For people who have walked with Christ for any length of time and have experienced the ministry of the Holy Spirit, there will be inevitable moments when present circumstances will bring to light remaining sin in our hearts. Though we may have tried to avoid or to refuse to deal with it, He brings up an opportunity to uncover hidden sin patterns that we thought were buried far enough down so as never to see the light of day. At just the right time, right when we think our walk is safe and predictable, we are sometimes a little surprised and taken off guard by being unprepared.
Perhaps it is a well-nursed resentment or grudge that we cling to in the recesses of our minds toward another believer that goes back to the early days of conversion. Or perhaps it is an unresolved conflict with family members in which we simply don't believe we have any hope at all to change.
Or maybe it is a past sinful relationship that we still treasure secretly, deep inside our heart of hearts. It's the one situation that we fear we are powerless over in ourselves, defenseless against apart from God's intervention.
Now imagine, God has given us a divine appointment -- the opportunity to interact with this person, the one with whom there is some small part of unresolved sin or conflict in us. This post explores some ideas on how we might respond in such a hypothetical situation.
The really funny thing about most Christians (well maybe it's just me, but maybe not just me) is that we tend to think in distorted ways.
We may start out with a vertical motivation, such as, how can I be obedient in this situation and do what God wants? But the action that follows is mostly focused on the horizontal relationship.
We might ask ourselves: Should I witness to this person and tell them about how Jesus Christ has changed my life and how I'm a better person now? This type of thing is so common and such a natural knee-jerk reaction for us as Christians that almost everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, is totally on to us and unimpressed. "A prophet has no honor in his hometown" as the saying goes, and in cases like these it is just so incredibly obvious, because we already know that we still have "issues" with unforgiveness, lust, and other things mentioned above.
If we are very good students of the Bible and have even a small acquaintenance with the ministry of reconciliation and all that it entails, we will likely want to "Go and Be Reconciled" to the person with whom we have concern. This would make perfect sense if it is a recent or current conflict, but we're talking about past stuff here, so, I don't think the standard formula works completely.
The traditional model is helpful though, if we are in conflict with another believer in Christ, since being reconciled brings us back into right relationship with each other, but is based first and foremost upon our right relationship with Jesus Christ. We will want to spend the majority of our effort though getting the log out of our own eye, and maybe deemphasize the part of helping the other person with their splinter, if the problem is far in the past. With the end goal of cultivating a repaired fellowship with another Christian brother or sister in Christ, some splints may need to be examined once we have effectively dealt with those huge beams blocking our own better judgement.
In God's providence, very often, especially for those of us who were saved later in life, the Lord will bring someone back into our lives who is not a believer. And perhaps their very presence sort of rewinds us all the way back emotionally to where we were when we parted ways early on in our Christian walk.
If this happens and we think that the reason is so that we can "witness to them" (see comment above) or because we think God wants to see how strong we are under the temptation of the situation, I think we might be missing the big point. He already knows that anyway and is probably using this situation to reveal the darkness in our own hearts to us.
When I was in a 12-step program, we had something called the 9th step, which is to make amends to those whom we have hurt or wronged. This is substantially different from being reconciled, because there is no expectation placed on the other person to respond. The main purpose is to confess, to repay any debt, and to ask forgiveness without bringing any judgement or condemnation on the other person.
I'm convinced that making this type of an amend with a non-Christian is exactly the right action. It requires almost entirely a vertical perspective. Our horizontal action toward the other person flows completely from God, whether the person accepts us and forgives us or not is not the point. In fact, it is not the relationship between the two individuals that is the focus primarily, but rather the acknowledgement of hidden sin against God that we've been harboring and a reconciled relationship with Him.
Doing this might provide an opportunity to share the Gospel later on, but we must be very careful not to fall prey to the common deception whereby we justify impure motives with evangelism.
That said, I'd just like to conclude by saying that in dealing with ghosts of the past, or skeletons in the closet as it were, it's primarily an issue of hidden sin in our own hearts against our holy God and not really about the other person that much at all.