, everyone should always be ready to accept the board’s decision regardless of whether it goes our way or in a totally different direction. I could have shared with him times when votes did not go my way and that I understood what he was going through. I could have found a way to listen and understand, love and appreciate. We do not need to agree with a mistake, but we do need to love the one who erred. We need to be patient, wise, tactful, humble, and patient. The golden rule of doing unto others definitely applied here.
Third, God led me to sing a song. I usually find that singing songs that apply to life situations helps me in a big way. The songs help move the message from my head to my heart. They bring peace and comfort. The song I sang rather frequently was the first stanza of the old hymn “I Surrender All.” Singing not only calmed my emotions but also moved me deeper into truly dying to self. I understood that I was frustrated because I, too, needed to die to self; I needed to give up the feeling that I was right and should correct others. Rather, I needed to love them and pray for them.
The fourth thing God led me to was a huge breakthrough and a new insight for me. God had me imagine the horrible treatment Jesus went through in the hours before the cross and then on the cross. He led me to pray one of Jesus’ prayers on the cross: “Father, forgive Bill, for he knows not what he did.” I realized that if Jesus could love and pray for forgiveness for those who persecuted Him, who was I not to do the same?
Of these four activities, this last one of prayer was the most important avenue God used to heal me. Until then, I had rarely, if ever, prayed like this. It was just not a regular part of my prayer life. As soon as I started to pray this prayer for my friend, I realized I needed to pray it for me too. I needed God’s forgiveness and grace; I, too, had to surrender and experience growth. I had to learn to die to self and work with my friend in such a way as to help him. I had to focus on him, love him, and be willing to forget self.
Although I felt hurt in my interaction with Bill, God truly healed me. I was all right with the fact that, for that moment, things were not the way I wanted. I had to learn patience; I had to forgive and love.
After doing this, I could hardly believe how sunny the skies were between us. It was as if the event had never happened. I was overwhelmed with praise and gratitude for God’s amazing grace in doing this for me.
A second blessing excited me beyond belief. It was the insight that God’s grace can keep relationships rich and beautiful even if they do not get fixed right away or the way I would imagine. When we join Jesus on the cross (Gal. 2:20) and fully surrender self, it is as if the event that brought clouds between us never happened.
As you well know, people are firmly entrenched on one side or the other with many issues. Until the event with Bill, I had no idea how to “fix” the interpersonal pain and conflict hovering below the surface in our church family. I have been so hungry to see things fixed when I thought I was right. I wanted to see unity and love among us so that Jesus’ words in John 13:34, 35, and 17:21–26 could be fulfilled.
I had to stop and realize—me first. God is calling me first to give up self for Him and others. I must set the example of confessing, asking for forgiveness, giving all to God, and letting Him lead. We, as pastors, cannot expect our members to give up self if we are not first willing to be examples and do the same.2
Seeing how God can heal situations and relationships that we sometimes struggle with has been an amazing gift. I have learned that things do not always need to be fixed right away or my way! There are extreme situations, such as abuse, that what I am saying does not fit, and special wisdom must be used. But normal tensions and conflicts arise all too frequently because self is so easily offended and readily offends others. Self must die; Christ must be raised up.
You may be wondering how this insight has impacted our church. It’s still so new that I do not know yet. Time will tell.
- See W. Clarence Schilt and Stephen Schilt, A Life To Die For: Discover the Secret of Christ’s Transforming Power (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2009).