Note: This response is much more detailed than a person would write when he or she is just beginning to study biblical peacemaking. Don’t be discouraged if your answer is much shorter than this one. Instead, thank God that there is so much practical guidance in his Word for you to learn and apply in the weeks ahead.
I am honored that you would seek my advice with such an important family matter. If you had asked me about this a few months ago, I would probably have urged you to follow your instincts and avoid Susan for a few weeks! But I have recently been studying how to respond to conflict using God’s principles, so I want to suggest a different response.
I’ve enclosed a Peacemaker Brochure for you. It is a great summary of the basic principles of biblical peacemaking that I have been learning and practicing. You can find more information about this at Peacemaker Ministries’ website (www.Peacemaker.net), starting with the Slippery Slope and Foundational Principles pages.
In the brochure is a diagram called the “Slippery Slope of Conflict.” Do you see the left side of the diagram? Your desire to stay clear of Susan could put you in the “escape zone,” which will only delay resolving your differences. Worse yet, Susan might confront you when you’re not ready for it, which could move you both into the “attack zone” — sharp or defensive words will only make things worse. If even one person in a conflict responds to a conflict in the “peacemaking zone,” a lot of grief can be avoided. I will pray with you that God will help you stay on top of the Slippery Slope.
Another part of the brochure shows how the Bible’s teaching on conflict resolution can be organized into four key principles, sometimes called the “Four G’s”: Glorify God, Get the log out of your own eye, Gently restore, and Go and be reconciled. You might be surprised to learn that each of these principles is directly applicable to your conflict with Susan. Here is what I mean:
Glorifying God means drawing attention to how wonderful God is. It has been life-changing for me to realize that conflicts can be opportunities to glorify God! When you are in a conflict, you can bring God glory by asking him to help you behave in such a way that other people will see his power and love working in your life.
The fact that Susan isn’t a Christian makes this principle especially relevant. Wouldn’t you love it if God used your conduct to show Susan how real and powerful he is, and even drew her closer to a saving relationship with Jesus?
You can consider ways to glorify God by prayerfully asking yourself, “How can I please and honor God in this situation?” or “How can I bring praise to Jesus by showing that he has saved me and is working in me?” These questions will help you to get your eyes off your own desires and help you to focus on ways you can pursue real peace in your family.
One of the ways that God may show his work in you is to give you courage to go to Susan even when you’d much rather avoid her. I know from personal experience that he will help you. You can ask God for a special measure of grace to humbly confess that what you said about her was wrong (Heb. 4:16; 2 Cor. 12:9). You can also ask him to give you self-control and gentleness even if Susan reacts harshly (Gal. 5:22-23). When she sees the fruit of his Spirit is you, she may see the contrast with her rection and develop a thirst for the Lord Jesus herself.
Get the log out of your own eye
I believe that the quickest way to restore peace with Susan is to follow Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:3-5, where he commands us to deal with our own wrongs before we say a word about anything that someone else may have done wrong.
A good way to start is by looking at what you have already said. From your description, it sounds like what you said about Susan fell short of the guidelines God gives to us in passages like Matthew 7:12, Ephesians 4:29 and James 4:11-12. Would you read these verses? Then ask yourself whether your words about Susan lined up with God’s standards for what we say.
If you conclude that you wronged Susan, I encourage you to call her and ask if you can come over to apologize in person for your comments. Talking face to face is usually much more effective than speaking on the telephone or writing a letter, because you have the advantage of softening your words with a gentle tone of voice and appropriate facial expression. When you meet with her, you could use the “7 A’s of Confession” – also on the Peacemaker Brochure — as a guide for what to say. Here is a sample that will show you how this can be done:
Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Susan. I am so sorry for what I said about you to Ben. I was completely wrong to say those things, and I can understand why you were hurt by my actions. I judged you, I failed to speak kindly about you, and I did not treat you as I would want to be treated. I sinned against you and I don’t want to make excuses for what I did.
I am so sorry for hurting you, and I can understand why you are upset with me. I was especially wrong to speak critically of you to Ben, and I will call him today to tell him I was wrong to do it.
With God’s help, I will not speak critically of you to Ben or others again. If I ever have a concern about you, I commit to coming to you directly so we can talk about it personally and privately.
Again, there is no excuse for what I did. I was just plain wrong. I’ve asked God to forgive me and work in my heart to change me. I don’t deserve his forgiveness or yours, but I still need to ask for it. Will you please forgive me for the way I wronged you?
Of course you will want to say this in your own way. If you speak sincerely and humbly, there is a good chance that Susan will respond well to this kind of confession. It would be wise, however, for you to prepare what you would say if she doesn’t respond well. Remember God’s promise that a soft answer can turn aside wrath.
After you’ve confessed your wrongs, the conversation could go in a couple of different directions. If Susan is still angry, or if she doesn’t seem open to further discussion, I would stop with your confession and not attempt to dig any deeper into the issue of the puppy or the relational difficulties in your family. If you tried to press these issues prematurely, Susan could conclude that your confession was insincere and become more defensive.
On the other hand, your confession might open the way for a deeper discussion, and God might use you to help Susan see how she is adversely affecting others in your family. Perhaps Susan would open up and say, “It’s not all your fault. I can be overly controlling at times, so I can understand why you said what you did.”
Be prepared for this kind of opening! If she says something like this, it would be good to thank her and affirm what she has acknowledged. Then you can move on to the bigger picture of your relationships. This is an example of what I am suggesting: “I really appreciate your saying that, Susan. But no matter what you did, it was still wrong for me to speak critically about you. At the same time, you’re right in pointing out that the way Ben, you and I have treated each other in the past affects our relationships today. I’d sure like to be freed from those things in from the past. Could we talk some more about this?”
If Susan can tell you are sincere and won’t jump on her, she will probably be willing to talk further. Then you could tactfully explain how her behavior has affected you. When you do so, instead of stating conclusions (“You’re always trying to control everyone”), use “I statements” to share your observations and feelings. For instance, “I sometimes feel frustrated when it seems like you are trying to control what I do.” Be prepared to mention a couple of specific times this happened, so she can begin to understand why you’ve been frustrated.
If God opens a door for further conversation, here are some peacemaking tips to keep in mind:
Remember to keep praying through this whole process! And for more detailed ideas on how to talk to Susan in an engaging manner, I encourage you to read chapter 8 in Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker, which gives several other principles for confrontation and examples of specific wording. The more carefully you plan this part of the peacemaking process, the more likely it is to go well.
Go and be reconciled
If the Lord opens Susan’s heart to admit even a little fault in this situation, you will have a golden opportunity to truly forgive her, and at the same time to teach her about God’s forgiveness.
One of the simplest ways to understand forgiveness is to think of it as four promises that mirror the promises God makes to us when he forgives us. These promises may be summarized as follows:
If Susan admits to even a little responsibility for the situation, you could express your forgiveness to her by saying: “Susan, I gladly forgive you. God has forgiven me for much worse things, and out of love for him I am happy to forgive you. Just so you know what I mean by forgiveness, let me make four specific promises to you.” And then say the promises. What a great way to show Susan in a personal and concrete way the marvelous forgiveness Jesus gives to us through his atoning work on the cross!
If Susan does not admit to any wrongdoing, you might still be able to show her what God’s forgiveness is all about. When you make your confession to her, she might say something like, “That’s okay. Just forget it.” If she does, you could respond by saying, “No, it’s not okay. I was wrong. I don’t need to forget about this; I need to be forgiven. I need you to make four promises to me. Could I tell you what they are?” She will probably say yes, in which case you can lay out the four promises of forgiveness. Then you could explain, “Those are the promises God makes to me whenever I confess and ask for his forgiveness. I would deeply appreciate it if you would forgive me the same way for what I said about you.”
As you say these words, you will probably be giving Susan an entirely new perspective on forgiveness between people, and about the forgiveness she could receive from God by believing in Jesus. Don’t expect an immediate conversion, but you can certainly start praying daily that God will use your words to bring her a few steps closer to her Savior.
A quick word about the puppy. The main issue, of course, is restoring your relationship with your sister, but if that goes well, you could do your family a great service by helping them to discuss and negotiate the puppy question in a cooperative way, rather than an antagonistic way. Chapter 11 of The Peacemaker describes a simple but powerful way to negotiate these kinds of issues, called the PAUSE principle. The key step is to help everyone look past the disputed issue (“Should Mom have a puppy?”) and instead focus on understanding everyone’s underlying interests (see Philippians 2:3-4). For example, Ben has an interest in your mother not being lonely. Susan doesn’t want her to be tied down with a dog. Your mother probably has an interest in seeing her children get along. As you use the PAUSE principle to show what people’s interests are, you could help everyone come to an agreement on what is really best for your mother and your family.
I would be happy to talk to you about any of this further. Please give me a call if that would be helpful. In the meantime, I will be praying for you and Susan, asking God to show his power in your life and to open Susan’s eyes to the peace she could find in Jesus.
Note: As mentioned earlier, you are not expected to write this much detail in your answers to the cases in the Personal Peacemaking Study. We do hope, however, that you will address each of the Four G’s briefly in your answers so that these concepts will become part of your normal response to conflict.