For the last couple of weeks we have opened the front door wide open to the topic of reconciliation. Each week we've gone to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, and we've discovered that the cross of Jesus is the hardware or the instrument not only of our reconciliation with God but also of our reconciliation with one another.
I want you to open your Bibles to Romans 12. This is a pivotal chapter in the Book of Romans. In the first 11 chapters, Paul has talked about the experience and the encounter of the Cross, and in the last several chapters, he turns his attention to the effects of the Cross—how we live with the Cross as it affects our lives. Paul begins chapter 12 with the words "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters …." As you look back to the mercies of God and the Cross of Jesus Christ, he's saying, this is how you're supposed to live. In Romans 12:17-21, Paul gives us some very important principles regarding reconciliation. Hear the Word of God:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Try to do what is right.
What Paul writes in this passage is really rich, and in this passage I want you to see some principles regarding inter-personal conflict. The first principle that we see in this passage is kind of a preemptive principle that Paul mentions in verse 17. He says: "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone."
If we all followed that principle, we wouldn't have need for messages regarding reconciliation. If we did what was right, if we acted in a right way with other people, and if they said and acted in right ways with us, we wouldn't have need to go and apologize to one another. It's a good cautionary principle that Paul starts off with: try to live rightly, and you will have less need for this issue of reconciliation in your life.
The reality is that we don't always do the right thing, and other people don't always do the right thing with us. As a result we end up in conflict with one another, and these relationships of peace that God designed for us in the very beginning—our relationships with our spouse, our children, our neighbors, our church family, our coworkers—these relationships of peace get disturbed with inter-personal conflict, and reconciliation becomes necessary.
Reconciliation takes two.
Now the good news is that some of you are getting it. I've been astounded at how you have responded to this charge of reconciliation. Some of you have had very daring and difficult conversations with other people. One difficult thing about reconciliation is that we never know how the other person will respond. That's a fearful thing. Our text today teaches that reconciliation takes two. Listen to what Paul writes in this passage: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." We're to seek out reconciliation, but there's no guarantee that someone else will be willing to be reconciled to you. So as far as it depends on you, seek to live at peace with your mom, with your sisters, with other people, but there's no guarantee that those people will be reconciled to you.
Dave, our worship pastor, came up with a great model that really helped me to understand how this works. He explained that reconciliation is the middle place between two people. It's the center. On either side of this topic of reconciliation is the work of repentance and the response of forgiveness. In every relationship of conflict, someone needs to repent and somebody else needs to forgive, right? You can only bring one of those things to the table. You might be prepared to repent and say, "You know what, I'm sorry. I should not have said that about you. I should not have done that." But if the other person's not willing to forgive, you will not have reconciliation. Similarly, God may have moved some of us here to forgive—to forgive a past hurt, to forgive abuse, to forgive some inequity or something that's gone wrong—and you might be prepared to forgive, but if the other person in your life is not prepared to repent and acknowledge what they've done, then you will never have reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two.
This is a picture of the work of God in our lives. God did for us what we couldn't do for ourselves. He sent his Son Jesus Christ to Earth in order to reconcile human beings to himself. He went to the cross. He paid the penalty for sin. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, and the reconciliation of humanity to God has been accomplished at the cross. But what is still required? We have to respond with faith. If we're not willing to respond with repentance in faith toward God, then there will be no reconciliation between God and man. It takes two.
So, as far as it depends on you and me, we will seek to live at peace with all people. But there's no guarantee how other people will respond. It always takes two.
Reconciliation takes time.
Here's another principle that I want you to know: Reconciliation takes time. It takes only a moment to wound, but it sometimes takes weeks and months and years to stitch relationships back together. Time can be really healthy, because it's wise for us to take time to pray, to seek God, to calm down, to take a deep breath, to gather our thoughts, to search the Scriptures, and to seek counsel. But don't let time distract you from the importance of reconciliation. Some of us are putting reconciliation off. We make the excuse that we just need some more time. Instead, we're being robbed of the spiritual work, the courageous, difficult, challenging work of just going to someone and saying, "Because God is at work in my life, and the cross is at work in me, I need to come and humble myself and ask your forgiveness. I want to see if we can stitch this relationship back together."
Reconciliation does not ignore justice.
Let me teach you another principle from this passage: Reconciliation does not ignore justice. Sometime the difficulty that we have in reconciling with other people is that we know they're continuing to do wrong things. You think, How can I reconcile when they continue to perpetuate this evil or this abuse or this inequity? If I try to reconcile, they're just sort of let off the hook; they'll just go and do whatever they want to do. Listen to what Paul says in verse 19: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath." Revenge is the opposite of reconciliation. Revenge is our attempt to level the playing field by executing justice our way. But Paul says, "Do not take revenge, but leave room for God's wrath." That statement has both a human and a divine dimension. The human dimension Paul brings up is that we must resist executing our own brand of justice among other people. As much as we want to shake a finger, as much as we want to zap someone, as much as we want to kick the legs out from underneath people, we need to resist executing our own brand of justice and instead offer forgiveness.
So the question is, What does forgiveness look like? Does forgiveness mean that we just let people just continue to live their own way? No. Let me tell you what forgiveness looks like in Scripture.
First, you don't tell other people what someone has done to wound you. You don't continue to share the story with siblings and friends and neighbors. You keep the offense private. That's part of forgiveness. You also don't try to intimidate, threaten, or make the person who has offended you feel guilty, even though he or she might be guilty. That's forgiveness. Forgiveness means that you let the other person save face, even though they really ought to just be called out. Forgiveness means that you pray blessings over them. And according to verse 20, forgiveness means that you actually participate in acts of kindness toward them: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Paul is talking about an act of contrition or conviction that ancient cultures used to have. Paul means that when you show acts of grace and you go out of your way to be a blessing to other people, that grace is the overflow of the cross at work in your life and has a convicting influence on other people. That grace can soften the human heart. Conviction is not guaranteed, but the blessing of forgiveness, rather than the taking of revenge, can actually turn people's heart towards reconciliation. That's the human dimension—that we resist taking justice into our own hands.
At the same time, while we resist taking revenge, we trust in God's ability to execute justice in his own time. Paul says to leave room for the wrath of God. You see, when you were offended or when you were robbed or when you were abused, God never stepped off his throne. He was never unknowing. He was not surprised. And it is in God's nature to be just. That's who God is. The guarantee of this passage is that God will repay. He will avenge. Leave room for God to be God. You might be wondering what that would look like. How will I know that God will serve justice regarding this thing that has hurt me so much in my life? Sometimes God will use human administration. He'll use the court system. He'll use the authorities that he has set up in this life. But if he doesn't choose to bring justice now, there is a guarantee in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that all of us will stand in the presence of God and be held accountable for everything we've done, whether good or bad. In the end God is always just. Paul is encouraging us to forgive and to reconcile and leave room for God to do what God promises he will do.
Reconciliation maintains boundaries.
I want to point out one more principle from this text. Just as reconciliation does not obliterate justice, so reconciliation does not mean the removal of boundaries. Listen to what Paul says in verse 21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Paul is speaking about the way we reconcile with and relate to one another. He warns us to be careful. When somebody throws words at you, don't you turn around and throw words back at them. When somebody hits you, don't you turn around and hit them. Don't play the same game. But he also says to be careful that you don't allow evil to come in and distort this work of reconciliation that God wants to bring about in your life.
One of the ways the enemy frustrates us in reconciling relationships is by causing us to let down our guard in the area of boundaries. All of us have healthy relational boundaries, and I think part of the confusion with reconciliation is that we can start to think that reconciliation with someone means we need to give them permission to come in and do whatever they want in our lives again. This is not the case. It is appropriate for us to maintain healthy, right, good, godly boundaries in our lives.
What does this mean? It means that if you have stolen money from the church, I can forgive you, but I'm not going to let you count the offering money on Monday morning again. It means that if you're an alcoholic and you abused me when I was a child, I'm not going to drop my children off at your house for the weekend. It means that if you have violated my confidence, I'm probably not going to share secrets with you. We can be friends. I can speak well about you. I can even pray great blessings over your life. But having boundaries means that I'm going to be cautious and careful in my relationship with you until trust is rebuilt and I feel like I can go a little bit further. The maintaining of boundaries is not at odds with reconciliation. In fact, I think it's healthy and right for us to maintain appropriate, biblical, relational boundaries in our lives.
Let's not lose sight of the courageous spiritual work of reconciling relationships in our lives.
God, we pray for whatever you want to do in us. Release us to be agents of the cross. Give us the freedom and the courage to try to be reconciled in our relationships with others. And I pray, God, that it would be the evidence of the mighty power of the cross and the work of your Spirit in our lives.
David Daniels is the lead pastor of Central Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas.