For some people, relational breakdown is a source of constant, unrelenting pain. Maybe you have a treasured friendship that has been scarred. Maybe you have a brother or sister with whom you are no longer speaking. Maybe you have a son or daughter, or mother or father, and where there ought to be bonds of love, there is this gaping wound or distance between you. There is no pain in the world like the pain of relational breakdown. That’s why Jesus gave a set of instructions on what to do in the case of relational breakdown. Our goal in this message is to get maximum clarity on this issue and to commit to carrying out the instructions Jesus gave.
You may or may not know this about me, but I’m not good at fixing cars. I wouldn’t say I’m mechanically inept, but it’s close.
Over the years I’ve developed a few techniques for dealing with automotive breakdown.
The first one is denial.
So if my wife and I are driving in the car and she says something like, “Do you hear that knocking sound coming from the engine?,” I’ll say, “No.” Even though I have to say it loud enough so she can hear me over the knocking sound coming from the engine.
I generally just keep driving.
My theory is that all engines are kind of hypochondriacs, and if you don’t give them the satisfaction of babying them every time they make a strange noise, they’ll quit whining and get back to work.
Along with this, I put a lot of stock in what’s known in medical circles as spontaneous remission.
I believe that sometimes conditions like asthma or depression or smoke pouring out of an engine will just go away. No one knows why. There’s just a kind of healing force in nature itself, and it’s best not to interfere, but just respect the mystery.
Now because I approach the life of my automobile in this way, sometimes it stops altogether. There will be a complete breakdown.
And when that happens I’ll do what a lot of people do in that situation.
I’ll get out of the car, go to the front of it and raise the hood to look inside.
The question is, why do I do this?
I have no idea.
I mean, if the engine were altogether gone—if there was just a big, vacant cavity where the engine is supposed to be—then I would have some idea about what went wrong. I’d have a clue at that point.
Or if there was like a giant on-off switch that had gotten switched to the off position, then I’d know what to do.
But beyond that I might as well be looking at the workings of a nuclear submarine.
So we end up sitting on the side of the road, waiting for someone from AAA to come and tow our car away.
And it makes me feel foolish when the AAA person comes, because they’re always so judgmental.
They’ll say something like, “This problem could have been prevented. Didn’t you read the manual? You have a set of instructions. Didn’t you read them?”
Well, I’ve never read a manual. I’m kind of a fatalist when it comes to cars. I believe when your car’s time is up, it’s time is up and there’s nothing you can really do about it.
Now, a lot of people are facing a far more serious kind of breakdown — relational breakdown — with not much more thoughtfulness than I tend to give to automotive breakdown.
So today we’re going to focus on this far more serious kind of breakdown — relational breakdown.
What do you do when you get stuck? What do you do when you get into conflict and it’s not being resolved?
Now for some of you this falls into a category of what might be labeled “Minor Irritation.” There’s a person you work with, a casual relationship, and that person just rubs you the wrong way. You find yourself constantly irritated by them. Or you have a neighbor who has devoted their life to irritating you and is just a nuisance.
But for some in this room, relational breakdown is a source of constant, unrelenting, unrelieved pain. And for you, just hearing this topic brought up is like there’s a knife that’s being twisted inside.
Maybe you have a treasured friendship that has been scarred.
Maybe you have a brother or sister that you’re no longer speaking to.
Maybe you have a husband or wife, son or daughter, mother or father, and where you know there ought to be bonds of love, there is this gaping wound or this hole in your heart or the dull, throbbing ache of this distance between you—of hostility or enmity or love that has died.
There is no pain in the world like the pain of relational breakdown.
There are other kinds of pain, very serious pain, but there’s no pain quite like the pain of relational breakdown.
Now Jesus has given a set of instructions on what to do in the case of relational breakdown. It’s in the manual.
And our goal today is to get maximum clarity on this issue.
And not just maximum clarity on it, but to commit to carrying out the instructions that Jesus gave—to understand them and then to commit to living by them.
And the good news is—they’re simple. They’re so simple, a child can follow them.
Alright, here they are. This is what Jesus said in Matthew 18:15:
If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.
Brother or sister here just means another person, someone else that you share faith with. It doesn’t necessarily mean a blood relation.
So if you’re in a relationship and someone sins against you, go to them in private and point it out just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you will have won back that friend.
Now, this is if someone sins against you or hurts you, if the other person is at fault.
But just to clarify, Jesus also has instructions on what to do if you’re the one at fault. And these are found in Matthew 5:23-24.
Therefore, 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.
These are very simple instructions Jesus gives us.
Jesus says if there’s conflict, you go to the other person in private and discuss the problem for the purpose of reconciliation.
Now, this is very simple, but we don’t do very well at this.
I think out of all the instruction Jesus gives us, this may be the single most violated, this may be the one we follow the least.
It’s because at every point in His instructions here (there are seven of them), we’re faced with a decision.
And we have powerful reasons to ignore them.
The default position tends to be not to do what Jesus says to do at each one of these points.
So, today what I want to do is simply walk through what to do in case of relational breakdown (at each of these seven points), so that we get crystal clear on it, and so that we take ownership of living our lives this way—following the instructions Jesus gave in these two passages.
Alright, let’s look at the first point.
This first step is a mental step. It’s something you do in your mind. Jesus said, “If there’s conflict,” —in other words, it starts in your mind—you need to acknowledge the fact that there is conflict.
So the first point is:
And I want to say — to be alive means to be in conflict.
Sometimes they fight a lot, sometimes a little; sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively; sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly.
Sometimes fights end in hugs and kisses, sometimes they end in coldness or withdrawal or shouting. But to be alive means to be in conflict.
Conflict is normal. Conflict is just part of life.
But it’s easier to pretend conflict doesn’t exist.
Sometimes people think a lack of conflict is a sign of personal maturity. But that’s not necessarily the case.
If you’re married to a passive person, there’s not going to be much open conflict. But it’s not because that person is so incredibly mature. They’re just apathetic. They’re just passive.
So the place to start is with an honest admission that there’s unresolved conflict in your life. You must acknowledge first in your mind and heart there has been a breakdown.
If we’re going to do life together in little communities (in small groups), then it will require the commitment, the inner commitment, that unaddressed, unresolved breakdowns are not acceptable.
Maybe you have a relationship that was once a significant part of your life—maybe a friend, maybe a parent—and over time, things have deteriorated to the point of breakdown, and maybe you, instead of doing something about it, never acknowledged the conflict and you just let the relationship deteriorate. It’s just left on the side of the road like an old, worthless, abandoned car—just dead.
Now resolution may not be simple. The truth about conflict is often it’s complex. It’s hard to resolve, even with good will.
But let’s start with a deep commitment to face relational breakdown squarely.
Acknowledge the existence of conflict. It’s inevitable. It’s even normal.
Then the next word Jesus uses is the word “you.” And the idea here is:
This is also difficult.
“I don’t want to take initiative. Let the other person come to me. It’s not fair that I have to be the one to take the first step. Why do I always have to take the first step? Why can’t she be the one to have to take the first step?”
Do you ever have those kinds of thoughts?
Jesus puts the burden on you, and He does it in both cases.
If someone else has something against you (if you’ve done the wrong thing) Jesus says, “You take action.”
If someone else has done the wrong thing (if they’ve done something to you) Jesus says, “You take the action.”
Why does it always have to be you?
There’s a simple explanation: It’s because the other person is so stubborn.
I mean, isn’t that just true? Don’t you find in your experience, the other person you’re locked in conflict with is just a stubborn, pig-headed person?
People who are going to do life together—and it is so crucial that we own this… This is about ownership, taking initiative, owning responsibility. People who are going to do life together are people who own responsibility to deal with relational breakdown.
They don’t wait for some other person to come and fix things. They own responsibility.
Jesus always says, “You.” He never says, “If you have something against someone else, if you’ve wronged them or if they’ve wronged you, wait.” He never says, “Wait.”
And this leads us to the third thing.
The next word Jesus says is, “go.” The principle here is:
Approach, and don’t avoid.
This now gets into behavior. The first step was acknowledge conflict in your mind. Here it’s a behavioral step.
This involves a commitment to not avoid dealing with conflict.
See, very often, I don’t want to go. I want to stay. I just want to stay and stew for a while. I’d rather just be mad. It’s more fun to pout about conflict and rehearse the ways in which other people have unfairly hurt me.
Besides, if I go, it may get ugly. If I go, it may be scary.
The number one reason for avoidance when it comes to dealing with conflict is fear—fear of confrontation.
When I was in graduate school, I had a class in philosophy, and the professor was a very intimidating guy—very intellectual. And people were just afraid to challenge or confront him. It was a fearful thing.
One day after class a guy said to a group of us, “I detected a flaw in the teacher’s logic. As he was laying out his lecture, I detected there was an error in his reasoning.”
Now this was a very rare thing. So we all said to this guy, “Why didn’t you bring it up? Why didn’t you raise your hand and say something?”
And he said, “Because I was afraid that if I did, he would prove I didn’t exist.”
Very often, the reason people don’t take the step to deal with conflict is just fear.
Especially if the other person is an intimidating person or is very gifted with words, or if you feel like you’re not particularly gifted verbally.
Now this is a huge step, this “go” step. And it’s important to understand you may not even do it terribly well. You may stutter and stammer and stumble all over your words. It doesn’t matter.
It’s important that you try to use as much skill and discernment and wisdom as you can.
Think through and plan ahead what you’re going to say. That’s very important.
But the main thing is not that you do it flawlessly. The main thing is you go, because avoiding kills the relationship.
When you avoid, resentment just festers inside and you become a toxic person, and your world becomes a little toxic because you just leak.
Jesus says you’ve got to acknowledge the conflict. You take initiative. You go. You approach. You don’t avoid.
Alright what Jesus says next is…
“You go… to the person you’re having the conflict with. You go to the one who has wronged you. Or you go to the one who has something against you.”
The principle here is:
No third parties.
“Well, I don’t want to go to the person I’m having conflict with. Generally that’s the last person I want to go to. I want to go to someone else. I want to go to a person who’s not involved and say, ‘Let me tell you what’s going on here.’
“I just want to lay it out objectively and get some feedback from a neutral third party. ‘Don’t you share my concerns about this person who is my brother in Christ and a deeply disturbed psychopath?’
“It’s more fun to go to someone else, because I can commiserate with them and get support, reinforcement for my anger.”
Jesus says that’s not the way to go. He says go directly to the person.
We see this in other places in the Bible.
Paul is writing to a church in Philippi, and he says to two women who are in conflict, which has become public knowledge:
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.(Philippians 4:2)
In other words, there’s a conflict between them, and he wants them to come to unity, to oneness.
And then he adds:
Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel. (Philippians 4:3)
Now Euodia and Syntyche were two women in the first century church. And Paul tells us they were locked in deep conflict over who had the goofier first name.
Okay that’s not what the fight was about. But they are kind of goofy sounding first names, at least to us.
What’s interesting in this letter is what Paul does not say. He does not say, “Euodia, I want you to talk to some other people about how unfair Syntyche is being to you. I want you to thoroughly discuss her character flaws and neuroses so that they can pray for her more intelligently.”
And you notice these are two women that Paul commends. In fact, he says they are his coworkers. They’re leaders in the church. He puts them on par with himself. But they still have conflict.
In other words, the litmus test of maturity in life is not the absence of conflict, because that will not happen until after you’re dead.
The litmus test is how do you handle conflict? Conflict is inevitable. Resentment and bitterness — they’re optional.
The problem comes when instead of dealing directly with the person I’m in conflict with, I go to someone else.
So that in this case for instance, instead of Syntyche going directly to Euodia, Syntyche goes to someone else. And she says, “Do you know what Euodia did to me?”
And then that third party goes to Euodia and says, “You know what Syntyche’s saying about you? Of course, don’t quote me on this. Now this is just confidential, between you and me.”
And instead of two people trying to deal with conflict openly and honestly and directly, What you have now are three people, none of whom can be utterly frank with the other one, all of whom now have reason to dislike each other.
Now part of what this means is that you need to deal directly with the person you’re having conflict with.
Another piece of it is you need to be prepared, as Paul writes to someone else at the church in Philippi. He says, “I want you to help these women.”
In other words, if someone comes to you and they want to complain about a third person, you need to give some thought to what you’re going to say. Because, again, the truth is the default mode is often it could just be fun to hear one person complain about someone else.
It can kind of bond the two of you together in a way. But it’s not helping the situation.
So you need to think through how you’re going to, in a gracious, tactful way without sounding self-righteous about it, how you’re going to encourage the person who comes to you, not to ventilate to you, but to go directly to the person that the problem is with.
Go directly to the person, no third parties. That’s the fourth point.
Then the fifth point is:
Jesus says, “Go in private. Go when the two of you are alone.” The principle here is:
Now this means you have to say no to the temptation to embarrass someone in front of friends.
Do you ever do this kind of thing?
There’s something that bothers you a little bit, but you’re reluctant to bring it up. Say it’s between you and your spouse, so you wait until you’re with friends, and then you just get a little jab in with a little humor, a little dig.
But it’s in front of other people. There’s a kind of safety in numbers thing going on.
And you can’t get hammered back directly. Ever do that kind of thing?
I was going to tell you about a time when my wife Kathy violated this in front of someone else. And then I realized I’d be violating it in front of a lot of people, so I decided I’ll just tell her in private.
Okay, that’s number five. Go in private—approach sensitively.
Number six: Jesus says, “You are to discuss the problem.” You are to talk about the fault. The principle here is:
Discuss the problem directly.
Sometimes, in an effort to soften the blow, people end up addressing the problem indirectly. They talk about it indirectly. They talk around it. They never name it.
For instance, if someone wants to make a statement, there’s something that bothers them, there’s conflict, but they want to try to soften things, so they’ll put it in the form of a question instead of in the form of a statement.
A spouse says to her husband, “Wouldn’t you like to get the garage all cleaned up today?”
And he reflects on the state of his heart and discovers that at the deepest level, at the intimate core of who he is, he really would NOT like to get the garage cleaned up.
And he tells her this, proud of his self awareness and transparent congruence.
And she goes away twice as angry because she really didn’t intend it to be a question. She wanted to let him know. It just didn’t get named.
Now how do you do this? How do you discuss a problem directly? How do you tell someone about faults, theirs or yours?
Well, this comes from a guy named William Backus. He gives four very simple steps.
1. Talk about what was done.
I had a good friend some time ago very sensitively talk with me about conflict that he was feeling between himself and me. And the first thing he did was to say, “Here’s what was done.”
He said, “I don’t feel like you’re really listening to me these days. When I’m with you, it feels like you’re thinking about other things. You’re preoccupied.”
2. Talk about how it hurt you.
He said to me, “It makes me feel like I don’t matter to you.”
3. Talk about what the consequences are.
My friend said to me, “It feels like there’s distance in our relationship now. There was a time when we were really close, and now it feels like there’s this distance, and that bothers me.”
4. Talk about what needs to change.
You want to make this a constructive thing.
My friend said, “I’d like it to feel like we’re connected when we’re together. I’d like to know that you’re thinking about what I’m saying. And that when we’re together, you’re fully with me.”
You see, it was possible to resolve this conflict, because he named it. He talked about it tactfully, but directly.
So that’s the sixth thing: discuss the problem directly.
Then, number seven. And this one is real critical. Number seven is: You do all of this for the purpose of reconciliation, in order to win the other person back.
Jesus says, “the aim is reconciliation.”
So the principle here is:
Aim at reconciliation.
It’s so important that we have clarity that the goal of Jesus’ instruction is reconciliation—to win back the other person, to restore the relationship.
Because otherwise it’ll subvert the whole deal.
Some time ago, back when I lived in San Diego. I had to park our car in the downtown area, so I was parallel parking on a very busy one-way street.
There was a guy in a car behind me, and he was very frustrated because he just had to wait while I was maneuvering my car. He couldn’t pull around me because of the traffic.
He just had to wait, and he did not like it at all. He was not happy about this.
So when I finally got into my parking space, he felt the need to share some of his thoughts and feelings with me.
You know how sometimes you try to think of something, and it just doesn’t hit you right, and like at one o’clock in the morning you wake up in bed and you say, “That’s what I should have told him.” This is one of those deals with this guy.
He pulled up next to me. He wanted to say something, but it took him a couple of minutes. He just couldn’t think of what exactly the right thing was to say to inflict, you know, what it was he wanted to inflict.
And so, finally, not able to think of anything else, he just rolled down the window and yelled at me, “What’s your problem…”
And then, he called me a name which I won’t repeat here, but it was a part of my anatomy. I’ll just let you guess. It was not too far north, not too far south. Just below the equator.
Now, stay with me here. This was a profound question he asked me. And I’ve thought about it a lot since.
It would be a great title for a message series —- “What’s Your Problem?”
Because it gets right at the human condition.
But he didn’t stick around to discuss it with me. He didn’t really care what my problem was. He just asked me this terribly provocative question and then left, drove away. I never saw him again.
Now here’s what I want to point out.
This guy did a lot of things right according to this Matthew 18:15 model. He followed a lot of the steps really well.
Did he acknowledge that there was conflict? With passion and clarity. He took full initiative.
He did not wait for someone else to deal with it. He came; he was not passive. He came directly to me.
He did not complain about me to other people on the street so that there were motorists gossiping about me and so on. He came directly to me.
It was a private conversation. Just the two of us, alone.
His communication was impressively direct. I knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling.
He got six out of seven. That’s not bad, is it?
Do you think Jesus was pleased with his intervention?
I don’t think so. Because the last point is the most important one of all.
If the aim of your heart, if your goal, is reconciliation, it doesn’t mean that there’s no anger. There may still be feelings of anger.
But if the aim of your heart can be to work for the best, for yourself and the other person, to work for reconciliation… if that is really the aim of your heart, then that aim of your heart will really protect you as you go through the process. That will just kind of leak through the other six steps.
But if that’s not the aim of your heart, if you’re not ready to do this seventh step, you’re probably not ready for the first six.
Because, and it’s important that you understand this, direct confrontation doesn’t always do good.
Sometimes, if the aim is not reconciliation, if the aim instead is to inflict pain on someone, sometimes it just escalates the conflict. It can do damage. It can do deep emotional damage. It can, and very often does, lead to violence.
So it is just critical that we understand together this key seventh step which is, the aim has to be reconciliation.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel any anger, doesn’t mean that you pretend the person did nothing wrong or that you condone what that person did (or what you did if you were at fault). But it means the aim has to be reconciliation.
Now I need to mention also that as Jesus lays this out in Matthew, Chapter 18, He adds a kind of appeals process.
He says, “If you do this… If you do it as well and thoughtfully and carefully as you can, and it still doesn’t resolve the problem…”
That will not happen often, but if that’s the case, then you may need to seek help. He says, “Get a few other people involved in the process.”
And understand, he doesn’t mean here get some good friends that will help you gang up on the other person.
Get some people of integrity that you both can trust, wise people that you mutually respect.
And if that doesn’t work, as an absolute last resort, there may need to be a formal church process. The way it often works is the church leaders or church elders step in. That may need to happen.
Again, I just want to underline here, this is only in very rare cases. This should not happen often. And it should never happen unless you’ve gone as far as you can in directly, openly, courageously, lovingly dealing with it yourself.
I just want to clarity this because I don’t want our elders getting a hundred emails from people who have a cranky neighbor and they want the elders to come in and straighten that person out.
The elders will get mad at me, and then I would have to have an intervention with them in private and I’d rather just bypass that whole deal. Okay?
The last step…
And then Jesus says, “If you do all of this, and there can still be no reconciliation, sometimes…” I don’t think this is often, but sometimes, if reconciliation is impossible, “you just have to let go of it.”
Sometimes the pain and the damage runs so deep, that there just has to be distance between you and another person. Sometimes there has to be.
Now that’s always a sad thing. And I think there’s a kind of mourning or grief that’s appropriate to that. That’s not God’s dream, and that ought not to be our dream either.
And that is not something that ought to happen casually.
But there are times when you’ve worked through everything as honestly and as hopefully and as lovingly and bravely as you can, and there cannot be reconciliation. The other person is just so full of toxicity or bitterness that reconciliation is impossible.
And to continue to interact with each other just increases the pain. And so it may be that you just need to let go of the relationship. Maybe there just needs to be separation and distance.
Now, I think if and when that happens, it should be with the hope that one day there can be reconciliation. But you need to know, sometimes things reach that point and you just simply need to let go.
Now the challenge that I want to leave us with is to take action this week.
You may be in conflict right now, and you just need to go directly to another person.
And I want you to make a decision about that right now, a high value commitment that you’re going to go.
Maybe you have not gone yet, because you’re not ready to go yet, because your aim would not be reconciliation if you were to go. So you need to do some work in your heart first.
Maybe you’re not in any conflict right now. As honestly as you can assess it, there’s no conflict on your radar. So you need to go out and irritate someone this week. Get in some conflict this week.
My guess is, if we’re honest about it, there’s someone we need to deal with. So let’s just commit to a lifestyle of following Matthew 18 when dealing with conflict.
Because I’ll tell you something, if you do this, if you take Jesus up on this, you will discover, even if you don’t do it well, even if you stutter and stammer your way through it, there will be joy and light released in your heart and in your spirit and in your relationships that will just blow you away.
And if we develop into a church where we take this seriously, where we’re committed to dealing with relational breakdown in a God honoring way, to taking seriously Jesus’ instruction on this, there will be a kind of community that will break forth in our midst that people will just break the doors down to be a part of.
And it can be done. You can do it. You really can. With God’s help, you really can.
Alright, let me close with a prayer and then Michaela and the team will lead us in a closing song.
God, thank you so much that you do not leave us alone or abandoned, that you want to be in community with us, that when our relationship with you broke down, you took the initiative to bring about reconciliation between us and you.
Help us to be like you. Help us to take initiative, to go privately, with sensitivity, and discuss the problem directly, to restore and reconcile relationships.
We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Blue Oaks Church