“Effective Prayer”, From C.H. Spurgeon (Intercession, God’s Comfort & Presence, The Mercy Seat)

Effective Prayer

BY CHarles. H. SPURGEON

“Oh that I knew where I might find Him! that I might come even to His seat! I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” – Job 23:3,4

In Job’s uttermost extremity he cried after the Lord. The longing desire of an afflicted child of God is once more to see his Father’s face. His first prayer is not, “Oh that I might be healed of the disease which now festers in every part of my body!” nor even, “Oh that I might see my children restored from the jaws of the grave, and my property once more brought from the hand of the spoiler!” but the first and uttermost cry is “Oh that I knew where I might find Him — who is my God! that I might come even to His seat!”

God’s children run home when the storm comes on. It is the heaven-born instinct of a gracious soul to seek shelter from all ills beneath the wings of Jehovah. “He that hath made his refuge God,” might serve as the title of a true believer. A hypocrite, when he feels that he has been afflicted by God, resents the infliction, and, like a slave, would run from the master who has scourged him; but not so the true heir of heaven, he kisses the hand which smote him, and seeks shelter from the rod in the bosom of that very God who frowned upon him.

You will observe that the desire to commune with God is intensified by the failure of all other sources of consolation. When Job first saw his friends at a distance, he may have entertained a hope that their kindly counsel and compassionate tenderness would blunt the edge of his grief; but they had not long spoken before he cried out in bitterness, “Miserable comforters are ye all.” They put salt into his wounds, they heaped fuel upon the flame of his sorrow, they added the gall of their upbraidings to the wormwood of his griefs. In the sunshine of his smile they once had longed to sun themselves, and now they dare to cast shadows upon his reputation, most ungenerous and undeserved.

So the patriarch turned away from his sorry friends and looked up to the celestial throne, just as a traveller turns from his empty skin bottle and betakes himself with all speed to the well. He bids farewell to earthborn hopes, and cries, “Oh that I knew where I might find my God!” Nothing teaches us so much that preciousness of the Creator as when we learn the emptiness of all besides. When you have been pierced through and through with the sentence, “Cursed is he that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm,” then will you suck unutterable sweetness from the divine assurance, “Blessed is he that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is.” Turning away with bitter scorn from earth’s hives, where you found no honey, but many sharp stings, you will rejoice in Him Whose faithful word is sweeter than honey or the honeycomb.

It is further observable that though a good man hastens to God in his trouble, and runs with all the more speed because of the unkindness of his fellow men, yet sometimes the gracious soul is left without the comfortable presence of God. This is the worst of all griefs; the text is one of Job’s deep groans, far deeper than any which came from him on account of the loss of his children and his property: “Oh that I knew where I might find Him!”

The worst of all losses is to lose the smile of my God. He now had a foretaste of the bitterness of his Redeemer’s cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” God’s presence is always with His people in one sense, so far as secretly sustaining them is concerned, but His manifest presence they do not always enjoy. Like the spouse in the song, they seek their beloved by night upon their bed, they seek him but they find him not; and though they wake and roam through the city they may not discover him and the question may be sadly asked again and again, “Saw ye Him whom my soul loveth?” You may be beloved of God, and yet have no consciousness of that love in your soul. You may be as dear to His heart as Jesus Christ Himself, and yet for a small moment He may forsake you, and in a little wrath He may hide Himself from you.

But at such times the desire of the believing soul gathers yet greater intensity from the fact of God’s light being withheld. Instead of saying with proud lip, “Well, if He leaves me I must do without Him; if I cannot have His comfortable presence I must fight on as best may be,” the soul says, “No, it is my very life; I must have my God. I perish, I sink in deep mire where there is no standing, and nothing but the arm of God can deliver me.” The gracious soul addresses itself with a double zeal to find out God, and sends up its groans, its entreaties, its sobs and sighs to heaven more frequently and fervently. “Oh that I knew where I might find Him!” Distance or labour are as nothing; if the soul only knew where to go she would soon overleap the distance. She makes no stipulation about mountains or rivers, but vows that if she knew where, she would come even to His seat. My soul in her hunger would break through stone walls, or scale the battlements of heaven to reach her God, and though there were seven hells between me and Him, yet would I face the flame if I might reach Him, nothing daunted if I had but the prospect of at last standing in His presence and feeling the delight of His love. That seems to me to be the state of mind in which Job pronounced the words before us.

But we cannot stop at this point. It appears that Job’s end, in desiring the presence of God, was that he might pray to Him. He had prayed, but he wanted to pray as in God’s presence. He desired to plead as before One whom he knew would hear and help him. He longed to state his own case before the seat of the impartial Judge, before the very face of the all-wise God; he would appeal from the lower courts, where his friends judged unrighteous judgment, to the Court of King’s Bench-the High Court of heaven-there, says he, “I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments.”

In this latter verse Job teaches us how he meant to plead and intercede with God. He does, as it were, reveal the secrets of his closet, and unveils the art of prayer. We are here admitted into the guild of suppliants; we are shown the art and mystery of pleading; we have here taught to us the blessed handicraft and science of prayer, and if we can be bound apprentice to Job and can have a lesson from Job’s master, we may acquire no little skill in interceding with God.

I. ORDERING OUR CAUSE BEFORE GOD

There is a popular notion that prayer is a very easy thing, a kind of common business that may be done anyhow, without care or effort. Some think that you have only to reach a book down and get through a certain number of very excellent words, and you have prayed and may put the book up again. Others suppose that to use a book is superstitious and that you ought rather to repeat extemporaneous sentences, sentences which come to your mind with a rush, like a herd of swine or a pack of hounds, and that when you have uttered them with some little attention to what you have said, you have prayed.

Now neither of these modes of prayer were adopted by ancient saints. They appear to have thought a great deal more seriously of prayer than many do nowadays. It seems to have been a mighty business with them, a long-practised exercise, in which some of them attained great eminence, and were thereby singularly blest. They reaped great harvests in the field of prayer, and found the mercy seat to be a mine of untold treasures.

The ancient saints were given, with Job, to ordering their cause before God. As a petitioner coming into court does not come there without thought to state his case on the spur of the moment, but enters into the audience chamber with his suit well prepared, having also learned how he ought to behave himself in the presence of the great one to whom he is appealing; so it is well to approach the seat of the King of kings as much as possible with premeditation and preparation, knowing what we are about, where we are standing, and what it is which we desire to obtain. In times of peril and distress we may fly to God just as we are, as the dove enters the cleft of the rock, even though her plumes are ruffled; but in ordinary times we should not come with an unprepared spirit, even as a child does not come to his father in the morning till he has washed his face.

See the priest over there; he has a sacrifice to offer, but he does not rush into the court of the priests and hack at the bullock with the first pole-axe upon which he can lay his hand, but when he rises he washes his feet at the brazen laver, he puts on his garments, and adorns himself with his priestly vestments. Then he comes to the altar with his victim properly divided according to the law, and is careful to do according to the command, even to such a simple matter as the placing of the fat, and the liver, and the kidneys. He takes the blood in a bowl and pours it in an appropriate place at the foot of the altar, not throwing it just as it may occur to him, and he kindles the fire not with common flame, but with the sacred fire off the altar. Now this ritual is all superseded, but the truth which it taught remains the same; our spiritual sacrifices should be offered with holy carefulness. God forbid that our prayer should be a mere leaping out of bed and kneeling down, and saying anything that comes first to hand. On the contrary, may we wait upon the Lord with holy fear and sacred awe.

See how David prayed when God had blessed him-he went in before the Lord. Understand that; he did not stand outside at a distance, but he went in before the Lord and he sat down-for sitting is not a bad posture for prayer, let who will speak against it-and sitting down quietly and calmly before the Lord he then began to pray, but not until first he had thought over the divine goodness, and so attained to the spirit of prayer. Then by the assistance of the Holy Ghost did he open his mouth. Oh that we oftener sought the Lord in this manner!

David puts it, “In the morning will I direct my prayer unto Thee, and will look up” [Psalm 5:3]; which I have frequently explained to you to mean that he marshalled his thoughts like men of war, or that he aimed his prayers like arrows. He did not take the arrow and put it on the bowstring and shoot, and shoot, and shoot anywhere; but after he had taken out the chosen shaft, and fitted it to the string, he took deliberate aim. He looked-looked well-at the white of the target; kept his eye fixed on it, directing his prayer, and then drew his bow with all his strength and let the arrow fly; and then, when the shaft had left his hand, what does he say? “I will look up.” He looked up to see where the arrow went, to see what effect it had; for he expected an answer to his prayers, and was not as many who scarcely think of their prayers after they have uttered them.

David knew that he had an engagement before him which required all his mental powers; He marshalled up his faculties and went about the work in a workmanlike manner, as one who believed in it and meant to succeed. We should plough carefully and pray carefully. The better the work the more attention it deserves. To be anxious in the shop and thoughtless in the closet is little less than blasphemy, for it is an insinuation that anything will do for God, but the world must have our best.

If any ask what order should be observed in prayer, I am not about to give you a scheme such as many have drawn out, in which adoration, confession, petition, intercession, and ascription are arranged in succession. I am not persuaded that any such order is of divine authority. It is to no mere mechanical order I have been referring, for our prayers will be equally acceptable, and possibly equally proper, in any form; for there are specimens of prayers, in all shapes, in the Old and New Testaments.

The true spiritual order of prayer seems to me to consist in something more than mere arrangement. It is most fitting for us to feel that we are now doing something that is real; that we are about to address ourselves to God, Whom we cannot see, but Who is really present; Whom we can neither touch nor hear, nor by our senses can apprehend, but Who, nevertheless, is as truly with us as though we were speaking to a friend of flesh and blood like ourselves.

Feeling the reality of God’s presence, our mind will be led by divine grace into a humble state; we shall feel like Abraham, when he said, “I have taken upon myself to speak unto God, I that am but dust and ashes.” [Genesis 18:27] Consequently we shall not deliver ourselves of our prayer as boys repeating their lessons, as a mere matter of routine, much less shall we speak as if we were rabbis instructing our pupils, or as I have heard some do, with the coarseness of a highwayman stopping a person on the road and demanding his purse of him; but we shall be humble yet bold petitioners, humbly importuning mercy through the Saviour’s blood.

We shall not have the reserve of a slave but the loving reverence of a child, yet not an impudent, impertinent child, but a teachable obedient child, honouring his Father, and therefore asking earnestly, but with deferential submission to his Father’s will. When I feel that I am in the presence of God, and take my rightful position in that presence, the next thing I shall want to recognise will be that I have no right to what I am seeking, and cannot expect to obtain it except as a gift of grace, and I must recollect that God limits the channel through which He will give me mercy-He will give it to me through His dear Son. Let me put myself then under the patronage of the great Redeemer. Let me feel that now it is no longer I that speak but Christ that speaketh with me, and that while I plead, I plead His wounds, His life, His death, His blood, Himself. This is truly getting into order.

What am I to ask for? It is most proper in prayer, to aim at great distinctness of supplication. There is much reason to complain of some public prayers, that those who offer them do not really ask God for anything. I must acknowledge I fear to having so prayed myself, and certainly to having heard many prayers of the kind, in which I did not feel that anything was sought for from God-a great deal of very excellent doctrinal and experimental matter uttered, but little real petitioning, and that little in a nebulous kind of state, chaotic and unformed. But it seems to me that prayer should be distinct, the asking for something definitely and distinctly because the mind has realised its distinct need of such a thing, and therefore must plead for it. It is well not to beat round the bush in prayer, but to come directly to the point. I like that prayer of Abraham’s, “Oh that Ishmael might live before thee!” [Genesis 17:18] There is the name and the person prayed for, and the blessing desired, all put in a few words,–“Ishmael might live before thee.” Many persons would have used a roundabout expression of this kind, “Oh that our beloved offspring might be regarded with the favour which Thou bearest to those who,” etc. Say “Ishmael,” if you mean “Ishmael”; put it in plain words before the Lord. Some people cannot even pray for the minister without using such circular descriptives that you might think it were the parish beadle, or somebody whom it did not do to mention too particularly.

Why not be distinct, and say what we mean as well as mean what we say? Ordering our cause would bring us to greater distinctness of mind. It is not necessary in the closet to ask for every supposable good thing; it is not necessary to rehearse the catalogue of every want that you may have, have had, can have, or shall have. Ask for what you now need, and, as a rule, keep to present need; ask for your daily bread-what you want now-ask for that. Ask for it plainly, as before God, who does not regard our fine expressions, and to whom your eloquence and oratory will be less than nothing and vanity. You are before the Lord; let your words be few, but let your heart be fervent.

You have not quite completed the ordering when you have asked for what you want through Jesus Christ. There should be a looking round the blessing which you desire, to see whether it is assuredly a fitting thing to ask; for some prayers would never be offered if men did but think. A little reflection would show to us that some things which we desire were better let alone. We may, moreover, have a motive at the bottom of our desire which is not Christ-like, a selfish motive, which forgets God’s glory and caters only for our own ease and comfort. Now although we may ask for things which are for our profit, yet still we must never let our profit interfere in any way with the glory of God.

There must be mingled with acceptable prayer the holy salt of submission to the divine will. I like Luther’s saying, “Lord, I will have my will of Thee at this time.” “What!” say you, “Like such an expression as that?” I do, because of the next clause, which was, “I will have my will, for I know that my will is Thy will.” That is well spoken, Luther; but without the last words it would have been wicked presumption. When we are sure that what we ask for is for God’s glory, then, if we have power in prayer, we may say, “I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me” [Genesis 32:26]: we may come to close dealings with God, and like Jacob with the angel we may even wrestle and seek to give the angel the fall sooner than be sent away without the benediction. But we must be quite clear, before we come to such terms as those, that what we are seeking is really for the Master’s honour.

Put these three things together, the deep spirituality which recognises prayer as being real conversation with the invisible God-much distinctness which is the reality of prayer, asking for what we know we want-and much fervency, believing the thing to be necessary, and therefore resolving to obtain it if it can be had by prayer, and above all these, complete submission, leaving it still with the Master’s will;–commingle all these, and you have a clear idea of what it is to order your cause before the Lord.

Still prayer itself is an art which only the Holy Ghost can teach us. He is the giver of all prayer. Pray for prayer-pray till you can pray; pray to be helped to pray, and give not up praying because you cannot pray, for it is when you think you cannot pray that you are most praying. Sometimes when you have no sort of comfort in your supplications, it is then that your heart all broken and cast down is really wrestling and truly prevailing with the Most High.

II. FILLING OUR MOUTH WITH ARGUMENTS

Not filling the mouth with words nor good phrases, nor pretty expressions, but filling the mouth with arguments, as the ancient saints were wont to argue in prayer. When we come to the gate of mercy forcible arguments are the knocks of the rapper by which the gate is opened.

Why are arguments to be used at all? The reply is, certainly not because God is slow to give, not because God needs to be informed of any circumstance with regard to ourselves or of anything in connection with the mercy asked. The arguments to be used are for our own benefit not for His. He requires us to plead with Him, and to bring forth our strong reasons, as Isaiah says [Isaiah 41:21], because this will show that we feel the value of the mercy. When a man searches for arguments for a thing it is because he attaches importance to that which he is seeking.

Again, our use of arguments teaches us the ground upon which we obtain the blessing. If a man should come with the argument of his own merit, he would never succeed; the successful argument is always founded upon grace, and hence the soul so pleading is made to understand intensely that it is by grace and by grace alone that a sinner obtains anything of the Lord. Besides, the use of arguments is intended to stir up our fervency. The man who uses one argument with God will get more force in using the next, and will use the next with still greater power, and the next with more force still.

The best prayers I have ever heard in our prayer meetings have been those which have been fullest of argument. Sometimes my soul has been fairly melted down when I have listened to brethren who have come before God feeling the mercy to be really needed, and that they must have it, for they first pleaded with God to give it for this reason, and then for a second, and then for a third, and then for a fourth and a fifth, until they have awakened the fervency of the entire assembly.

There is no need for prayer at all as far as God is concerned, but what a need there is for it on our own account! If we were not constrained to pray, I question whether we could even live as Christians. If God’s mercies came to us unasked, they would not be half so useful as they now are, when they have to be sought for; for now we get a double blessing, a blessing in the obtaining, and a blessing in the seeking. The very act of prayer is a blessing. To pray is as it were to bathe oneself in a cool stream, and so to escape from the heats of earth’s summer sun. To pray is to mount on eagle’s wings above the clouds and get into the clear heaven where God dwells. To pray is to enter the treasure-house of God and to enrich oneself out of an inexhaustible storehouse. To pray is to grasp heaven in one’s arms, to embrace the Deity within one’s soul, and to feel one’s body made a temple of the Holy Ghost. Apart from the answer, prayer is in itself a benediction. To pray is to cast off your burdens, it is to tear away your rags, it is to shake off your diseases, it is to be filled with spiritual vigour, it is to reach the highest point of Christian health. God give us to be much in the holy art of arguing with God in prayer.

The most interesting part of our subject remains; it is a very rapid summary and catalogue of a few of the arguments which have been used with great success with God. I cannot give you a full list; that would require a treatise such as John Owen might produce.

1. God’s attributes

Abraham pleaded this when he laid hold upon God’s justice. Sodom was to be prayed for, and Abraham begins, “Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” [Genesis 18:24-25] Here the wrestling begins. It was a powerful argument by which the patriarch grasped the Lord’s left hand, and arrested it just when the thunderbolt was about to fall.

But there came a reply to it. It was intimated to him that this would not spare the city, and you notice how the good man, when sorely pressed, retreated by inches; and at last, when he could no longer lay hold upon justice, grasped God’s right hand of mercy, and that gave him a wondrous hold when he asked that if there were but ten righteous there the city might be spared. So you and I may take hold at any time upon the justice, the mercy, the faithfulness, the wisdom, the long-suffering, the tenderness of God, and we shall find every attribute of the Most High to be, as it were, a great battering-ram, with which we may open the gates of heaven.

2. God’s promise

When Jacob was on the other side of the brook Jabbok, and his brother Esau was coming with armed men, he pleaded with God not to allow Esau to destroy the mother and the children, and as a master reason he pleaded, “And Thou saidst, Surely I will do thee good.” [Genesis 32:12] Oh the force of that plea! He was holding God to His word: “Thou saidst.” The attribute is a splendid horn of the altar to lay hold upon; but the promise, which has in it the attribute and something more, is a yet mightier holdfast, “Thou saidst.” Remember how David put it. After Nathan had spoken the promise, David said at the close of his prayer, “Do as Thou hast said.” [2 Samuel 7:25] That is a legitimate argument with every honest man, and has He said, and shall He not do it? “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” [Romans 3:4] Shall not He be true? Shall He not keep His word? Shall not every word that comes out of His lips stand fast and be fulfilled?

Solomon, at the opening of the temple, used the same mighty plea. He pleads with God to remember the word which He had spoken to his father David, and to bless that place. When a man gives a promissory note his honour is engaged. He signs his hand, and he must discharge it when the due time comes, or else he loses credit.

It shall never be said that God dishonours His bills. The credit of the Most High never was impeached, and never shall be. He is punctual to the moment; He never is before His time, but He never is behind it. You shall search His Book through, and you shall compare it with the experience of God’s people, and the two tally from the first to the last; and many a hoary patriarch has said with Joshua in his old age, “Not one good thing has failed of all that the Lord God has promised: all has come to pass.” If you have a divine promise, you need not plead that with an “if” in it; you may plead with a certainty.

If for the mercy which you are now asking, you have God’s solemnly pledged word, there will scarce be any room for the caution about submission to His will. You know His will. That will is in the promise; plead it. Do not give Him rest until He fulfil it. He meant to fulfil it, or else He would not have given it. God does not give His words merely to quiet our noise, and to keep us hopeful for a while, with the intention of putting us off at last; but when He speaks, He speaks because He means to act.

3. The great name of God

How mightily did Moses argue with God on one occasion upon this ground! “What wilt Thou do for Thy great name? The Egyptians will say, Because the Lord could not bring them into the land, therefore He slew them in the wilderness.” [Numbers 14:15-16] There are some occasions when the name of God is very closely tied up with the history of His people. Sometimes in reliance upon a divine promise, a believer will be led to take a certain course of action.

Now, if the Lord should not be as good as His promise, not only is the believer deceived, but the wicked world looking on would say, Aha! aha! Where is your God? Take the case of our respected brother, Mr. Muller, of Bristol. For many years he declared that God hears prayer, and firm in that conviction, he went on to build house after house for the maintenance of orphans.

Now, I can very well conceive that, if he had been driven to a point of want of means for the maintenance of those thousand or two thousand children, he might very well have used the plea, “What wilt Thou do for Thy great name?” And you, in some severe trouble, when you have fairly received the promise, may say, “Lord, Thou hast said, ‘In six troubles I will be with thee, and in seven I will not forsake thee.’ I have told my friends and neighbours that I put my trust in thee, and if Thou do not deliver me now, where is Thy name? Arise, O God, and do this thing, lest Thy honour be cast into the dust.”

Coupled with this, we may employ the further arguments of the hard things said by the revilers. It was well done of Hezekiah when he took Rabshakeh’s letter and spread it before the Lord. Will that help him? It is full of blasphemy, will that help him? “Where are the gods of Arphad and Sepharvaim? Where are the gods of the cities which I have overthrown? Let not Hezekiah deceive you, saying that Jehovah will deliver you.” [2 Kings 19; Isaiah 37] Does that have any effect? Oh yes! It was a blessed thing that Rabshakeh wrote that letter, for it provoked the Lord to help His people. Sometimes the child of God can rejoice when he sees his enemies get thoroughly out of temper and take to reviling. “Now,” he says, “they have reviled the Lord Himself; not me alone have they assailed, but the Most High Himself.” Now it is no longer the poor insignificant Hezekiah with his little band of soldiers, but it is Jehovah, the King of angels, who has come to fight against Rabshakeh. Now what will you do, O boastful soldier of proud Sennacherib? Will you not be utterly destroyed, since Jehovah Himself has come into the fray? All the progress that is made by popery, all the wong things said by speculative atheists and so on, should be by Christians used as an argument with God, why He should help the gospel. Lord; see how they reproach the gospel of Jesus! Pluck Thy right hand out of Thy bosom! O God, they defy Thee! Antichrist thrusts itself into the place where Thy Son once was honoured, and from the very pulpits where the gospel was once preached, popery is now declared. Arise, O God, wake up Thy zeal, let Thy sacred passions burn! Thine ancient foe again prevails. Behold the harlot of Babylon once more upon her scarlet-coloured beast rides forth in triumph! Come Jehovah, come, Jehovah, and once again show what Thy bare arm can do! This is a legitimate mode of pleading with God, for His great name’s sake.

4. The sorrows of God’s people

This is frequently pleaded in the Bible. Jeremiah is the great master of this art. He says, “Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire: their visage is blacker than a coal.” [Lamentations 4:7-8] “The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!” [Lamentations 4:2] He talks of all their griefs and straitnesses in the siege. calls upon the Lord to look upon His suffering Zion; and before long his plaintive cries are heard.

Nothing so eloquent with the father as his child’s cry; yes, there is one thing more mighty still, and that is a moan-when the child is so sick that it is past crying, and lies moaning with that kind of moan which indicates extreme suffering and intense weakness. Who can resist that moan? And when God’s Israel shall be brought very low so that they can scarcely cry but only their moans are heard, then comes the Lord’s time of deliverance, and He is sure to show that He loves His people. Whenever you also are brought into the same condition you may plead your moanings, and when you see a church brought very low you may use her griefs as an argument why God should return and save the remnant of His people.

5. The past

Experienced people of God, you know how to plead this. Here is David’s specimen of it: “Thou hast been my help. Leave me not, neither forsake me.” [Psalm 27:9] He pleads God’s mercy to him from his youth up. He speaks of being cast upon his God from his very birth, and then he pleads, “Now also, when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not.” [Psalm 71:18] Moses also, speaking with God, says, “Thou didst bring this people up out of Egypt.” [Deuteronomy 9:26] As if he would say, “Do not leave Thy work unfinished; Thou hast begun to build, complete it. Thou hast fought the first battle; Lord, end the campaign! Go on till Thou gettest a complete victory.”

How often have we cried in our trouble, “Lord, Thou didst deliver me in such and such sharp trial, when it seemed as if no help were near; Thou hast never forsaken me yet. I have set up my Ebenezer in Thy name. If Thou hadst intended to leave me why hast Thou showed me such things? Hast Thou brought Thy servant to this place to put him to shame?” We have to deal with an unchanging God, Who will do in the future what He has done in the past, because He never turns from His purpose, and cannot be thwarted in His design; the past thus becomes a very mighty means of winning blessings from Him.

We may even use our own unworthiness as an argument with God. “Out of the eater comes forth meat, and out of the strong comes forth sweetness.” [Judges 14:14] David in one place pleads thus: “Lord, have mercy upon mine iniquity, for it is great.” [Psalm 25:10] That is a very singular mode of reasoning; but being interpreted it means, “Lord, why shouldest thou go about doing little things? Thou art a great God, and here is a great sinner. Here is a fitness in me for the display of Thy grace. The greatness of my sin makes me a platform for the greatness of Thy mercy. Let the greatness of Thy love be seen in me.” Moses seems to have the same on his mind when he asks God to show His great power in sparing His sinful people. The power with which God restrains Himself is great indeed. There is such a thing as creeping down at the foot of the throne, crouching low and crying, “O God, break me not-I am a bruised reed. Tread not on my little life, it is now but as the smoking flax. Wilt Thou hunt me? Wilt Thou come out, as David said, ‘after a dead dog, after a flea?’ Wilt Thou pursue me as a leaf that is blown in the tempest? Wilt Thou watch me, as Job said, as though I were a vast sea, or a great whale? I am so little, and because the greatness of Thy mercy can be shown in one so insignificant and yet so vile, therefore, O God, have mercy upon me.”

There was once an occasion when the very Godhead of Jehovah made a triumphant plea for the prophet Elijah. On that august occasion, when he had bidden his adversaries see whether their god could answer them by fire, you can little guess the excitement there must have been in the prophet’s mind. With what stern sarcasm did he say, “Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awakened.” [1 Kings 18:27] And as they cut themselves with knives, and leaped upon the altar, oh the scorn with which that man of God must have looked down upon their impotent exertions, and their earnest but useless cries! But think of how his heart must have palpitated, if it had not been for the strength of his faith, when he repaired the altar of God that was broken down, and laid the wood in order, and killed the bullock. Hear him cry, “Pour water on it. You shall not suspect me of concealing fire; pour water on the victim.” When they had done so, he bids them “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time; and then he says, “Do it a third time.” And when it was all covered with water, soaked and saturated through, then he stands up and cries to God, “O God, let it be known that Thou only art God.” [1 Kings 18:36] Here everything was put to the test. Jehovah’s own existence was now put, as it were, at stake, before the eyes of men by this bold prophet. But how well the prophet was heard! Down came the fire and devoured not only the sacrifice, but even the wood, and the stones, and even the very water that was in the trenches, for Jehovah God had answered His servant’s prayer. We sometimes may do the same, and say unto Him, “Oh, by Thy Deity, by Thine existence, if indeed Thou be God, now show Thyself for the help of Thy people!”

6. The sufferings, death, merit, and intercession of Christ Jesus

I am afraid we do not understand what it is that we have at our command when we are allowed to plead with God for Christ’s sake. I met with this thought the other day: it was something new to me, but I believe it ought not to have been. When we ask God to hear us, pleading Christ’s name, we usually mean, “O Lord, Thy dear Son deserves this of Thee; do this unto me because of what He merits.” But if we knew it we might go farther. Supposing you should say to me, you who keep a warehouse in the city, “Sir, call at my office, and use my name, and say that they are to give you such a thing.” I should go in and use you name, and I should obtain my request as a matter of right and a matter of necessity.

This is virtually what Jesus Christ says to us. “If you need anything of God, all that the Father has belongs to Me; go and use My name.” Suppose you should give a man your chequebook signed with you own name and left blank, to be filled up as he chose; that would be very nearly what Jesus has done in these words, “If ye ask anything in My name I will give it you.” [John 14:14] If I had a good name at the bottom of the cheque I should be sure that I should get it cashed when I went to the banker with it; so when you have got Christ’s name, to whom the very justice of God has become a debtor, and whose merits have claims with the Most High, when you have Christ’s name there is no need to speak with fear and trembling and bated breath. Waver not and let not faith stagger! When you plead the name of Christ you plead that which shakes the gates of hell, and which the hosts of heaven obey, and God Himself feels the sacred power of that divine plea.

You would do better if you sometimes thought more in your prayers of Christ’s griefs and groans. Bring before the Lord His wounds, tell the Lord of His cries, make the groans of Jesus cry again from Gethsemane, and His blood speak again from that frozen Calvary. Speak out and tell the Lord that with such griefs, and cries, and groans to plead, you cannot take a denial.

III. PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING

If the Holy Ghost shall teach us how to order our cause, and how to fill our mouth with arguments, the results shall be that we shall have our mouth filled with praises. The man who has his mouth full of arguments in prayer shall soon have his mouth full of benedictions in answer to prayer. You have your mouth full this morning, have you? What of? Full of complaining? Pray the Lord to rinse your mouth out of that black stuff, for it will little avail you, and it will turn bitter within you one of these days. Oh have your mouth full of prayer, full of it, full of arguments so that there is room for nothing else. Then you shall soon go away with whatsoever you have asked of God. “Delight thyself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thine heart.” [Psalm 37:4]

It is said-I know not how truly-that the explanation of the text, “Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it,” [Psalm 81:10] may be found in a very singular Oriental custom. It is said that not many years ago-I remember the circumstances being reported-the King of Persia ordered the chief of his nobility, who had done something or other which greatly gratified him, to open his mouth, and when he had done so he began to put into his mouth pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, till he had filled it as full as it could hold, and then he bade him go his way. This is said to have been occasionally done in Oriental Courts towards great favourites.

Now certainly whether that be an explanation of the text or not it is an illustration of it. God says, “Open thy mouth with arguments,” and then He will fill it with mercies priceless, gems unspeakably valuable. Would not a man open his mouth wide when he had to have it filled in such a manner? Surely the most simple-minded among you would be wise enough for that. Let us then open wide our mouth when we have to plead with God.

Our needs are great, let our askings be great, and the supply shall be great too. You are not straitened in Him; you are straitened in yourselves. The Lord give you large-mouthedness in prayer, great potency, not in the use of language, but in employing arguments.

What I have been speaking to the Christian is applicable in great measure to the unconverted man. God give you to see the force of it, and to fly in humble prayer to the Lord Jesus Christ and to find eternal life in Him.

Source: Mongerism-Prayer

“Forgiveness and Reconciliation”, Tim Keller (Pursuing Truth, Love, Relationship)

SERVING EACH OTHER THROUGH FORGIVENESS AND RECONCILIATION  by DR. TIMOTHY KELLER (2005)

On both a theological and a practical level, forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. True forgiveness comes at a cost and is pursued intentionally within a community of believers. The new human community that the Bible requires cuts across all cultures and temperaments.

Put another way, it doesn’t fit any culture but challenges them all at some point. Christians from more individualistic cultures love the Bible’s emphasis on affirming one another and sharing hurts and problems—but hate the idea of accountability and discipline. Christians from more traditional communal cultures love the emphasis on accountability for morals and beliefs but often chafe at emphasis on racial reconciliation and being open about one’s personal hurts and financial needs.

But one could argue that the biblical teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation is so radical that there are no cultures or societies that are in accord with it. It may be here most of all that we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s statement, “Our community with one another [in Christ] consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality. In this it differs from all other communities.”

In its most basic and simple form, this teaching is that Christians in community are to never give up on one another, never give up on a relationship, and never write off another believer. We must never tire of forgiving (and repenting!) and seeking to repair our relationships. Matthew 5:23–26 tells us we should go to someone if we know they have something against us. Matthew 18:15–20 says we should approach someone if we have something against them. In short, if any relationship has cooled off or has weakened in any way, it is always your move. It doesn’t matter “who started it:”

God always holds you responsible to reach out to repair a tattered relationship. A Christian is responsible to begin the process of reconciliation, regardless of how the distance or the alienation began.

WHAT FORGIVENESS IS

When speaking of forgiveness, Jesus uses the image of debts to describe the nature of sins (Matt. 6:12; 18:21–35). When someone seriously wrongs you, there is an absolutely unavoidable sense that the wrongdoer owes you. The wrong has incurred an obligation, a liability, a debt. Anyone who has been wronged feels a compulsion to make the other person pay down that debt. We do that by hurting them, yelling at them, making them feel bad in some way, or just waiting and watching and hoping that something bad happens to them.

Only after we see them suffer in some commensurate way do we sense that the debt has been paid and the sense of obligation is gone. This sense of debt/liability and obligation is impossible to escape. Anyone who denies it exists has simply not been wronged or sinned against in any serious way.

What then is forgiveness? Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. But it must be recognized that forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering. What does that mean?

Think about how monetary debts work. If a friend breaks my lamp, and if the lamp costs fifty dollars to replace, then the act of lamp-breaking incurs a debt of fifty dollars. If I let him pay for and replace the lamp, I get my lamp back and he’s out fifty dollars. But if I forgive him for what he did, the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. When I forgive him, I absorb the cost and payment for the lamp: either I will pay the fifty dollars to replace it or I will lose the lighting in that room.

To forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. Someone always pays every debt.

This is the case in all situations of wrongdoing, even when no money is involved. When you are sinned against, you lose some thing—perhaps happiness, reputation, peace of mind, a relationship, or an opportunity. There are two things to do about a sin. Imagine for example that someone has hurt your reputation. You can try to restore it by paying the other person back, voicing public criticisms and ruining his or her reputation. Or you can forgive the one who wronged you, refuse payback, and absorb the damage to your reputation. (You will have to restore it over time.)

In all cases when wrong is done there is a debt, and there is no way to deal with it without suffering: either you make the perpetrator suffer for it or you forgive and suffer for it yourself.

Forgiveness is always extremely costly. It is emotionally very expensive—it takes much blood, sweat, and tears. When you forgive, you pay the debt yourself in several ways.

First, you refuse to hurt the person directly; you refuse vengeance, payback, or the infliction of pain. Instead, you are as cordial as possible. When forgiving you must beware of subtle ways to try to exact payment while assuring yourself that you aren’t. Here are specific things to avoid:

  • making cutting remarks and dragging out past injuries repeatedly
  • being far more demanding and controlling with the person than you are with others, all because you feel
    deep down that they still owe you
  • punishing them with self-righteous “mercy” that is really a way to make them feel small and to justify yourself
  • avoiding them or being cold toward them

 Second, you refuse to employ innuendo or “spin” or hint or gossip or direct slander to diminish those who have hurt you in the eyes of others. You don’t run them down under the guise of warning people about them or under the guise of seeking sympathy and support and sharing your hurt.

 Third, when forgiving you refuse to indulge in ill-will in your heart. That is, don’t continually replay the tapes of the wrong in your imagination, in order to keep the sense of loss and hurt fresh so you can stay actively hostile toward the person and feel virtuous by contrast.

Don’t vilify or demonize the offender in your imagination. Rather, recognize the common sinful humanity you share with him or her. Don’t root for them to fail,
don’t hope for their pain.

Instead, pray positively for their growth.

Forgiveness, then, is granted before it is felt. It is a promise to refrain from the three things above and pray for the perpetrator as you remind yourself of God’s grace to you. Though it is extremely difficult and painful (you are bearing the cost of the sin yourself!), forgiveness will deepen your character, free you to talk to and help the person, and lead to love and peace rather than bitterness.

Further, by bearing the cost of the sin, you are walking in the path of your Master (Matt. 18:21–35; Col. 3:13). It is typical for non-Christians today to say that the cross of Christ makes no sense. “Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God just forgive us?” Actually no one who has been deeply wronged “just forgives”!

If someone wrongs you, there are only two options:

(1) you make them suffer, or
(2) you refuse revenge and forgive them and then you suffer. And if we can’t forgive without suffering, how much more must God suffer in order to forgive us? If we unavoidably sense the obligation and debt and injustice of sin in our soul, how much more does God know it? On the cross we see God forgiving us, and that was possible only if God suffered. On the cross God’s love satisfied his own justice by suffering, bearing the penalty for sin. There is never forgiveness without suffering, nails, thorns, sweat, blood. Never.

WHAT WE NEED TO FORGIVE

The experience of the gospel gives us the two prerequisites for a life of forgiveness: emotional humility and emotional wealth.

You can remain bitter toward someone only if you feel superior, if you are sure that you “would never do anything like that!”

To remain unforgiving means you are unaware of your own sinfulness and need for forgiveness. When Paul says he is the worst among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), he is not exaggerating. He is saying that he is as capable of sin as the worst criminals are. The gospel has equipped him with emotional humility.

At the same time, you can’t be gracious to someone if you are too needy and insecure. If you know God’s love and forgiveness, then there is a limit to how deeply another person can hurt you. He or she can’t touch your real identity, wealth, and significance. The more you rejoice in your own forgiveness, the quicker you will be to forgive others. You are rooted in emotional wealth.

Forgiveness founders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim,
one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself . . . and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.

Jesus says, “If you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:15). This does not mean we can earn God’s forgiveness through our own forgiving but that we can disqualify ourselves from it. No heart that is truly repentant toward God could be unforgiving toward others. A lack of forgiveness toward others is the direct result of a lack of repentance toward God. And as we know, you must repent in order
to be saved (Acts 2:38).

GOD’S FORGIVENESS AND OURS

When God reveals his glory to Moses, he says he forgives wickedness yet “does not leave the guilty unpunished”

(Exod. 34:6–7). Not until the coming of Jesus do we see how God can be both completely just and forgiving through his atonement (1 John 1:7–9). In the cross God satisfies both justice and love. God was so just and desirous to judge sin that Jesus had to die, but he was so loving and desirous of our salvation that Jesus was glad to die.

We too are commanded to forgive (“bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another,” Col 3:13–14) on the basis of Jesus’ atonement for our sins (“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. . . . If you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins,” Matt. 6:14–15; cf. Luke 6:37).

But we are also required to forgive in a way that honors justice, just as God’s forgiveness does. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). “Christians are called to abandon bitterness, to be forbearing, to have a forgiving stance even where the repentance of the offending party is conspicuous by its absence; on the other hand, their God-centered passion for justice, their concern for God’s glory, ensure that the awful odium of sin is not glossed over.”

PURSUING TRUTH, LOVE, AND RELATIONSHIP

The gospel calls us, then, to keep an equal concern

(a) to speak the truth and honor what is right, yet
(b) to be endlessly forgiving as we do so and
(c) to never give up on the goal of a reconciled, warm relationship.

First, God requires forgiveness whether or not the offender has repented and has asked for forgiveness. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him” (Mark 11:25). This does not say “forgive him if he repents” but rather “forgive him right there—as you are praying.”

Second, God requires speaking the truth. That is why Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 17:3 to “rebuke” the wrongdoer and “if he repents, forgive him.” Is Jesus saying that we can hold a grudge if the person doesn’t repent? No, we must not read Luke 17 to contradict Mark 11. Jesus is calling us here both to practice inner forgiveness and to rebuke and correct. We must completely surrender the right to pay back or get even, yet at the same time we must never overlook injustice and must require serious wrongdoings to be redressed.

This is almost the very opposite of how we ordinarily operate. Ordinarily we do not seek justice on the outside (we don’t confront or call people to change and make restitution), but we stay hateful and bitter on the inside. The Bible calls us to turn this completely around. We are to deeply forgive on the inside so as to have no desire for vengeance, but then we are to speak openly about what has happened with a desire to help the person see what was done wrong.

In reality, inner forgiveness and outward correction work well together. Only if you have forgiven inside can you correct unabusively—without trying to make the person feel terrible. Only if you have forgiven already can your motive be to correct the person for God’s sake, for justice’s sake, for the community’s sake, and for the person’s sake. And only if you forgive on the inside will your words have any hope of changing the perpetrator’s heart. Otherwise your speech will be so filled with disdain and hostility that he or she will not listen to you.

Ultimately, to forgive on the inside and to rebuke/correct on the outside are not incompatible, because they are both acts of love. It is never loving to let a person just get away with sin. It is not loving to the perpetrator, who continues in the grip of the habit, nor to those who will be wronged in the future, nor to God, who is grieved. This is difficult, for the line is very thin between a moral outrage for God’s sake and a self-righteous outrage because of hurt pride. Still, to refuse to confront is not loving but just selfish.

Third, as we “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), we are to pursue justice gently and humbly, in order to redress wrongs and yet maintain or restore the relationship (Gal. 6:1–5).

There is a great deal of tension between these three things! Almost always one is much more easily attained if you simply drop any concern for the other two. For example, it is easy to “speak the truth” if you’ve given up on any desire to maintain a warm relationship. But if you want both, you will have to be extremely careful with how you speak the truth! Another example: it is possible to convince yourself that you have forgiven someone, but if afterward you still want nothing to do with them (you don’t pursue an ongoing relationship), then that is a sign that you spoke the truth without truly forgiving. Of course it is possible that you do keep these three things together in your heart and mind but the other person simply cannot.

There is no culture or personality type that holds these together. People tend to believe that if you are confronting me you don’t forgive or love me, or if you really loved me you wouldn’t be rebuking me. God recognizes that many people simply won’t let you pursue all these things together, and so tells us, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). That is, do your part and have as good and peaceful a relationship with people as they will let you have.

WHEN DO WE NEED TO CONFRONT AND RECONCILE?

Jesus tells us that if we have been sinned against we may need to go and speak to the offender. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).

But when do we “rebuke”—every time anyone wrongs us? First Peter 4:8 says famously that “love covers over a multitude of sins,” and Proverbs 10:12 backs this up. This means we are not to be thin-skinned, and it would be wrong to bring up every matter every time we have been treated unjustly or insensitively. Still, passages like Matthew 18 and Luke 17 say there are some times in
which we should make a complaint. When do we do so?

This is where Galatians 6 gives us guidance. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (6:1). We should give correction under two conditions.

First, we should correct when the sin is serious enough to cool off or rupture the relationship. Matthew 18:15 indicates that the purpose of a rebuke is to “win your brother over”—that is, to rescue the relationship. That is implied when Galatians 6:2 tells us that correcting someone is a way of “carrying each other’s burdens;” it is an expression of an interdependent relationship.

Second, we should correct when the sin against us is evidently part of a pattern of behavior that the other person is seriously stuck in. “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him” (Gal. 6:1): the image is of being trapped in a pattern of behavior that will be harmful to the person and to others. In love this should be pointed out. So we rebuke for the person’s sake—to “restore him.” Our concern is his or her growth.

And how do we do it? “You who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Gal. 6:1). This is essential. If the motive of the correction is helping the other to grow, then we will be loving and gentle. Verses 2–3 indicate that we should do this very humbly. We are making ourselves servants by doing the correction. Ultimately, any love that is afraid to confront the beloved is really not love but a selfish desire to be loved.

Cowardice is always selfish, putting your own needs ahead of the needs of the other. A love that says, “I’ll do anything to keep him or her loving and approving of me!” is not real love at all. It is not loving the person; it is loving the love you get from the person. True love is willing to confront, even to “lose” the beloved in the short run if there is a chance to help him or her.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there are plenty of times we should not correct and not seek an apology even when one is owed. The stronger a Christian you are, the less sensitive and easily hurt you will be. When people “zing” you, snub you, ignore you, or let you down in some way, it should not immediately cool you to them.

As a mature Christian, you immediately remember

(a) times you did the same thing to others or
(b) times that people who did this to you were later revealed to have a lot on their mind and heart. If you find that any wrongdoing immediately cools you to
another and you want to insist on your right to an apology, do some self-examination regarding the level of your emotional humility and emotional wealth in Christ. Love should cover a multitude of sins (that is, most of them!)

You should be able to warmly treat people who by rights owe you an apology but whom you haven’t corrected because the slights were rather minor, or the time isn’t right to speak about it, or you don’t know them well enough to be sure it is a major pattern in their life.

HOW DO WE RECONCILE?

Here are some basics.
WHAT ARE THE MARKS OF AN UNRECONCILED RELATIONSHIP?

An unreconciled relationship is marked by avoidance, coldness, and irritability (that is, the same action performed by another person does not disturb you as much as it does when this person does it!) If you find yourself avoiding, being cold toward, or being very irritated with someone (or if you can tell that someone is cold or irritable toward you or avoiding you), then you probably have an unreconciled relationship.

On the other hand, “I forgive you” does not mean “I trust you.” Some people think they haven’t reconciled until they can completely trust the person who did the wrong. That is not the case. Forgiveness means a willingness to try to reestablish trust, but that reestablishment is always a process. The speed and degree of this restoration entail the re-creation of trust, and that takes time, depending on the nature and severity of the offenses involved.

Until a person shows evidence of true change, we should not trust him or her. To immediately give one’s trust to a person with sinful habits could actually be enabling him to sin. Trust must be restored, and the speed at which
this occurs depends on the behavior.

This also applies to the people who owe you an apology but whose sins have been “covered” (see above). A person who has let you down but whom you don’t correct has damaged your trust, albeit in minor ways. If he or she comes to apologize, it will restore the level of trust and respect you had before, but until that happens you can still have a civil and cordial relationship with them.

HOW CAN YOU RECONCILE WITH SOMEONE?

We can look at Matthew 5 and Matthew 18 as two different approaches: Matthew 5 lays out what you do when you believe you have wronged someone else, while Matthew 18 is what you do when you believe someone has wronged you. But it is also possible to also look at these passages as giving us two stages of the normal reconciliation process, because seldom does just one party bear all the blame for a frayed relationship.

Almost always reconciliation involves both repenting and forgiving—both admitting your own wrong and pointing out the wrong of the other. If we put these two approaches together, we can create a practical outline like the
one that follows.

Stage 1

Begin by confessing anything you may have done wrong (this might be called the “Matthew 5:24 phase”).

Begin with yourself.

Even if you believe that your own behavior is no more than 5 percent of the problem, start with your 5 percent! Look for what you have done wrong, and collect the criticism.

-List whatever you think you have done wrong and ask the other person to add to the list of things you have done wrong or ways you have contributed to the breakdown in the relationship. Example: “I’m here because I don’t like what has happened to our relationship [or—if the term applies—our friendship]. It appears to me that there is a problem between us; am I wrong?” Then, “Here is what I believe I have contributed to the problem between us—where I’ve wronged you. . . . But where else have I wronged you or contributed to the relationship problem, in your estimation?”

-If you are almost totally in the dark about what went wrong, you may have to simply offer to listen. Example: “It appears to me that there is trouble between us and I have offended you. Am I right? Please tell me specific ways I have wronged you. I am ready to listen—honest.”

Then listen well to the criticism you’ve invited. Seek to distill this criticism into something clear and specific. To do so too quickly may seem defensive, but eventually ask for as many specific examples as possible. If the other says, “You are bullying,” you need to find out what actual words or actions or tones of voice strike the other person as “bullying.”

Here is a practical checklist:

  • Pray silently, asking God to give you wisdom and allow you to sense his love for you.
    Assume that God is speaking to you through this painful situation and is showing you ways you should be more careful or change.
  • Assume that God is speaking to you even through a very flawed person.
  • Beware of being defensive. Don’t explain yourself too quickly, even if you have a good answer or can show the person that he or she was mistaken. Be sure you don’t interrupt or keep the other from expressing frustration. Show sympathy even if you were misunderstood.
  • Always ask, “Is there anything else? I really want to know!” In a stressful situation it is natural for the other to hold back some complaints or concerns. Get them all out on the table, or you’ll have to do this again!
  • Make it safe to criticize you: support individual criticisms with “That must have been hard; I see why you were concerned.”
  • Look for needs in the critic that may underlie the criticism. Now respond to the criticism, by doing either or both of the following:

1. “Please, forgive me for .” This is your repentance, your confession of sin.

  • Admit your wrong without excuses and without blaming the circumstances. Even if the criticism included exaggerations, extract the real fault and confess it. Even if only 10 percent of the relationship problem is you, admit it.
  • Don’t just apologize; ask for forgiveness.
  • If you can think of a plan for changing your behavior, say, “Here is what I will do to make sure not do such a thing again in the future.” Ask if there is anything you can do to restore trust. If you really cannot see any validity in any of the criticism, ask whether you can get back to the person later, after
    checking with others.
  • Avoid overstatements—“How terrible I feel over what I’ve done!” Such confessions may be mainly a painful catharsis designed to relieve one of guilt feelings through a kind of atonement/punishment, or to get others to provide lots of sympathy.
  • On the other hand, avoid being deadpan, lighthearted, or even flip. Such confessions may aim to preserve pride, merely to fulfill a requirement, to force the other person to let you off the hook but without showing any real contrition or emotional regret at all.
  • Most of all, do not make a confession that is really an attack. “If I upset you, I am sorry” falls in this category. It means, “If you were a normal person, you would not have been upset by what I did.” Do not repent to the person of something that you are not going to repent to God for nor take concrete steps to change.
  • Real repentance has three aspects: confession to God, confession to the person wronged, and offering a concrete plan for change so as to avoid the sin in the future (see Luke 3:7–14).2.
  • After you have repented, then turn to those issues that involve no sin on your part (as far as you can tell) and about which you have to say, “Please, accept my explanation for .”

• “Here’s how I see it. Can you see my motive or meaning was very different from what you inferred?”
• “Can you understand my point of view? Can you accept that I could have perceived this very differently and had the motives I am describing?”
• “Is there some way, though we see this issue so differently, that we can avoid hurting each other like this again?”

Stage #2

Now (if necessary) address any ways that the other person has wronged you (“Matthew 18 phase”). If you have done all of the above, you may well find that this approach elicits a confession from the other without your having to ask for it! This is far and away the best way to get reconciliation.

However, if the other person is not forthcoming, begin with: “From my point of view, it looks as if you did. It affected me this way: . I think it would be far better for all concerned if instead you did this: . But my understanding may be inaccurate or distorted. Correct me if I am wrong. Could you explain what happened?”

Be sure your list of things the other person has done is specific, not vague. If the other person offers an apology, grant forgiveness—but avoid using the term unless forgiveness is asked for!
Otherwise to say “I forgive you” may sound tremendously humiliating. Alternative ways to express forgiveness might be “Well, I won’t hold this against you,” “Let’s put that in the past now,” or “Think no more of it.”

Here are some general guidelines for this part of the process:

–Maintain a loving and humble tone. Tone of voice is extremely important. Overly controlled, nice, and calm may sound patronizing and be infuriating. Don’t resort to flattery or fawning syrupiness or fall into abusive or angry tones.

— Attack the problem, not the person. For example, don’t say, “You are so thoughtless”; rather, you might say, “You have forgotten this after making repeated promises that you would not.”

–Suggest solutions and alternative courses of action or behavior. Make sure all criticism is specific and constructive. Never say, “Don’t do this” without saying, “Instead do this.”

–In the heart of the discussion, you may discover some other underlying goal or need that the other person is trying to meet that could be met in more constructive ways.

–Keep in mind differences in culture. A person from a different culture may consider your approach incredibly disrespectful and demeaning when you think you are being respectful.

What if the other person won’t be reconciled to you?

First, some thoughts on failed reconciliation with a non-Christian. Christians are commanded to seek peace and reconciliation with all people (Rom. 12:18; Heb. 12:14), not just Christians. However, non-Christians may not feel the same responsibility to live in reconciled relationships. In general, you will find that non-Christians will not feel compelled to respond with forgiveness and repentance. If that occurs, you must take what you are given.

Romans 12:18–21 provides guidelines on how to stay gracious, kind, open, and cordial to persons who are being standoffish.

What if a Christian from your church is resisting reconciliation?

Matthew 18 indicates that if a fellow believer will not reconcile after repeated intentional efforts on your part, you should go to stage B—getting some other Christian friends (preferably including someone who is respected by the other person) to go along with you to reconcile the relationship. If that does not work, at stage C you “tell it to the church” and ask the elders to speak to the person.

If the person with whom you are seeking reconciliation is a Christian but lives in another region or attends another church, you should take the Matthew 18:15–20 process as far as you can. However, if you are not members of the same church it may not be possible to go to the final step of “telling it to the church.”

Again, you may have to take what you are given and deal as cordially and as graciously as possible with someone who is not reconciled to you.

More generally, learn to accept the apologies and repentances you get without demanding that people admit more than they honestly believe. If they repent nearly as extensively as you feel they should, then the relationship can be almost what it was before. If they only go halfway, then you are still better off, though the relationship is weakened because you don’t fully trust their wisdom and self-knowledge.

It is usually hardest to forgive someone who will not admit any wrong and who stays haughty. Internal forgiveness may be a longer process. Use all the spiritual resources we have in our faith:

  • + Look at God’s commands to forgive—it is our obligation.
  • + Remember God’s forgiveness of us. We have no right to be bitter.
  • + Remember that God’s omniscience is necessary to be a just judge. We have insufficient knowledge to know what others deserve.
  • + Remember that when we allow the evil to keep us in bondage through bitterness, we are being defeated by evil! Romans 12 tells us to “overcome” or defeat evil with forgiveness.
  • + Remember that we undermine the glory of the gospel in the world’s eyes when we fail to forgive.

4. A great book on relating to people who are cold of even hostile is Bold Love by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman (Colorado Springs: 1992). Don’t miss it.

WATCHING FROM THE SIDELINES

When two people within the church are in conflict with each other, it can wreak a lot of havoc in the hearts and lives of the Christians around them who are not immediately involved in the dispute. The worst thing (but the common thing!) that happens is that rather than suspending judgment, praying, and encouraging the parties toward reconciliation, people take sides in the dispute in a very world-typical way. It is hard not to sympathize with the party you know best. It is also hard for that person not to “share” his or her hurt with you in a way that does not vilify the other party in the conflict.

As a result, we can have second- and third-order unreconciled relationships. That is, we feel alienated from people who are friends of the person our friend is alienated from! The problem with this is obvious—there is no direct way to heal such breaches. If someone is avoiding you because your friend is mad at his or her friend, there is no “wrong” that you can confess or repent for. It is a spiritually poisonous situation. The problem is not that you have sinned or have been sinned against, but you have heard a bad report about another Christian and you let it come into your own heart and take root as distrust and hostility.

What should we do? First, see what James says about passing along bad reports: “Humble yourselves before the Lord. Brothers, don’t slander or attack one another” (James 4:10–11). The verb slander simply means to “speak against” (kata-lalein). It is not necessarily a false report, just an “against-report”—one that undermines the listener’s respect and love for the person being spoken about. “As a north wind brings rain, so a sly tongue brings angry looks” (Prov. 25:23).

James’s linking of slander with pride (4:10) shows that slander is not a humble evaluation of error or fault, which we must constantly be doing. Rather, the slandering person speaks as if he or she never would do the same thing himself.

Non-slanderous evaluation is gentle and guarded, and it’s always evident that the speaker is aware of sharing the same frailty, humanity, and sinful nature with the one being criticized. It involves a profound awareness of one’s own sin.

It is never “against-speaking.” “Don’t grumble [literally, don’t groan and roll your eyes] against each other” (James 5:9). Here James refers to a kind of against-speaking that is less specific than a focused slander or attack. It is hinting with not only words but also body language—shaking one’s head, rolling eyes, and reinforcing an erosion of love and respect for someone else (“You know how they do things around here!”) But it accomplishes the same thing. It brings “angry looks;” it undermines love and respect.

Second, see what the book of Proverbs says about receiving bad reports: “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” (Prov. 17:9) The first thing to do when hearing or seeing something negative is to seek to “cover” the offense rather than speak about it to others. That is, rather than letting it in, you should seek to keep the matter from destroying your love and regard for a person. How?

—Remember your own sinfulness. “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD” (Prov. 16:2). Your motives are never as pure as you think they are.—

To know your sinfulness automatically keeps you from being too sure of your position and from speaking too strongly against people on the other side of a conflict. You realize that you may not be seeing things well.

+ Remember that there is always another side. “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Prov. 18:17). You never have all the facts. You are never in a position to have the whole picture, and therefore when you hear the first negative report, you should assume that you have far too little information to draw a conclusion.

What if the injustice seems too great or grievous for you to ignore? In Derek Kidner’s commentary on Proverbs 25:8–10, he writes that when we think someone has done wrong, we should remember that “one seldom knows the full facts, or interprets them perfectly (v. 8); and one’s motives in spreading a story are seldom as pure as one pretends (v. 10). To run to the law or to the neighbors is usually to run away from the duty of personal relationship—see Christ’s clinching comment in Matthew 18:15.

In short, if you feel the problem is so great that it threatens to destroy your regard for the person, you must go to him or her personally before you go to anyone else. When might this be necessary? Galatians 6:1 says we are to go to someone if they are “caught in a sin.” That means some pattern of negative behavior is involved. Don’t go the first time you see or hear of someone doing wrong. When you do go, remember the principles of gentleness and persistence from Galatians 6 and Matthew 18.

The purpose is restoration of relationship.

If you hear a bad report about another Christian, you must either cover it with love or go to him or her directly before speaking of it to any others. The first thing to do is to simply suspend judgment. The second thing to do is “cover” it in love. The last thing to do is go and speak to the reported offender personally. What you should never do is withdraw from them or pass the negative report on to others.

CONCLUSION

Unreconciled relationships within the church are inevitable because the church is such a wonderful, supernaturally created community! The reason there are so many exhortations in the New Testament for Christians to love other Christians is because . . . the church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort [that bind most other groups of people together]. Christians come together not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance.

In this light we are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake. That is the only reason why John 13:34–35 makes sense when Jesus says: “A new command I give you–Love one another as I have loved you.” . . . Christian love will stand out and bear witness to Jesus because it is a display, for Jesus’ sake, of mutual love among social incompatibles.

The reason we will have to hold ourselves accountable for our relationships is that mutual love in Christian community is super-hard. Jesus has brought incompatibles together! But the reason we will want to hold ourselves accountable for our relationships is that mutual love in Christian community is one of the main ways the world will see who Jesus is. So we must never give up on each other. So we must pursue each other in love.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City. This article first appeared in The Gospel and Life conferences of 2004 and 2005.
We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright

“Whispering Winds”, a poem by L.Willows (Holy Spirit, Revival, Holy Joy, Hope)

Whispering Winds

Whispering winds dance
with treetops in clouds lace
Smiling in drifts
that go by without haste.

There in the dawn,
we witness God’s Face
Rising again,
from the night with such grace.

Windowsill’s light
and open with hope.
Therein, Hearts chatter
and sing the mornings elope.

Birds take to the air
in the new days excite.
Gathering with all –
God’s wondrous invite.

This Holy moment,
His Breath in the freeing-
The Joy that invites
all life to Love’s Being.

© 2021 Linda Willows

Romans 15:13 —May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

John 16:24 —Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

Psalm 118:24 —This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.