The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
January 30, 2003
Lessons in Reconciliation
"Get off at the exit a few miles ahead," the still, small voice urged me.
I was driving home to Columbia, Md., from a visit with my father in Pennsylvania. He was dying, and it was going to be only a matter of a few months, possibly weeks, now.
By this point in my life I'd had enough experiences with the Holy Spirit to know what He felt like and to obey Him, no matter how strange the request might seem.
So I took the exit just over the Mason-Dixon line and drove towards Freeland, Md. I didn't know where I was going. But I knew prayer waited up ahead.
After a few miles I came to a rails-to-trails park, with a parking lot for the hikers and bikers who used it. It seemed like a likely spot. I pulled off, parked the car, got out, and started to walk along the trail (see below). It was already dusk, and the light was fading fast.
I had only taken a few steps before I felt I had to get on my knees.
"What is it, Lord?" I asked.
For a while, silence. Then, "Look ahead of you."
The path ahead looked like a dark tunnel. I couldn't see an end to it.
"Will you still walk this way with me?"
The memories came rushing back. A few years earlier, I'd had a similar experience. I had felt the Lord hold out a cup to me and ask if I would be willing to drink it. What could I answer but "yes"?
Within a few weeks there had followed an intense period of persecution at the church I was serving. The memory of having been handed the cup was one of the things that kept my focus on God and sustained me through 18 months of duress.
I had the feeling that I was being asked something similar here. I'd already paid a price for discipleship once. I knew some of how high it might be. But how could I now answer "no" to the One to whom I owed my life?
And so I heard myself paraphrasing the words of Peter in John 6:68: "Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life." I was saddened that something was about to happen again. But I'd meant every word of what I'd said.
On the rest of the drive home, I pondered the purpose of the warning. I was pretty sure it had to do with my dad. In fact, I wondered whether he had died shortly after I'd left.
But that wasn't it.
The suspense lasted less than 24 hours. The next day, a terrible thing happened that rocked my Christian relational life and left me stunned. An important friendship was severed. Afterwards, I went through a very long process of forgiveness (see related devotion), which was ultimately successful.
But the Spirit did not seem to want me to stop with forgiveness. He kept nudging me to pursue reconciliation as well.
Now, I know that forgiveness is very different from reconciliation. You can forgive someone without reconciling with them. You can forgive someone who is dead or who has abused you and with whom you want no further contact. I know that reconciliation requires the participation of both parties. I know there must be repentance before reconciliation can happen. I know that sometimes attempting reconciliation is not the right course to pursue. And most of all, I know that even if one or both parties pursue it, often reconciliation does not happen.
Understanding all of that, I still have done my best to obey the Spirit's leading. For the most part it has taken the form of a strong prayer burden, with occasional promptings to attempt to reconnect.
It is now several years later. Reconciliation seems to still be a long way off. Although there has been some response, for the most part I have been ignored. As the Spirit warned me, following this path with Him has indeed been dark and long. It has resulted in additional anguish beyond what I experienced initially. It has been very discouraging and difficult to keep obeying and following Him.
Yet the Spirit's burden on me to continue on this dark path has not diminished.
This has come as a surprise. In fact, not long ago in a moment of deep frustration during prayer I cried out, "Isn't enough enough? I was the person wronged! Why is the burden on me to do this—why doesn't _________ have to come to me instead?"
And that's when I saw it—or at least part of it. God does the same for us. And so, lately I have been considering the mystery of my path of reconciliation in light of God's own reconciliation work.
Here are some things I am considering.
God is the ultimate innocent party. He is all righteous and responsible for none of the breaches of relationship with his people. And yet, from cover to cover of the Bible and into our own time, he is the one who is always holding out his arms. He is always pursuing them. In the work of Christ, God himself lays everything on the line to make reconciliation with his people possible.
In his book Meditations on the Cross, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this "the humiliating path of reconciliation." For Bonhoeffer Christ is the reconciler who steps into the middle between God and the world and takes upon himself the reality of the human condition. Jesus does this "in a life genuinely lived" among us in history—not in some abstract sense of universal love. "God answers for godlessness, love for hatred, the saint for the sinner" until "there is no godlessness, no hatred, no sin which God has not carried, suffered, and atoned," he writes.
The humiliating path is also the path of anguish and suffering for God. Think for a moment of what Christ suffered on the cross. Picture also the woundedness of the God who pursues that we see in the Old Testament prophetic books.
For example, Hosea shows God as a faithful husband whose wife has been plying the trade of prostitution—but who continues to love her, pursue her, and buy her back from slavery.
Isaiah's text continually alternates between accounts of how the sin of the people has hurt God, the punishment that must occur because of it, and this same God holding out the promise of salvation and restoration to them through his own efforts. When they respond with repentance and trust to what God is offering, the reconciliation takes place. But again and again, the people pursue their own ways and fall short.
What betrayal God feels in the song of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7). He has done everything he could to give his people every chance to live life as he intends. But instead of reflecting him, they do the opposite.
In Isaiah 65:1-5, God calls out, "I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, 'Here am I, here am I,' to a nation that did not call on my name." The righteous, steadfast one stands with his arms open, ready to take his people in, but they would not. Centuries later Jesus would weep in the same way for Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39).
There is anguish for God when, despite everything he does, his people do not "turn and be healed" (Isaiah 6:10). The path of reconciliation can be long and dark.
And sometimes, for God and for us both, it ends in a dead end.
I am beginning to believe that in some small measure, the anguish I feel as I struggle on the humiliating path of reconciliation is part of God's anguish. Perhaps I am growing closer to God as I imitate what he does. I am hopeful it is a sign that I am beginning to take on the mind of Christ. I think World Vision founder Bob Pierce was on to something when he asked God to break his heart with the things that break God's own heart.
In 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, Paul explains that Christians are called to be partners in God's ministry of reconciliation. If this is true, surely it must include this aspect of sorrow, humiliation, suffering and vulnerability.
I have been thinking of what Jesus said about heaven rejoicing whenever one sinner repents. It is no wonder. So much energy has been expended by heaven on the reconciliation, that having it sometimes come to fruition must be a source of great joy.
I believe this will also be true for those of us who would follow our God down the long, dark, humiliating path of reconciliation.
Not long ago I was talking with some friends about what I was learning. It was slowly dawning on me that I could not point to any place in my life, or in the lives of any people I knew, where there had been a breach in a relationship and later, reconciliation had actually taken place. I knew of a few dramatic examples in the Christian literature, but outside of that—-nothing. So I asked my friends, had they or had anyone they knew ever experienced reconciliation?
No one ever had.
We thought for a while about why this was. Sometimes it seemed the relationship wasn't important enough to try to save. Many people were waiting for an apology from the other side to come first. Sometimes attempts were made but dropped when there seemed to be no progress. Others just wanted to pretend the situation did not exist and move on. For some the prospect of revisiting the hurt was too much.
As one who is trying to be faithful to where the Spirit has led me, I want to encourage you in following the path for yourself. But let me also be realistic and honest. Here are some things I have noticed that seem to be part of God's pattern for reconciliation:
Knowing all of this, how can I continue? I keep in mind that despite all of God's efforts, not everyone reconciles with him. Yet he continues his work of drawing people to himself. It is the risk of love and vulnerability he takes. Knowing all of this, how can I not follow where he himself has gone and continues to go?
"I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, 'Here am I, here am I,' to a nation that did not call on my name."