It's virtually impossible to get through life without putting some strain on relationships. And the stresses and pressures of life often impact our relationships with the people closest to us. So what do we do when relationships break down? What steps can we take to repair the bonds with people around us?
Here are three tips for peacemakers looking to reconcile with friends, family, church members, and anyone else they feel estranged from.
NOTE: If you're in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, please skip to the bottom of this post and read the section entitled "A word of caution about abusive relationships." This section might better frame the rest of the conversation for you.
1. Consider reconciliation worship
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers critical relationship advice:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23–24).
Our first act of worship is reconciliation. Jesus is telling His listeners not to go through the motions of worship if we're not interested in maintaining relationships. Paul tells us that in Christ, God is at work reconciling the world to Himself, and He has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Sometimes when someone has a problem with us, we tell ourselves it's their issue, and it's up to them to resolve it. But notice what Jesus tells us. If we're bringing an offering to Him and remember an offense someone has against us, it's our responsibility to fix it.
The burden of maintaining relationships is always ours. Jesus modeled that on the cross, and if we want to be like Jesus, we will see maintaining relationships as an act of worship.
2. Recognize destructive patterns
All friends and families have disagreements and quarrels. When we talk about broken relationships, we're typically talking about chronically broken relationships where communication is a struggle.
It's very rare for one single party to be solely responsible for all the trouble in a relationship. So we must take time to do an assessment. We need to understand where communication falls apart. Why do the parties have a hard time trusting one another or offering each other the benefit of the doubt?
If we spend time honestly evaluating where the problems are and what triggers communication breakdowns, we can put together boundaries that do a better job of protecting both parties. But this step doesn’t really work if we're not open to addressing the negative behaviors we bring to the table.
And if both parties can analyze these issues together, that's even better.
3. Seek mercy over justice
One significant reason that some broken relationships go unrepaired is that both parties feel like they've been wronged. And they want to see justice before they're willing to seek reconciliation. That justice might look like some form of redress or formal and public apology—and that might even be deserved.
But if we are to take Jesus as our model, we need to be willing to see that our grace might be more important than retribution. While we were still enemies of God, Jesus took our sin on Himself and carried the weight of our transgressions. For us, that sometimes looks like a willingness to forgive even when our criteria for deserving forgiveness isn't being met.
What we find when we lead with forgiveness is that the other party is encouraged and empowered to make decisions that lead to repairing relational wounds—often offering the very things we were withholding forgiveness to receive.
Things aren't always what they seem
Humility is critical in our relationships because we don't always see things clearly. All parties look at a broken relationship from their own point of view, and both tend to assume they were wronged. Sometimes it takes forgiveness and perspective to recognize how we've contributed to the estrangement.
If we're genuinely interested in reconciliation, we need to be willing to recognize that we may not be entirely innocent. When we're open to that, creating bonds that last becomes a lot easier.
If you're interested in learning more, check out the following articles:
A word of caution about abusive relationships
It's essential when talking about reconciliation to address violent or abusive relationships. For Christians, we are most like Jesus when we are reconciling, forgiving, and demonstrating mercy to others—especially when it feels undeserved.
That said, the responsibility for fixing broken relationships has sometimes been put on the shoulders of abused spouses or children who end up putting themselves in harm's way.
Navigating the treacherous terrain of offering forgiveness and mercy to abusers is important spiritual work. But it typically requires the input of trustworthy counselors and clergy. If you're trying to reconcile an abusive relationship, don't bear this burden alone; seek guidance from someone you can trust.