The First Step

The "Huntsman's Leap" chasm in Wales, as photographed by Colin Park.

The “Huntsman’s Leap” chasm in Wales, as photographed by Colin Park.

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

The study of international relations is often focused around intractable conflicts, and while there are any number of disagreements that could stake a claim to being the longest lasting or most deeply entrenched, the one that seems to take the cake in the minds of Americans is the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians. As feuds go, this one is actually a latecomer on the historical scene. Yes, there are some who link it back to the tension between the two sons of Abraham – Isaac and Ishmael – but from a political standpoint it started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jewish immigrants began moving to the region of Palestine.

Despite the best intentions of a long line of political figures, things have been going downhill ever since that point. Animosities have grown to where they are now an intrinsic part of national and ethnic identity. Numerous wars have been fought, and even the periods of so-called peace have been quite violent. Attempts at a negotiated settlement have yielded little but failure. As I write, the dispute is at its worst level in some time, with the politicians refusing to even meet and talk about peace unless changes are made.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, the acclaimed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman compared the two peoples to a husband and wife who are unable to get pregnant. A fertility specialist finally concludes that the reason for their failure begins with the fact that neither of them actually wants to have a child. The meaning is that Israel and Palestine don’t really want a peace deal, because any such agreement would require them to make concessions that they are unwilling to risk, even forcing them to admit to wrongdoing. Protracted conflict is preferable to a deal that forces them to sacrifice pride and place themselves on the same level of moral “rightness” as their enemy. (It could also be argued that having a foreign enemy to oppose can be helpful to political leaders, but I digress…)

Contrary to what some people might think, the Palestinians and Israelis are no more conflict-oriented than the rest of us. That is to say, in being unwilling to take the first step toward peace, to extend initial trust to the opposing party, and to make a compromise before the other side has followed suit is very disagreeable to us as human beings. With neither party willing to budge, it ends up becoming a “Mexican standoff”.

Tired of hearing about the Middle East mess? Then consider this parable instead: Between my sister and I lies a giant chasm. In order for us to meet, a bridge must be built, but we are both suspicious that the other will attempt to assume only a minority of the cost. Therefore, I am unwilling to lay the first plank, for I fear that my sister will not follow suit and I will be taken for a fool. She has the same fear, and as a result we shall never meet.

That may sound like a silly example, but consider the case of the state of Michigan and the nation of Canada, two entities that have historically gotten along quite well. A narrow band of water separates Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, and every day there is a continual stream of trucks seeking to move cargo back and forth. It is a key point of international trade for both countries, yet for years there has been only one bridge connecting the two – a privately owned toll operation. (An underground tunnel is not an option for some types of vehicles.)

While the Ambassador Bridge is aging and no longer capable of handling the crush of traffic, its owner has possessed a virtual monopoly over this crucial trade point and lobbied for years to prevent a second bridge from being built. Voters in Michigan only gave their approval to a new bridge when Canada agreed to take on the entire cost of building it.

The bridge over Sydney Harbor while under construction, uploaded by Flickr user gramarye.

The bridge over Sydney Harbor while under construction, uploaded by Flickr user gramarye. Looks like they need some help meeting in the middle!

Perhaps the moral of this story is that while we all long for life to be perfectly fair and for burdens to be born in a perfectly equal manner, sometimes the only way to connect is to be willing to take the first step, regardless of what the other party is doing. But this isn’t really about toll bridges or the latest intifada in the Middle East: those are merely isolated examples of the greater problem. This is about something more wide reaching.

There is a fundamental truth at the heart of Christianity: it is not possible to save yourself. All of us are unrighteous, and we do not have the capacity to fix that on our own. We are guilty before God and unable to reverse the verdict. We are a captive of sin unable to break free. You can’t do it without Christ. If you believe that you can and that Christ is unnecessary, there is no reason for Christianity. It becomes totally pointless. You need a self-help manual, not a savior.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) That is our condition absent of God’s work. If you accept the Bible, then you accept that we are not capable of willing ourselves into righteousness. For as Isaiah says, not only our unrighteous moments, but indeed our “righteous acts” are “filthy rags”.

Without Christ, we are separated from God. Prior to his sacrifice, there was no way for us to reestablish the connection – no way for us to remove the sin that had broken the relationship. Reconciliation was not a possibility. Not only must we come to God in order for that relationship to be restored, but scripture teaches that we cannot come to God apart from His work. That’s how thoroughly embedded we are in our sinful ways.

Consider this episode from the life of Christ, related to us by the Apostle John. Christ compared Himself to the manna that God sent down from heaven to keep the ancient Israelites alive. Without Me, He said, a person cannot have life. Then this happened:

Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘I have come down out of heaven?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:41-44

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” That is a powerful statement. Not only do we need the life that Christ gives us – the bread that comes from heaven – but we cannot even get to it apart from God’s work. This is to say, if the broken relationship between man and God is to be repaired, Christ is the one who must take the first step. We have no power to do that on our own.

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8

Yes, Christ died for us not when we were seeking him, but “while we were yet sinners”. The Apostle Paul points this out to emphasize Christ’s love. He was willing to die for us when we weren’t willing to do anything for Him. We were his enemies, and he treated us better than people treat their friends. He was the one who took the first step, and if he hadn’t, there would be no possibility of reconciliation. We would still be God’s enemies.

Christ did not wait for us to see the error of our ways. He did not wait for us to repent before sacrificing himself. He did not wait for us to want reconciliation before he pursued it. He not only took the first step to bridge the spiritual chasm between us and God. He preemptively took upon Himself the entire expense – the whole cost of our redemption. He sought us out and not the other way around.

The stereotypical Mexican standoff, by Flickr user Martin SoulStealer.

The stereotypical Mexican standoff, by Flickr user Martin SoulStealer.

The life of the prophet Hosea provides an excellent picture of this phenomenon. As a symbol of Israel’s sin, God told Hosea to marry a woman who would commit adultery against him. It became so bad that the couple was actually separated, for Hosea’s wife pursued many lovers and ended up selling herself into prostitution. She continued in perpetual sin against her husband and against God. Then something happened that is the exact opposite of what you might expect. God commanded Hosea to go and reclaim his wife.

Then the LORD said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.’ So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley. Then I said to her, ‘You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.’

Hosea 3:1-5

There is no sign that Hosea’s wife reformed her behavior before this point. In fact, there is no sign that she even regretted her actions. Yet, Hosea takes the first step toward her and redeems her, taking on the cost to buy her back from slavery. He does not excuse her behavior – indeed, he tells her in no uncertain terms that she must turn from her sin – but he does work to bring about reconciliation.

So if we are to be like Christ, how do we mirror this behavior? How do we imitate his willingness to take the first step, and what does that look like in our relationships?

Let’s think back to that chasm that must be bridged. It may be that the other person has created the chasm. Through their divisive actions, they dug the trench deeper and deeper. In most cases, both parties contribute to the discord, but let’s say for the sake of argument that your actions are completely perfect and the other person has committed all of the sin on their own. It is still imperative for you to help bring about reconciliation, but how should you do that?

Here’s where things start to get tricky. How far does the mandate of forgiveness reach? If a person has sinned against you, and worse yet sinned against God, then can you simply overlook that? After all, we know that sin is what creates the barrier between man and man, and between God and man. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2) Until that sin is dealt with and removed, there can never be complete reconciliation, but if one or both parties refuse to acknowledge that sin and repent, can forgiveness take place? Is it right to take the first step?

Let us first consider the words of Jesus Christ, who said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) Viewed a certain way, these verses could suggest that your response when a person sins against you is dependent on their heart condition. When a “brother” (that is, a brother in Christ) sins, you “rebuke him”, calling him to repent. Then we find the condition “if he repents”, at which point we must “forgive him”.

It is possible to read those verses and come to the conclusion that forgiveness is dependent on that conditional phrase: “if he repents”. This even seems to mirror a person’s relationship with Christ. If a person repents of their sin, then God will forgive them. That is a formula spread throughout scripture, both with the ancient Israelites and under the New Covenant. Therefore, if a person refuses to repent, it would appear that we are not required to forgive them – indeed, God has not forgiven them.

Rumor has it they're fighting over a mouse. Photo by Wikipedia user MagAloche.

Rumor has it they’re fighting over a mouse. Photo by Wikipedia user MagAloche.

I understand this line of thinking, but I think it fails to take note of three very important things. First of all, we must remember that our ability to see the truth of a situation is heavily flawed and in no way equal to that of God.

‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts,

Now are your ways My ways,’ declares the LORD.

‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are My ways higher than your ways

And My thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

We should not presume that we have a perfect understanding of anyone’s heart, nor that we know their exact position before God. While there are some things which are blatantly obvious – “for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45) – we typically work from a partial knowledge of what it going on, and we are therefore imperfect judges. We must heed the Lord’s words of warning to Samuel: “For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) And as the prophet Jeremiah wrote,

I, the LORD, search the heart,

I test the mind,

Even to give to each man according to his ways,

According to the results of his deeds.

Jeremiah 17:10

Not only do we fail to judge others rightly, but we also pass imperfect judgment upon ourselves. Surely, we all know that a person is quicker to forgive him or herself for a particular sin than they would be to forgive someone else for the same offense. For when we look upon ourselves, we see the good intentions that went awry, the stress that caused our decision making to falter, and the thousand and one mitigating circumstances that caused us to stray from our usual righteousness. When we look upon another, we are more likely to assign to them the worst possible motivations: we do not provide them the same luxury of always having the benefit of the doubt.

This speaks to our innate selfishness and pride. Who among us would dare to place ourselves before the divine judge and to receive a true assessment of our actions? Perhaps in our foolishness we would seek that out, convinced of our own moral high ground, but let us not be so prideful as to ignore Christ’s warning: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2) None of us will escape the judgment of Almighty God, when the blinding light of His holiness illumines the dark crevices of our lives and calls us to account. Therefore, let us exercise extreme caution when imagining ourselves more righteous than others.

For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another….Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.

Galatians 6:3-4, 7

For this same reason, King David declared, “Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12) The psalmist’s wisdom is very apparent, for he knows that he cannot stand as judge over himself. He is blind to the same personal flaws that he would notice so easily in others. Remember: David had to be confronted by the prophet Nathan in order to fully realize and come to grips with his sins of adultery and murder. It might be hard to believe that a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22, 1 Samuel 13:14) could be so blind to the glaring sin at his own doorstep, but it is part of the nefarious nature of sin that we become blind to it if we are not held accountable.

Beyond the fact of our inaccurate judgment, we must not refuse to take the first step toward reconciliation because Christ did not hesitate to do so. Yes, repentance is necessary for salvation, but we must remember that Christ acted to make reconciliation possible “while we were yet sinners”. (Romans 5:8) While we were still in open rebellion, he reached out his hand to receive us – if we would only believe.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:5-8

If Christ was willing to give up the privileges that are His by divine right, to set aside the glory that He was due in order to purchase our salvation, then who are we to refuse to lower ourselves on behalf of our brothers and sisters? Who are we to withhold forgiveness? We may say that we do so because God has not forgiven, but in all likelihood, we are using such statements as a smokescreen for the bitterness harbored within our hearts. We should desire to forgive others rather than looking for excuses not to forgive them.

It may be that a person cannot have a right relationship with God because of their sins, but any offense committed against ourselves is not worth holding against someone. God Himself will call all of us to judgment. He commands us to show mercy and not wrath, for He knows that in our undue pride we will tend toward taking revenge rather than letting things slide. That is why the Apostle Paul writes,

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19, 21

Forgiving another person for their offenses against me is as much about healing my own heart as it is about healing theirs. While I may not be able to restore someone to full fellowship until they have repented, I need to realize that any offense they have committed is not really against me, but against God. If I forgive them, then I am freed from the weight of bitterness, which can easily pull me into all sorts of evil. If I decline to forgive, I am attempting to push the Lord off of the judgment seat. I am trying to take my own revenge rather than trusting God enough to handle everything as He wills. Why should I do such a thing when my judgment cannot match that of a holy God?

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt van , circa 1668

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van , circa 1668

This principle also leads into the final point: when we show grace to others by taking the first step toward reconciliation, we not only free ourselves from the prison of an unforgiving heart, but we can actually influence them to respond in a positive manner. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” or so the old saying goes. Christ’s grace toward us inspires us to show grace to others, which in turn encourages others to be gracious themselves. As the Apostle Paul said, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

Two passages leap to mind that describe this principle. One is in the first epistle of the Apostle Peter: “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12) The second is in the Sermon on the Mount. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Here it seems useful to quote from the theses put forth by Martin Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Thesis 28 reads, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” (Translation via www.bookofconcord.org) In his defense of this point, Luther explains, “This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person.” This is truly the heart of Christian love, which sets it apart from the love that the world gives. In calling us to love enemies, forgive seventy times seven times, and leave vengeance to Him, Christ wants us through our actions to draw souls to God. He wants our forgiveness and gracious humility to occasion their repentance, even as His own actions occasioned ours.

For these reasons, it is essential that we take that first step rather than waiting around for what may truly be eternity. Let us not live with an unforgiving spirit that requires that all our demands be met before considering reconciliation. Let us instead have the heart of the father who ran and embraced his lost son without waiting for a long explanation. We must not be so concerned with maintaining the moral high ground that we lose the moral high ground, so to speak. We must not let a desire for “justice” overcome our willingness to bestow grace.

The power of God is strong enough to bring about repentance. He only asks us to act in obedience: to take a first step empowered by forgiveness, and then to rely on Him to bring about a miracle of the heart. As the Christian vocal group Point of Grace sang in one of their most beloved tunes, “There’s a bridge to cross the great divide. There’s a cross to bridge the great divide.” (“The Great Divide”, The Whole Truth, 1995) We need not worry about crossing that vast expanse alone. If we take the first step, Christ Himself will do the rest.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just