August 31, 2023

The “If “Factor

by Dr. Daniel Borg – Regional Director

In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus laid out a four-step procedure to follow when people sin against you. 1) Go to them. 2) If that doesn’t work, take another with you and go to them. 3) If that doesn’t work, take it to the church. 4) and if that doesn’t work treat them as outsiders. In other words, dismiss them from the church. That’s an awesome procedure that if used in the right way leads to reconciliation and peace.

However, I’ve seen people misuse those steps, to treat them as a checklist to see how fast they can get to step 4. I’ve heard people say, “I talked to him one-to-one. That’s step 1. Then I took my best friend with me, and we talked to him. That’s step 2. It didn’t go well. Then I complained about him to church leaders. Step 3. So, I followed steps one, two, and three. Now I get to disregard him as a fellow Christian and to treat him an outsider. Now I’m justified being mean-spirited and nasty toward him because I’ve done the biblical thing. I followed steps one, two, and three, so I’m taking step 4. He offended me and I’m going to get even and make him pay.”

I know that sounds dramatic and extreme, but I have heard that text misused in that way, as a sprint to get to step 4. That is NOT what Jesus intended. So, let’s look at what Jesus did intend. It starts with a simple two-letter word, “if.”

Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15-17, ESV). It’s easy to jump to the “go and tell him his fault” phase without giving serious consideration to the “if your brother sins against you” phrase. That first word is important. “If” is a big word. Sometimes the offense doesn’t really pass the “if” test. People often get offended over very small things. Social media is a breeding ground for petty misunderstandings and perceived offenses. And it’s not only in social media. It can happen in face-to-face interactions, too. Years ago, a pastor friend was sharply criticized for some very petty things. He was criticized for playing too hard at volleyball. Another person said, “When he shakes my hand and says ‘good morning’ I know he doesn’t mean it.” Petty criticisms, they didn’t pass the “if” test.

Sometimes what people take as an offense may be very small or unintended. Such offenses can just be let go. Too many times we make a big deal out of small things. Some people always have their antenna up, looking for an offense. They live foolish and conflicted lives.  Proverbs 19:11 (ESV) says about the person with good sense, “It is to his glory to overlook an offense.” If a matter doesn’t pass the “if your brother sins against you” test, just let it go.

However, some people let it go too often. They allow their relationships to get distorted. They get hurt. They store up anger. It turns to bitterness. That’s not good. It may be to one’s glory to overlook an offense, but it depends on the offense. It’s to no one’s glory to become a doormat or to enable bad behavior.  And while there are peacemakers and peace-breakers, there are also peace-fakers. It’s great to overlook an offense, if you can really overlook it, but it doesn’t serve anybody well to fake peace. 

So, if you have been sinned against, Jesus said to “go” to the one who has sinned against you. “Going” is best done face-to-face. Second best is over zoom or phone. Email, text, or social media are the worst ways to go. Without the benefit of non-verbal cues responses are generally received with a more negative bias, which only adds to the conflict.

“Going” one-to-one is the beginning of the four-step process meant to bring reconciliation. Jesus continued, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15, ESV). The second part of the “if” test is for the purpose of gaining back your brother or sister. It’s for reconciliation, not for revenge, criticism, or blame. “If” he listens, you have gained back the relationship. The next step is to go to the offender again, this time taking one or two others along. If reconciliation is not reached the matter is to go to the church. But in every step, the goal is reconciliation. Too many times the “going” to the offender is filled with such venom that it is nearly impossible for that person to listen to the offense.

I sometimes hear people say, “I always like to tell it like it is.” The problem is that people don’t always like to hear it like it is, or at least the way you tell it. When the biblical leader Daniel was put in a tense situation it says he spoke with “wisdom and tact” (Daniel 2:14, NIV). Another translation says with “prudence and discretion” (Daniel 2:14, ESV). And because he spoke in such a way, instead of putting him to death the commander of the king’s guard listened to Daniel. It led to a positive ending. People were reconciled.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, ESV). Peacemakers know the importance of the two-step “if” test. And only “if” they have been sinned against, do they go to the one who has offended them. They think through the “if” before they “go.” And they know that “if” they are listened to, the relationship is restored. So, peacemakers speak in a way that allows others to listen.

Be a peacemaker. Take the “if” test before confronting another. Then go in such a way the “if” the other listens, you will be reconciled.