Conflict Resolution, God's Way - Psalm 51
Easter Devotional - April 2023
All of us experience conflict at some point – whether it be with a spouse, family member, friend, colleague, or acquaintance. Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a sense, conflict is simply looking at the same thing from a different perspective as someone else. Conflict can even be a good thing, even beneficial, especially when solving problems. But when conflict isn’t handled well, we can easily offend, or be offended by, another person and hurt emerges. In a way, we should expect this to happen. The Bible tells us that we all fall short of what God intended us to be (Rom 3:23b). So, when there is offence we apologise, and where there is hurt, we forgive.
Yet, no matter how much we apologise it doesn’t undo our offense. No matter how much we forgive, hurt can remain. While we may go through the process of apologising and forgiving, we can be left with the sense that the issue remains unresolved, and we feel insecure in our relationship with the other person. So, we really need to have a way where we can deal with this type of hurt that leaves us feeling secure in our relationship with the other person that we have offended or have been offended by.
The good news is, there is such a way! We see it when there is a conflict between God and his people, and God is the one who is offended. When it comes to differences in perspective, it’s not possible to have a greater conflict than between a holy God whose judgements are always right (Ps 19:7–8) and a sinner who is constantly deceived by their heart and mind (Jer 17:9). Yet, God’s approach to conflict resolution means his people can be absolutely secure in their relationship with him.
We see this in Psalm 51 with David, who was chosen by God to be king over God’s people, and yet comes into sharp conflict with God and offends him. So, it’s worth having a look to see how God does conflict resolution and apply his approach when resolving our conflicts. To do this, we’ll look at:
- David’s offence.
- David’s apology.
- God’s forgiveness.
- Moving forward.
Then we’ll see how God’s way of conflict resolution can be applied to how we apologise and forgive where offences need to be addressed.
1. David’s Offence
The background to this Psalm comes from 2 Sam 11 where we read about David’s dealings with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. There’s a lot going on in that narrative. In summary, David makes Bathsheba pregnant, then arranges to have Uriah killed as a casualty of war. Even in a permissive culture such as ours, the severity of the offence is readily appreciated. David knows he has done wrong.
2. David’s Apology
David’s first response is to appeal to God’s character. He doesn’t presume that this is something he can fix or undo. Uriah is dead! There is no “undo” for that. Bathsheba is pregnant. There is no “undo” for that – at least not a moral one! All David can do is ask God to treat him according to God’s character – his steadfast love and abundant mercy – and not according to what David has done (Ps 51:1–2). Neither is David trying to minimise his offence. He’s not saying, “Oops, I didn’t mean to make Bathsheba pregnant … I didn’t mean to kill Uriah … I was just, you know, wanting some fun and got a little carried away.” David was very intentional in his actions toward Bathsheba, and his attempts to cover up his dealings with her. Now David had to deal with the consequences. You can imagine every time he looked at Bathsheba, who he took as his wife, or looked at his son, who Bathsheba bore to him, he would be haunted by the memory of what he had done. In a very real sense, his sin was always before him (v. 3). In apologising, David cannot promise to fix what he has done.
Secondly, David must reckon with his own character. His confession of only having sinned against God seems strange (Ps 51:4). Obviously, David has sinned against Bathsheba by making her pregnant, and he’s sinned against Uriah by arranging him to be killed. The reference to only sinning against God may be because of the secrecy in which David committed this offence. Uriah isn’t going to hold David accountable – he’s dead! Bathsheba isn’t going to hold him accountable – she’s pregnant and widowed! No one else is going to hold David accountable – he’s the king! David has got away with his sin!! In fact, he may even go down in history as the king who uses his power and wealth to save pregnant war widows from a destitute life. What a guy! Except, God knew what he’d done, and he sends his prophet Nathan to tell David all about it (2 Sam 12:1–16). What a guy, indeed!
Neither is David promising that he will never do anything like this again. The fact of the matter is, David’s character and being is defined by sin (v. 5), and this contrasts with God’s character and being who delights in truth and the inner being. There is a fundamental difference between God and David that will be an ongoing threat to their relationship. David can’t fix it, neither can he stop it. Even though David has committed the offence, it’s actually God who needs to do something about this situation.
3. God’s Forgiveness
For the relationship between God and David to continue, God needs to forgive David. God needs to regard David as though he had not offended (vv. 7, 9). God needs to remove the impact of the offence from David. Remember, David can’t fix it. God needs to allow David to rejoice in him again (v. 8). David can’t make up for what he did. God needs to allow David to come into his presence. God needs to keep giving David his Holy Spirit (v. 11). God needs to give David the joy of his salvation and allow David to delight in him (v. 12).
But notice at no point does God say that what David did doesn’t matter. At no point does God say to David, “There, there, David. I know you didn’t mean to make Bathsheba pregnant, or to have Uriah killed. It’s alright. Let’s pretend that never happened. Let’s pretend there was no real intent in what you did.” There are significant issues that need to be addressed for the relationship to continue. Part of forgiveness is developing a way forward. But, before a way forward can be developed, forgiveness must come first. There must be a commitment to continue the relationship as it has been before issues can start to be addressed.
4. The Way Forward
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. The way forward in this Psalm is for God to create a clean heart in David (v. 10). To give him a new understanding and to empower him to remain consistent in his relationship with God. This will enable David to teach others about God’s ways (v. 13), sing about God’s righteousness (v. 14), declare God’s praises (v. 15), and for David to remain humble and contrite before God rather than trying to cover up his sin (vv. 16– 17). As for God, he will delight again and his people (vv. 18–19). To have a way forward means putting a structure in place so the relationship can continue as it should.
Applying God’s Way of Conflict Resolution to Us
Apologising and forgiving can leave us feeling that the issue hasn’t been resolved and feeling insecure in our relationships. This may well be because we haven’t understood what apologising and forgiving do, and we expect them to do something that they are not intended to do. As children, when we’ve done something wrong, we taught to say “sorry”, then the offended party gives some kind of pardon, then we move on by pretending that the offence never happened. What we see in Psalm 51 is something very different.
An apology is not a means of righting a wrong. It’s not an “undo” button as we might find on a computer or electronic device. When we have committed an offence, we can’t fix it, or make it go away. It may be appropriate at times to make restitution or pay some kind of compensation. But that does not erase the offence. Neither is an apology a promise that nothing like that offence will ever happen again.
An apology is, firstly, an acknowledgment that there has been wrongdoing. It’s an acknowledgment that something has been done that is inappropriate and has caused hurt. Secondly, an apology is a petition to the offended person not to treat the offender according to the offence that has been committed. Instead, it’s a petition to the offended person to continue the relationship as it has been. The offender cannot do anything more than that. At which point, the offender is totally dependent on the offended person to forgive. Which is why it’s important to understand what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Neither is forgiveness pretending that no offence had ever occurred. Forgiveness cannot be based on a feeling or a promise that the offence won’t happen again. Forgiveness is a decision to treat the offending person as a whole even though you have been hurt, and not to define the person by their offence. At no point is forgiveness saying that the offence doesn’t matter, or the hurt has disappeared. All hurts take time to heal, and this is quite apart from the act of forgiveness. But healing starts with forgiveness.
Once forgiveness has been granted, and only when forgiveness has been granted, structures can be put in place to continue the relationship. In other words, what are you going to do next time there’s a risk of the offence reoccurring? As horrible and painful as being offended can be, there can also be a positive aspect to all this. That is, both the forgiven and the forgiver have an opportunity to learn about each other’s needs. It may be for the forgiven to ask about the needs of the forgiver, and for the forgiver to gently explain what their needs are. It may also be for the forgiver to learn what the needs of the forgiven are to support them and lessen the chances of the offence reoccurring. It could be that there’s a lot that can be done to support them (either as the forgiver or forgiven), or there may small amount. Whatever level of support, it’s going to communicate a lot to the other person that you love and care for them as they are.
At this point, you may protest saying that you can’t forgive what the other person has done. It’s too much and I’m too hurt! Granted, there are things incredibly difficult to forgive. Occasionally, it may be necessary to break relationships and establish boundaries as a way of moving forward. Even Jesus cites a reason for forgiveness not to be given (Luke 12:10). Yet, our capacity to forgive does not come from ourselves with some people having more capacity to forgive than others. It may be hard due to life experiences, but the capacity to forgive is the same for all believers. This is because our capacity to forgive comes from Jesus. Let me explain.
We have a massive debt of worship that we owe to God. John had a vision of heaven where God is being worshipped. While the worship is happening, a song rings out, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11). As the vision continues, the worship is so intense and so abundant that heaven is filled with praise and thanks that it spills over onto the earth where believers are caught up in this heavenly worship (5:13). It’s incredible to think that believers on earth here today are caught up in the worship that’s happening right now in heaven. God has given you everything that you own, has fulfilled your every need, and sustains your very life, so that you may thank and worship him.
So, here’s a test: before you go to bed tonight, stop and think how many times you were thankful to God today, either by your words or actions. Even if you make it to double figures, dare I say triple, compared to the all-encompassing, all enveloping worship that is happening in heaven, it simply does not rate! The fact that we don’t thank and praise God the way he rightfully deserves offends God and hurts him. This is an offence on an eternal scale.
Yet, God does not treat us as according to our offence (Ps 103:10; Eph 2:4–7). Instead, God has put a structure in place so that he can forgive us, move on, and enjoy being in relationship with his people. That in the crucifixion of Jesus, the penalty for sin has been paid, and in his resurrection certain hope of eternal life has been given. He has done this so we can be absolutely secure in our relationship with him with no condemnation to fear (Rom 8:1). This is what we remember at Easter. When we begin to understand just how much we have offended God simply by holding back worship that rightfully belongs to him, and the cost that was involved to forgive us, then any offence we need to forgive pales in comparison. In Jesus we have an incredible capacity to forgive. All we are doing is passing on the grace and forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. It’s not from ourselves.
If we’re struggling with ideas of apologising and forgiving, maybe it’s because we really haven’t understood their function. An apology is simply an acknowledgement that something inappropriate has happened, and a petition to the offended person to continue the relationship. It doesn’t make the offence disappear. Forgiveness is a commitment to continue the relationship. It doesn’t take the hurt away, but it’s a start to healing. We put structures in place to support the other person in their need. Then we take the time to enjoy the relationship. This is God’s way of conflict resolution.