Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. (Matthew 5:24)
This sounds like another entirely contradictory statement, doesn’t it? After all, the adversary is one who is against us. Why, if we’re in a place of ‘no condemnation,’ should we agree with those who accuse us or judge us? But the Bible says clearly that you should agree with your adversary and quickly. It may well be – though it appears paradoxical – that this is the swiftest and easiest way to avoid judgement. It adds an interesting dimension to the issue of repentance and right standing with God that we would do well to pay attention to.
When we agree with our adversary, we remove the basis for judgement.
This verse always reminds me of Jesus telling the crowd that the one who had no sin should cast the first stone. The inference seems to be that there is, firstly, no one who is entirely sinless and, secondly, that we should never simply assume guilt or innocence. It’s significant that there is nothing in this passage that touches on whether we are in the right or in the wrong. The command is simply to reconcile with our brother and agree with our adversary. It leaves no room for the complicated issues of who is right or wrong, but rather addresses the need for humility and a willingness to resolve problems.
It’s also important to consider this in the context of worship. The implication is that our worship is meaningless until we make the effort to reconcile with those who have something against us. This says nothing about whether or not their resentment is justified. It does not mention even the possibility that we may be in the right, and that whatever they have against us is entirely unfounded. It may seem like unfair to expect us to agree with our adversary when we are the ones in the right, but it points to a very relevant and powerful spiritual truth – the devil will use whatever grounds he can to accuse us, and we need to ensure that we do not provide him with the opportunity to do so.
There is a tendency among many Christians to use the ‘no condemnation’ truth to excuse all kinds of sins, both of commission and omission. This is presumption – using the grace of God as a kind of ‘get out of jail free card.’ They gloss over the reality that entering the place of no condemnation includes the phrase ‘in Christ Jesus.’ If we’re in Christ, we’re surrendered and obedient and committed to living in such a way that we reveal His character and righteousness. The obvious justification of what is in fact a fundamental error would seem to be the way Jesus dealt with Satan in the desert. There seems to be no example there that would prompt us to agree with our adversary.
The context, however, is entirely different. In the wilderness, the devil was levelling no accusation. Rather, he was tempting Christ in order to deceive Him into providing legal ground for accusation. We often overlook the fact that Satan is restricted by God. The only accusations he can make that God is obliged to listen to are those that have legal foundation. That is part of the purpose of temptation – to seduce us out of Christ and into enemy territory. The moment we step out of our privileged and protected position of being in Christ, we are fair game. When we agree with our adversary, we cut away any legal ground from which he can accuse us.
It may seem conflicting and contradictory, but it is an incredibly wise course of action. My father had a saying which remains with me to this day – there are always three sides to a story, their side, my side, and somewhere in the middle, the right side. This is a fundamental reality of life. It is life-saving wisdom. In every situation, none of us is ever completely and utterly without fault. It may be in our reactions or responses. It may be in the emotions we entertain – the resentment, the anger, the bitterness – or it may simply lie in the fact that we haven’t really honestly listened. We may have misinterpreted things, assumed things, or ignored things. If we can keep this truth in mind, then to agree with our adversary begins to make much more sense.
Reconciliation is about forgiveness and repentance. It’s absolutely futile to repent for things we may have done or not done if we make no effort to address the matter with our brother. Repenting before God is not a substitute for apologising to someone we may have hurt or treated wrongly. Repentance means absolutely nothing if we’re not willing to enact it in humility. Even if the other person has wrongly interpreted the situation, their resentment is real, and it’s most likely enflamed by our unwillingness to give up any of the high moral ground. Satan loves this kind of situation. It gives him free reign in our life and in the other person’s life. Whatever the reality of the situation, we have both played a part. It’s up to us to make the effort, to agree with our adversary that we’re not entirely sinless. Thereafter, if the other person refuses our efforts, we are to forgive them and ask God to bless them.
Satan will happily install himself as accuser, judge, and jury. Give him even your pinkie finger, and he’ll grab the whole hand. But he can only work where he has legal ground to do so, and he only has legal ground when we give it to him. This is where the real example that Jesus left us comes into play. We need to remember at all times that Christ went to the cross. He was unjustly accused and unjustly put to death for our sake. There is no greater way to agree with our enemy so completely. Because He did so, we have the grace of ‘no condemnation,’ but only if our repentance is complete and honest. If we’re not willing to live the precepts of the Word of God – precepts that Jesus manifested so powerfully in His life on earth and death on the cross – we have no right to claim the grace.
Human pride lies at the root of every single confrontation or strife. It is our driving need to always be right that exacerbates simple disagreements and escalates them into major conflict. None of us wants to admit to being wrong – even inadvertently or marginally – and we’ll do everything we can to defend ourselves, including perpetuating the strife. The last thing we want to do is agree with our enemy. We have the mistaken perception that it somehow diminishes us and compromises our position. We think that it makes us appear weak and easily bullied. Yet there is nothing that defuses as situation quite as effectively as simply saying: ‘You’re absolutely right.’
This doesn’t mean that we have to acknowledge that we did something we didn’t do and vice versa. But it does mean that we need to acknowledge at least our part in the conflict. It may be that we did react or did retaliate. It may be that our hurt prompted harsh or vindictive emotion. God does not want us to lie, but He does want us to make the effort to reconcile. It may not work. The other person may remain obdurate in their perceived offense. But it does set us free to walk in ‘no condemnation’ and leave the matter in God’s hands. He always honours obedience, and if we agree with our adversary, we leave Satan no further room to manipulate things for his own purposes.
This verse contains the essence of others that tell us, for instance, to turn the other cheek. If we look at the two side by side, we begin to see a deeper wisdom. If nothing else, we can still say ‘I’m sorry you were offended.’ It is by reaching out to others in a genuine and honest desire for reconciliation that we manifest the nature of Christ. This is obedience to Christ in us. This is the path to living in assurance in the promise that there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. If Jesus was able, at the height of His suffering and spiritual agony, to plead for forgiveness for those responsible for His unjust punishment and execution, we can do nothing less than agree with our adversary and follow His example with willing and loving obedience.
Father, we ask Your forgiveness for all the times we’ve ignored our part in the conflicts that have touched our lives. Give us the grace to see things with honesty and humility, to recognise our own failings, and to be willing to seek reconciliation where there is strife. Give us the courage, Lord, to admit to our weaknesses and wrong responses, and the wisdom to know what to say and do. Help us, in all sensitive matters, to live always in Christ and according to His example.