Over the past few weeks, my brother and I have been having a lengthy theological discussion over a point of Scripture. Both of us see our stance as reflecting the heart of God, both see our point as being crucial to the future of people’s lives and immortal souls, and both of us seem committed to our respective sides of the truth. (Hmm, could it be that we’re both right?) I won’t prejudice the discussion by elaborating on it here since it is still ongoing, and although it is unlikely, knowing our personalities, that we’ll reach a point of agreement, what is remarkable to me is the willingness on both our parts to even have this dialogue.
I respect my brother. He is an honest man, one who seeks after God’s will, and as far as I can tell, he is a commendable husband and father and a successful businessman. More important than all of that, I love him. If we never see eye to eye on this particular “crucial” issue, I hope it never becomes a wedge in our relationship. Oh, that this were how I felt about other people in my life with whom I have serious disagreements!
In the Bible, after hanging around Jesus for a while and slowly learning what is important to his master’s heart, Peter begins feeling a bit proud of himself, a bit holy. He’s made strides in his spiritual life, he’s in tight with God’s appointed Messiah, and has been promised a prominent position in judging the tribes of Israel in the coming kingdom. At one of those confident moments he asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:22).
We’ve all had these thoughts. Usually over some matter of personal offense: a common source of disharmony between close people, and a poisoner of relationships. Peter probably thinks he’s going over the top with his generous offer. Seven times! (Jewish tradition at that time suggested that one ought to forgive an offense up to the fourth time — that is, forgive three times, but the fourth offense has crossed the line — so Peter’s offer is twice the going rate.) Jesus’ answer shocks everyone and puts Peter’s generosity to shame. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Even today, we devoted believers find this number hard to swallow.
But along with the point that we shouldn’t be counting offenses and should forgive as many times as we’d like to be forgiven ourselves, Jesus illustrates the point that we should never let our disagreements, our offenses (no matter who is right), be cause for breaking fellowship. We’re to put up with each other’s faults, bearing in mind that we’ve got plenty of our own — that whole “don’t try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log sticking out of yours” thing. The relational bonds between people are more important than being right, or getting our just deserves. Everyone needs forgiveness, everyone needs compassion. We’ll never reach perfection in this lifetime, so we’re going to need as much forgiveness and compassion as we can get.
This is a spiritual law higher, and more important, than other laws we seem to become preoccupied with. It is too easy for us to focus on our differences, to see what is clearly wrong with someone else. It is too easy to hold grudges, to cut that person off, to dismiss them from our lives, or to surrender to the position of “irreconcilable differences” over matters that are in reality insignificant. We focus on the trivial; we love the letter of the law. We love to critique each other, and show how the other is falling far short of the standard. This is our basic instinct, our flawed human nature. But, borrowing an image from common life in ancient Palestine, if an ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, isn’t it better to break the law forbidding work on that holy day, and save the poor beast out of simple human compassion? The law of love, the principle of compassion, the bonds of relationship, override other considerations. It makes all other disputes insignificant in comparison.
What does this mean in real life? Where does the rubber meet the road? Whether it’s some major doctrinal disagreement between brothers, or a deep, grievous personal offense among co-workers at the office, disharmony is the greater evil. Letting the offense fester and become a bitter source of division is a bigger wrong. In the long run — and I believe, in God’s eyes — who is right is less important than preserving fellowship. Being correct is less important than dealing compassionately with one another. After all, God’s presence, his power, and his love are displayed most clearly when people united by a more powerful bond are gathered together. And isn’t that a better thing than being right?