There seems to be a common misconception among believers, at least in my growing experience as a Christian and as a pastor. It is a misconception that I have seen and felt from various directions. It shows itself among husbands and wives, parents and children, church members toward one another and toward the church as a whole, brothers and sisters in Christ in different churches, and various other relationships.
Some particular sin is committed, some specific greater or lesser offence offered or received. (I am thinking more of this than of the gradual accumulation of distress caused by ignorant or ingrained behaviour over time, although they may be connected.) Division is created, either hidden or open. That sin, that offence, is like a splinter in the flesh, creating a persistently sore spot, perhaps even a festering wound, sensitive to every pressure. If you have had such a splinter in your flesh, you know that you might, over time, forget that it is there, precisely because no pressure is applied. You can learn, in measure, to protect the spot in question. And then, in some way and for some reason, pressure is exerted once more, and - yoicks! - do you remember that you have a splinter! The only way to deal with the tenderness and soreness, perhaps with the growing infection, is to remove the splinter. That can be a profoundly painful experience in itself, but at least it solves the problem.
So it is with sins and offences that cannot be covered with a blanket of love. Some pains and griefs will not die but keep creeping up into a relationship to turn it sour. The only way to deal with the pain and the division is to remove the splinter. Generally speaking, this does not just happen over time. But this is what many Christians seem to expect. A husband lies to his wife at a key moment, or insults her publicly, and the matter is never resolved. A wife steals from her husband under particular circumstances, or gossips about him, and the wound never heals. A parent strikes a child in sinful and uncontrolled anger, or indulges in a pattern of selfish neglect, and the matter rankles. A child hurls angry abuse at a parent, or betrays some particular trust, and the words or the deeds hang mouldering in the atmosphere. In such close-knit environments, the pressure is likely to be felt time and again, with the result that there may always be a simmering tension, an underlying rumble that suggests that the volcano might erupt at any moment. Another lie, another theft, another outburst of anger, and . . . BOOM!
In other environments, the pressure may be less regular. A church member speaks harshly to another, and subsequently avoids that person for months to come. But then they are necessarily thrown closely together, and the wound is found to have festered and there is a spirit of bitter recrimination. A man leaves the church having sat with a face like thunder through countless sermons, hurling insults and abuses at the elders as he goes. Later, a pastor is preaching away, and - behold! - the face of the offender in the congregation, with the immediate resurgence of all the old pains for the man of God. And then, at the door, to be greeted like an old friend by that very man! A couple leave a congregation, having laid various charges against the saints and with significant and sore unfinished business. A decade later, there is a crisis in their life or in the life of someone to whom they used to be close, and they pitch up and expect themselves or others to pitch in as if nothing has happened. A pastor speaks cuttingly and carelessly and unrepentantly, privately or publicly, and a wounded sheep wanders from the flock. Months later, that sheep attends a conference and there is that man preaching on the love of Christ, and the bile rises in the victim's throat.
The simple passage of time does not heal such wounds. Even in the relationship of God with men, God's forgetting of our sins is a deliberate putting away - under specific circumstances and with good grounds - of that which has caused offence. It is not a gradual fog that gathers due to unavoidable gaps in the divine mind. The matter is there until repentance and forgiveness deals with it, and then it is cast into the depths of the sea. On a human level, the passage of time may dull the immediate pain of the splinter, only for it to flare up when pressure is re-applied. And yet how many of us seem to think or hope that if we just leave our sin or the sins of others alone, maybe the wound will heal? To be sure, it may temporarily scab over, but the slightest movement at that particular point will re-open the injury, and perhaps reveal not just the original cut but a developed infection.
How, then, do we remove the splinter? How do we heal the wound? It is not by ignoring it and hoping that it will get better by itself. It is not by pretending that nothing is wrong. It is not by mentally downgrading the offence and hoping that it all gets better. It is not by saying sorry (this may be a topic for another post, but there is a difference between being and even saying sorry, and seeking forgiveness - you can be very sorry that something has happened without repenting of your sin). It is not by positive thinking.
The way to address it is to identify the splinter, and then to remove it or to allow it to be removed. The wound must be opened, lanced if necessary, the balm of forgiveness poured in, and the whole injury properly bound up.
If you are the offended party, that may require that you graciously identify with the offender where the offence lies, as they may have genuinely forgotten it, may have no sense that they have sinned or caused offence, or may simply be hoping you have not remembered it, or that it will go away. You should consider whether or not it is genuinely a matter of sin against you, or if you simply have an excessive sensitivity at some point. Should the time come to address the matter, you would want to do so not in a spirit of vindictiveness or bitterness, but with a disposition of readiness to extend forgiveness when it is sought. And, should forgiveness be sought, that is the moment at which to extend it in a Christian spirit, fully and freely (Eph 4:32). If your sincere offer of forgiveness to any sincerely repentant approach is rebuffed, you can at least stand with a clear conscience (Rom 12:18).
If you are the offending party, it may mean first of all that you face up to your sinful behaviour. There may be something that is lying on your conscience, and has been for many months or even years, and you need to address it. There may be ignorance about the matter, but there may come a point at which it is pointed out to you, and you need to consider the charge. You may simply be too bullheaded to acknowledge your sin, and that needs to change. There may be something which you are, on your knees before God, persuaded was not sin, but which has still led to some degree of distance and difficulty in a relationship. Whether it is something that you need to raise, or something that has been raised with you, go and deal with the matter in all humility (Phil 2:1-4). Go and repent of your particular sins particularly, dealing with them before God and men, remembering that the blood of Christ cleanses from all transgressions, and sincerely seeking forgiveness not just vertically, in your relationship with the Lord, but horizontally, in your relationship with men. If your desire for and pursuit of reconciliation is rebuffed, you at least have a conscience void of offence.
As I have hinted, you cannot guarantee a righteous response when you seek to deal with these things. Perhaps some tenderness may remain if, from one side or the other, there is an unwillingness to seek and secure a righteous resolution. But you or I should do all that we can to remove the splinter, lance the boil, clean the wound, pour in the balm, bind up the injury, and go on in peace. Time alone will not accomplish this. It needs the tweezers of repentance to draw out the splinter, and the oil of forgiveness to soothe the hurt, not to mention the plaster of renewed affection to allow healing to go on. By God's grace, just as broken bones are stronger than before, so can such restored relationships be even sweeter and surer than they ever were.