“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye"” (Matthew 7:3–5).
Last month, I began a series of articles on “peacemaking,” a Scriptural mandate given to all believers, but one that seems to take up an inordinate amount of the time and energy of pastoral elders. I referred the reader to the book The Peacemaker: A Biblical
Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, by Ken Sande (Baker Book House, 1991). In that book, Sande presents his argument that the work of peacemaking must be guided by four principles. The first of those was “glorify God”! Says Sande, “Biblical peacemaking is motivated and directed by a desire to please and honor God. His interests, reputation, and commands should take precedence over all other considerations” (p. 8).
In today’s article, we turn to the second principle that must guide our work of bringing reconciliation to the sinful divisions that mar the life of the communion of saints. He calls it the “get the log out of your eye” principle, basing it on the text quoted at the top of this article.
It's interesting what most people do with the passage. They zoom up to the top of the chapter that says “do not judge,” and conclude that it would be better if we never confronted each other at all. “Do not judge” becomes the justification for “stay out of my affairs”! And that, as we all will admit, is the slogan of our individualistic, non-covenantal world.
But that’s not an accurate reading of the text, contrary as it is to so many other passages. There are, by my count, 53 passages in the New Testament in which we are commanded to stick our nose into our fellow believers’ business. Fifty three times we are commanded to “love one another” or “rebuke one another” or “teach one another” or “admonish one another” or “pray for one another.”
No, the Matthew 7 passage doesn't prohibit us from involvement, from confrontation, or from judging discernment. But it does warn us that our perspective makes all the difference. Let me illustrate. For years, as my kids will testify, my wife and Isounded central themes in our parenting. One was “focus on the heart.” In saying that again and again, we wanted to teach our children that one’s heart was the core of one’s being, and if they would focus on people’s hearts rather than merely on their actions, they would understand those people better and be far more discerning. Another theme we sounded was “honor your commitments.” We wanted our children to take their responsibilities seriously in a world in which both of us had seen far too many people trivialize theirs. One day, when my wife was in the hospital and was about to have a difficult procedure, she wanted to have one of the kids there with her. That child arrived late, and when she did, I unloaded. I saw only the clock, and berated the child for irresponsibility. I never saw the flowers in her hand. She had stopped to pick them up at the flower shop which had a long line, because she knew it would help to cheer her Mom up. I completely missed the “focus on the heart.” My own failure had clouded my judgment, affected my reaction and brought about unnecessary tears.
How true Jesus’ words are! If, in dealing with conflicts between believers, I only see theperceived failures of the other person and do not see what I may have contributed to the conflict, my vision is faulty, my perspective skewed.
I have often seen the wisdom of this passage when counseling married couples. I am always amazed at how easily I can identify different viewpoints in a marriage, and how those viewpoints affect the judgment and reactions of the married couple. It’s easy, that is, when I’m looking at someone else’ marriage. In my own marriage, I usually went into our personal disputes with a piece of lumber clouding my judgment. And that usually caused more trouble than the original cause for disagreement!
A LUMBER CHECKLIST
How do I determine whether I have a plank in my own eye? Sande suggests a number of steps. The first is to deal with personal issues before tackling the material issues. By material issues, Sande refers to things like “how to divide the estate equitably,” or “how much money does Kathryn owe Susie.” By personal issues, Sande means matters of the heart. Jesus was asked about a material matter once, in Luke 12:13–15, when someone from the crowd asked him to “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Before tackling the financial question, Jesus dealt with the heart issue: “Watch out. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Jesus’ pattern is worthy of note. Often the issues in dispute among believers are issues far deeper than the presenting ones. Often there are spiritual, heart issues that use a minor occasion to rear their ugly heads. I wish I had a nickel for every time I had to point out to a couple that the real reason they were having marital tension was not money, sex or scheduling. It was, instead, that they had no spiritual unity, no bond of common commitment. They were not serving the Lord together, and so found it difficult to come to agreement on anything else. When they would unite heart and mind in the Word and in prayer each day, the resolution of the “material issues” was minor. Until they did, those “material issues” threatened to destroy the marriage!
The second step in checking your eye for lumber is to overlook minor offenses. Proverbs 19:11 tells us: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” What a wonderfully liberating bit of wisdom. I don’t have to be judge, jury and executioner for every fault of those with whom I deal. (Praise God that they don’t deal with me that way, either!) In fact, for the sake of reconciliation, I can and should sometimes overlook offenses.
Thirdly, Sande suggests that each of us check our attitudes. By that he reminds us that conflicts Dften darken our joy, harden our geNleness, hinder our prayers for others and cloud our understanding of their life circumstances we all would love to be understood fairly by others. We should prayerfully present the same attitude to them.
Fourthly, he encourages us to count the cost of interpersonal conflict. I recall one circumstance in which brothers went to interpersonal war over what one’s wife said about the other. The conflict literally raged on for years, destroying family unity, even hindering fellowship among the children of the next generation. Only when one brother was gripped by the Word of God during a communion sermon did he realize what a horrible cost his stubbornness had cost so many people. He wept as he sought reconciliation, in tears confessing, “I was so silly. It wasn’t worth any of this!” Amen, brother!
Finally, Sande reminds us that we ought to check our rights. Sometimes Christians are so concerned about their legal, moral, or technical rights within a personal conflict that they soon become more obsessed with those rights than with the original conflict. Paul’s words in I Cor. 9 are instructive. After articulating what his considerable rights as an apostle really are (a right to be supported by the church. the right to the freedoms the gospel grants), he stresses: “I have not used any of these rights!” In fact, says Paul, I give up my rights for the sake of the gospel. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means 1might save some” (v. 22). That’s the sort of approach that must characterize our heart. Laying down our personal rights in a spirit of submission and for the sake of the gospel honors our Savior, who laid down everything for the sake of our reconciliation!
As elders, this checklist ought to guide how we deal with our own personal conflicts, but just as importantly, guide us as we deal pastorally with the real but thorny issues of conflict in the body of believers. Help the people of God to deal with their own vision before they start poking around in each other’s eyes!
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, Texas.