“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”. Paul’s words to the church…Ephesus 4:31-32
A Testimony of God’s Patience, Grace, and Mercy
By Randy Sharp
What comes to mind when you consider the words “perspective and understanding”? The story you are about to read is a testimony of God’s patience, grace and mercy with one of His children, me. It may seem a bit long but it is a story of life from my heart.
Brotherly relationships are often times close. When brothers are born within a year of each other obviously you spend the vast majority of any part of your growing up years together. I had a good relationship with my brother. Raised in a home with parents who believed in attending Sunday School and church every Sunday to help establish Christian values as a foundation in our decisions. Family was important, and we also followed similar interests in sports and extra-curricular activities.
When I was a senior in high school my older brother joined the United States Navy, and moved away. God used this time of his life to draw my brother back into a closer relationship with Himself. When I graduated high school, I decided to work for our dad in his plumbing business. I moved out of the house and moved in with friends, who were experiencing the world of freedom and independence away from the daily oversight of parental guidance. Independence can be fun, but with independence comes responsibility, and at the young age of 18 good decision making is not high priority when the world is pulling at you with enticements stronger than your will or good sense.
My brother would write me letters and share the Lord’s truth with me. He would share Scripture references he was learning through his association with the Navigators. These letters, his stories of experiencing a new level of relationship with the Lord, and the relevant Scripture references, made me very uncomfortable. Often I would receive his letter and not open it because I didn’t want to hear what he was sharing with me. They were too convicting.
I could fill a ream of paper sharing the details of this period in my life. Let me say this; God was patient with me and His plan for me was progressing. Have you heard the expression, “wasted on wine, women and song”? I was raised in a loving family that approved of excessive use of alcohol. The money I earned was spent on a frivolous, self-indulgent lifestyle which was abusive to myself and others, physically, emotionally, and relationally. The lifestyle I was living was definitely a life far from the Lord. Through several jobs, several residences, and many superficial relationships through dating I spent everything I had and earned. I had borrowed all the money the bank was willing to loan me and I was not able to meet my monthly expenses along with supporting my desired lifestyle. Because I was broke, friends began to disassociate with me because they were growing tired of paying my way. Not a good position to put your friends.
My brother kept sharing how the Lord was blessing him. I continued to do odd jobs to cover my rent expenses, and took another job working for my dad as a salesman during the late 1970’s. This new job gave me great hope of finally being financially successful. However, I learned through this I was not a good salesman. This brought me to a very humbling reality, and through this failure as a salesman I began to listen to the Lord. New friends came into my life, friends who lived life differently than I had lived in recent years, friends who loved the Lord and walked with Him daily. These new friendships paralleled the letters my brother had been writing, and the conviction in heart that I was not pleasing God grew. Along with this conviction, I began to appreciate what my brother had been doing over the previous four years through his letters. I had a dramatic, eye-opening experience while a groomsman at a friend’s wedding; the Lord turned my heart back to Him. After the wedding, I responded by getting on my knees to confess my sin.
I recommitted my life to the Lord, and over the next two years I grew in my personal faith through study, fellowship with believers, and through close personal friends all by God’s grace. He re-established a great relationship between my brother and I, and my brother was my best man at my wedding with my bride, Nedra, in 1982. This is only the first miracle God had in store for me.
Jump forward nine years to 1991, my brother left the Navy in 1983, after 9.5 years of service, and was working for himself; at times employed in the technology field. We ended up living in the same town in Kansas. He had decided to take on a new venture of custom home building through an association with a manufactured home company. Because we had a good relationship with him and his family at the time, and I wanted to help him get started, we agreed to let him build our first new house, and signed the contract. This was not a good decision in retrospect. Through the project we gave him money from our construction loan so he in turn could pay the sub-contractors as they performed their work. We learned later he had not been paying the sub contractors for their work when we received notices that leans had been placed on our property.
Without explaining all the details, simply place yourself in this situation. A conflict was brewing of magnum proportions. Extremely heated conversations developed over when and how the sub-contractors would be paid, but no resolution was reached because the money given was gone used for other “needed” purposes. This conflict escalated quickly and involved many other people including other family members taking sides, bankers, insurance agents, employers and attorneys. Why was such a good beginning and trust ending up so ugly and divisive? How could such a good relationship get so alienated over building a house?
Ultimately, my wife and I decided these things could not be resolved, apart from one of two things; take my brother to court, or absorb the costs ourselves. We decided we did not have biblical permission to take my brother to court. After all, he was not only a blood brother but a brother in Christ, right? So we determined to settle the matter by letting the existing sub-contractors go and hiring subcontractors to finish the project. We paid all the unpaid subcontractors from an increase in our loan at the bank and terminated the contract with my brother. This also drove a huge wedge between my brother and me, and set up a great case for family disunity with our parents and extended family for four years.
Resolution…or another lesson to be learned
My wife and I became convicted and reached an understanding through much prayer and wise counsel from others, that harboring a lack of forgiveness, bitterness, anger and a judgmental spirit toward my brother (and his family) over an unfulfilled contract and monetary loss was not God’s will. We made a cognitive decision to call and invite my brother and his wife to our house, to discuss our differences with the ultimate objective of extending forgiveness. Keep in mind we had not spoken about the matter since the break in our relationship. They accepted our invitation.
The evening was prayed over by many people who knew the circumstances and the turmoil of four years. As the conversation began we felt God’s peace and were able to visit in a congenial manner. As the conversation was beginning to wind down we said the words, “we want you to know we forgive you for all that took place surrounding the building of this house”. We had not anticipated the response we received from them. In return they simply said, “We forgive you as well”. No other conversation followed other than a friendly goodbye and a hug. On the surface the relationship looked much improved. However, my wife and I struggled with the question, “what did we do that they forgave us for. What wrong did we commit”? But we chose not to question the forgiveness extended and thanked them.
This allowed family relationships to be restored, and we began participating together in holidays, family reunions, and acknowledging annual family birthdays and anniversaries again. Forgiveness had verbally been extended, but rebuilding trust in the relationship was still a work in progress.
Another “more spiritually challenging” test ahead
In 2004, approximately ten years had passed. Much had happened in our respective families during this time. Our children had grown up, three of the five boys between us were off to college, and two were still in high school. My wife and I had continued in our professional jobs and had taken on leadership in our church. My brother now had his own business and doing well. He also served as co-lay pastor in a small church. All seemed to be blessed and good. Through a series of events my wife and I had experienced, we were moved to begin pursuing full time ministry with Campus Crusade for Christ to serve with FamilyLife, a marriage and family ministry outreach of Campus Crusade for Christ, serving to bring biblical help and hope to marriages and families. This pursuit was mostly confidential. I did not want our current employers to know we were pursuing other work because I was concerned how they would respond. We had not shared this with any family members other than our own children.
We reached a final decision to join Campus Crusade for Christ staff July 2, 2004. God provided many affirmations for our decision, and we were at peace with moving forward. It was time to share our decision with our family. We had not anticipated the response we would receive from many of our family particularly my brother!
We called them and said we had some news we wanted to share with him and his wife. When we met and shared what we were going to be doing there was more astonishment on their faces rather than excitement. They asked us a lot of questions, which is normal when someone has not heard of an organization. We answered their questions with the knowledge we had at that time, but the response did not reflect the joy or excitement we had anticipated from them.
The weeks and months that followed our discussions with my brother and his wife were anything but pleasant. They began to tell us that the work we were headed into was not the work of God. That FamilyLife was actually leading people further away from Christ than toward Him. My brother said we were using Scripture for our benefit, taking Scripture out of context to influence people so they would join our ministry monetarily. Many deep, hurtful things filled our conversations. The arguments and disagreements intensified during all the months we were sharing about our ministry as missionary staff and preparation for the move to Little Rock, Ark. My brother reached a point where he said he could not talk to me about this anymore and that he and his wife would be glad when we moved so they wouldn’t have to see us any longer. These discussions and comments cut to the core of our relationship once again, and we moved without saying goodbye, without any plans to talk again.
Six years pass! Casual conversations happened from time to time, but the desire to spend quality time together was absent from our relationship. In 2007 we were driven together when mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. We had to visit about the treatment and plans for mom’s long term care and talk with her about options. This stress was expected, but also added to the stress of our distressed relationship. Mom lived three more years before she graduated to her heavenly home. We were able to honor our mom’s life by creating a meaningful memorial service where many family and friends attended. What was left was completing her wishes spelled out in here will as she appointed my brother and I as co-executors, and a simple distribution of dad and mom’s personal and real property was to be divided equally between us. Looking back this was not the best option for settling an estate. A third party, non-family member should have been the executor, but this was not mom’s desire.
Dad and mom had collected and saved items over 50 years. Needless to say, there was a huge amount of household things to go through that had been stored in the two story, four bedroom house, with walk in closets, a two car garage with a full loft completely full and another building equivalent to a three car garage with a loft also completely full. We knew this stuff had to be surveyed. It spanned four generations of accumulation, and we said we had to do it together so we would see everything that was found. Remember the broken trust that existed? The lack of trust came to a boiling point during this process. After a year and a half we reached a point where we had divided the personal property, had many items appraised at my brother’s demand to determine value, and finally reached a point where we could have an auction of the rest of the stuff neither one of us wanted.
Once the auction was over all that remained was the real estate. My brother had made it known early in the process he wanted to keep the property. He was not ready to sell it because at that time he said he wanted to move back and live in dad and mom’s home. My wife and I had no interest in the property and agreed he could buy out our half of the property for an agreed price. This began a very difficult series of discussions because of three factors.
Pride goes before the fall
First, we could not agree on how to establish the value of the property. There was the county value, which my brother said was way too high. So, we said let’s get the property appraised. He was not in favor of getting it appraised but stalled again at determining a value. So my wife and I made the decision on our own to pay for an appraisal by a local certified appraiser. Two responses followed from my brother. First, he rejected our appraisal we provided because we didn’t get his approval on the appraiser we used, and second he said the “as is” appraisal was still beyond the market value of the property. So, we suggested he go find his own appraiser, get the property appraised “as is” and come up with a value his appraiser would determine is fair but he rejected this idea because he did not want to pay for an appraisal.
I must confess, I was selfish as I responded to my brother’s hesitance to establish a value. What I learned through the heated discussions was he was not able to pay us anything for his half of the property. He had no ability to get the funds regardless of an agreed established value. So, in response to this we offered to finance them for a year, but we still needed to settle on a value. Every month that past my wife and I were paying for half of all the property expenses on a property we did not want. This was extremely frustrating since our available resources were being used up each month. I was angry, and I was justified in my anger! Right??
My wife and I talked and listened to godly counsel. Again, I could have had the courts settle the matter because we had mom’s will stating how the property was to be divided, but we didn’t want to spend more money on attorney and court costs. Legally we were obligated to split the expenses as long as both names were on the title to the property. We felt like we were being held hostage on a property we did not want, but “deserved” half based on the will. This series of events was consuming me. Day and night, even at work, I would rationalize that I was right, he was wrong; he had to change. The problem was I could not change him, or the situation without legal action, and we were not taking this action.
I finally reached a breaking point and called my brother and told him I was going to settle this and he and I would both be happy, and I hung up! I called the county register of deeds and asked them to send me a quit-claim deed. We completed the process of deeding our half of the property over to my brother and filed it with the court. We had the completed deed of property mailed to my brother from the Register of Deeds Office without letting him know what we had done. I felt much relief once that was done, but the initial response from my brother was not what I expected. He was angry that I took it upon myself to take this action without consulting with him. Now, he was obligated for all the expenses and upkeep on the property. There was money left in mom’s checking account. I withdrew half the available funds and took my name off the account. I was done! I wrote an email to my brother letting him know I would I would like half of the value of the property to fulfill dad and mom’s wishes if he could ever do so, but I was washing my hands of the monthly obligation.
Two years past since I transferred the property to him, a total of four years since mom died. No conversations, no holidays, no communication of any value had happened between my brother and me during this time. I was filled with anger, bitterness, and resentment toward my brother for what he had done to “cheat” me out of what “I deserved”. I had no desire to re-engage with him or his wife for any reason. All these experiences from the time we left to serve with FamilyLife, and all the bad experiences settling this estate were stored in my mind and spirit as unforgiveness. I could not participate in communion at church. How could I walk forward as a visual acceptance of the sacrifice God had provided through Christ death on the cross, and be unwilling to make peace with my brother again? For one and a half years I sat in my chair during communion and prayed my brother would change. Was there anything wrong with this picture?
You can see the pattern in my life; I would work to resolve a problem my way and in my strength. My pride and selfishness contrasted with God’s example of love He gave us in Jesus God was not finished teaching me this difficult lesson.
Consider James’s question in his letter to believers living among Gentiles who were facing trials and persecution, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend (it) on your passions”. (ESV 4: 1-2)
I received encouragement and counsel from my accountability partner at FamilyLife, close family members, co-workers at FamilyLife, and other men in a men’s group at church, and our pastor. All of them were giving me sound biblical advice to move forward with forgiving my brother and to restore the relationship. Spiritual relationships, not personal property or money, are the only things that will matter when this physical life is over. Then a haunting question came, “what if I should die or my brother die before I forgave him?” God reminded me what His Son Jesus taught us through the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” And what followed was even more convicting. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
God was finally able to humble me to make a call to my brother to set a time we could meet face to face. The goal was to discuss all that had transpired between us over the past ten years and even prior to that. It was going to be a most difficult call for me to make so I sent an email instead. Fear of the response I would get filled my mind. What would my brother tell me? Would we have to rehash everything again and reach the same conclusion? What if he told me how I was handling the estate was wrong and he was right? This struggle was a spiritual struggle for me, between my selfish desires and the Holy Spirit’s desires for restoration, and I had to confront it. I asked many people to pray for me as I approached this conversation.
When I heard back from my brother, he simply responded by saying, “Based on our last conversation I don’t see that getting together will be of any benefit.” He was right in his perspective! Base on our last conversation which was three months earlier, on my birthday of all days, I raised the ugly question of settling the estate. It did not turn out well at all. My wife, who was listening to the conversation, was telling me not to bring the question up, but I did not listen. I had to make my point. Now, something was different or changing in my heart. God was doing His work in me and I knew I had to reassure my brother the conversation together would be better, maybe even good. When I responded to his email I told him that he would be pleased with a meeting and we would both benefit. I sign the email, “With Love, Your Brother”.
The Miracle of God’s work of reconciliation
After five weeks we were able to schedule a time we could meet half way between our respective homes. The date was set for May 5, 2014. I shared this with many of the people who knew about my struggles and asked them to pray, that I would not slip back into the flesh during the visit with my brother. There must have been over 40 people praying for me as I drove to Broken Arrow Oklahoma to meet my brother.
Part of this testimony is how God orchestrated details around my specific need as I approached the day. My wife and I send out monthly newsletters to our ministry partners. Two weeks prior to my meeting with my brother we wrote our letter in response to new information we had learned about two or our supporting churches having a conflict over similar issues. These churches did not know each other and are located hundreds of miles apart, but their issues were parallel to each other; a conflict over differences with their respective pastors. When I wrote the letter it was all about Peacemaker Ministries, about the biblical approach to address conflict between believers and the help available to anyone who wants to resolve conflict with the reconciliation. When I went back and read my letter, God opened my eyes that the letter was written to me. I had written to our partners to challenge them in right thinking, but God intended for it to be written to me in preparation of meeting with my brother.
Another piece of God’s intervention was through FamilyLife Today radio broadcast. The three broadcasts just prior to my trip to Broken Arrow featured Dr. Tim Muelhoff and based on his new book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love. I must say all three of these radio programs were meant for me as God brought me to understand what His best for me was. Dr. Muelhoff addressed these four things:
Reclaiming the Power of Words
What Causes Verbal Dams to Rupture?
Managing and Expressing Emotions in the Midst of Disagreement
Spiritual Disciplines…Power to Resolve Conflict
This was precisely what I needed, and God knew in advance these programs would be aired on these days so I could listen and be prepared for the visit with my brother. I was challenged to consider the best in my brother. I was challenged to enter the conversation with the only objective of reaching an understanding of how he felt about all our conflict, and how he viewed the issues that spanned the years. These were never my motives before. My only motive in previous conversations was to get my point across and make him see I was right, and he needed to change. With these three pieces before me and surrounding me—fervent prayer, the truth I had written in our monthly letter, and Dr. Muelhoff’s wisdom and approach to navigating a difficult conversation—I entered the conversation with my brother, Monday May 5, 2014, at Stonewood Café and Coffee Shop in Broken Arrow, OK.
We began our conversation with small talk about work, diet plans we were using, a family reunion that was coming up, vacations, etc., for the first four hours. I think neither one wanted to pose the question that would begin the conversation about all the hurt nor division that had plagued our relationship. As I prayed in my Spirit I sensed the time was right so I initiated. “I really am thankful you agreed to meet with me today. This has been on my mind for many months, but I have not been willing to call you and speak with you. God has brought me to a place where I understand what He truly has done for me, so in response, my only objective for our conversation today is to listen to you so I can understand how you have felt through all that we have faced in our relationship since Nedra and I joined the staff of FamilyLife, and how you feel about the way we handled dad and mom’s estate. I just want to listen.”
When he began to speak, his words were kind and gentle. He spoke from the heart as he describe all he had learned and how he had grown in the years since we joined staff. He shared the struggles he and his wife had experienced as took a new position, out of state. How they had viewed those decisions incorrectly. . He continued to share how he and his wife had changed their minds about the property, and they were no longer planning to move there. They now realize the importance of living close to kids and grandkids and our parents’ house did not meet that requirement. He went on to say he was truly sorry for how he had responded to us when we joined staff, and now realized his forthrightness was motivated by selfish desires and a lack of understanding about how God was dealing with us. He then offered a heart-felt apology and asked if I would forgive him.
When he finished, nearly an hour had passed. All I had believed, stressed over, judged against, and things I had been unwilling to forgive were all out on the table. It was a very emotional and spiritually uplifting time, and it was time for my response! As I began, I told him what had taken place in my life over the past several years. I shared how I had struggled with forgiveness and how my relationship with Christ had not been good because I could not take communion with a heart of unforgiveness. I told him how God was here with us and all the people who were praying for our visit today, and how in obedience to God I was to reconcile with him today. What followed was my heart-felt, humble apology for my child-like responses through the years of disagreement between us. I confessed to him I had been unwilling to pursue a renewed relationship with him because I justified my attitude toward him and what I selfishly deserved. I was not willing to forgive him because of all the hurtful words we had exchanged and the actions that had followed. It was then I said, “I am sorry, will you forgive me?”
It was like we both had a new lease on life. We both were able to experience freedom in our relationship that we had not known for many years. We both extended true forgiveness to each other in light of the forgiveness we both have been given by our Father in Heaven. We ended the six hour visit with a huge bear hug that accompanied the words, “I Love You Brother”.
I am so thankful for all those who have walked with us through this trial. The enemy did not win even though he had a strong grip in my life over many years. As the Father, through Christ, promises; “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose”. ESV Romans 8:28
In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, which experience much immaturity and disagreement among believers, he writes; “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”.
I cannot answer why it took me so, so long to work through this lesson especially when I was teaching conflict resolution to others and encouraging forgiveness in marriage and family relationships. I do not know why I harbored unforgiveness against my brother over spoken words and money. I cannot justify my actions any longer and confess I was and still may be, a hypocrite as I live out my Christian life. But this I know, God is a Sovereign God and He will not allow His word to be given without truth and application, and His forgiveness is real because He paid the price for my disobedience against Him and against others. I am truly free, and I am thankful for the new found freedom recently found through the reconciliation with my brother.
A final quote from Pastor Rick Bezet – “In our hearts’ position, we stay face down, prostrate before the Lord, we will never fall from that position”.
With a Grateful Heart,