It happens in families, marriages, friendships, and even in the workplace. You do something that inadvertently offends another person. And naturally, you have no idea that you have offended them because you did it inadvertently. But to the one you have offended, what you have done is grossly odious and nearly unforgivable. And you can tell that this person is now acting differently toward you. They are distant, detached, and disconnected. And so you begin sleuthing to find out what went wrong. It begins with a simple question: "Hey, is everything alright? Are you okay? What's wrong?" And then comes the one-word answer, ubiquitous to situations like this: "Nothing." But you know, just by their posture, their tone, and the way they refuse to make eye contact with you, that something's wrong. And so you repeat your question, this time more emphatically: "Are you sure nothing's wrong?" But the offended person belligerently sticks to their guns: "Nothing's wrong!" They may even add, "I don't want to talk about it."
It seems that a common way of addressing conflict is simply not to address it. Answers such as "Nothing" and "I don't want to talk about it" are meant to shut down conversations that could lead to forgiveness and reconciliation between an offender and an offended before they even begin. Granted, sometimes we all need "a little space" and "some breathing room" to process our pain. But far too often, these elusive and downright false answers of "Nothing" and "I don't want to talk about it" are not so much requests for time to emotionally reflect as they are efforts at retaliating against a person who has offended us. We figure if we just cut them out of our life, we'll hurt them like they hurt us.
In our reading for today from Matthew 18, Jesus shows us a different way to confront conflict: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you" (verse 15). I like the way the ESV translates this same verse: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone." Did you catch that? "Go and tell him his fault." In other words, have a conversation with him. Don't just vindictively give him icy looks and cold shoulders in retaliation for some sin that is unbeknownst to him. For a conversation needs to be had, even if not right away.
The final goal of having such a conversation, even if it's difficult or awkward, is so that "you can win your brother over" (verse 15). Indeed, this is why Jesus spends the balance of this chapter talking about forgiveness and its primacy in the Christian life. The desire in having a conversation with someone who has offended you should be to forgive them for their offense and, if possible, to reconcile and restore your relationship with them. But first, you have to talk to them.
I have a four-year-old nephew named Nicholas who, like all little boys, has moments of shyness. One night, we had him and his brother Noah over for supper when Nicholas jumped up from the table and headed off to play. Melody, not pleased by his lack of manners, summoned him back to the table and asked him, "Nicholas, what do you say?" For at their house, they need to ask, "May I be excused please?" before they're allowed to leave the table. But rather than asking that appropriate question when he was summoned back to our table, he just stood there, turning beet read. So Melody asked again, "Nicholas, what do you say?" But again, Nicholas continued to stand there in stunned silence. Finally, Melody looked at Nicholas straight in the eyes and said, "Nicholas! Use your words! What do you say?" Finally the response came: "May I be excused please?"
The reminder that Melody gave to my four-year-old nephew is a reminder that we all need from time to time: "Use your words!" When someone offends us, sins against us, or hurts our feelings, rather than estranging ourselves from them or telling them, "Nothing's wrong," we need to "use our words" and confront the situation head-on. For this is Jesus' prescription for forgiveness.
So today, is there anyone you need to "use your words" with? If so, have a conversation with them. Try to reconcile with them. Extend forgiveness to them. For it's only through forgiveness that the answer to the question, "What's wrong?" can truly be, "Nothing." And that's an answer that's freeing, beautiful, and wonderful to give... when we really mean it.