Relationships are messy. As imperfect people, too often we let our selfish ideas and shortcomings drive our actions, which often causes us to hurt the people closest to us. Sometimes the wounds are so severe that they damage—or even destroy—our relationships.
When this happens, can God restore a broken relationship? And what can we do to help bring about restoration?
God can restore broken relationships when the people involved are willing to repair their relationship. Sometimes, God uses our relationship challenges to shape us, grow us, and strengthen our bonds in new ways.
Made for Relationships
We are designed for relationships. Since God is Three-in-One, relationship is inherent in His nature. And by making humanity in His image, God imparted His relational nature on us as well.
From the beginning, God determined that man should not be alone (Genesis 2:18). Jesus fervently prayed for unity among his disciples that would reflect the unity that he enjoys with the Father:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.John 17:20-21a
When relationships are broken, it should not surprise us that God desires healing and restoration for us. However, instead of simply forcing people to get along, God works in the hearts of the people involved to bring about lasting change.
Unity and Receptive Hearts
God knows our hearts and minds better than we know ourselves. While God has the capacity to change hearts, He invites us to receive the change willingly. This is why we noted that God restores relationships when both parties are receptive to restoration. Unity requires a sincere love and desire for the other person’s well-being that cannot be forced.
So there are times when a relationship may not be restored (or may be restored slowly) because the hearts of both parties are not yet prepared to embrace restoration as God intends it.
This is especially true when one person has wronged another. Not only do the parties have to work through the pain, but if there is a fault that requires correction, God may separate the parties for a time so that when the restoration is realized, it is effective and lasting.
Biblical Examples of Restored Relationships
Relationships feature prominently in the Biblical story. Like our own relationships, the ones we read in the Bible are made up of imperfect people who bring strife, selfishness, sin, and pain into their interactions. In quite a few of these stories, we see relationships severely damaged.
The good news is that we also see plenty of occasions where God restores broken relationships. As we review these examples, keep an eye out for the changed hearts that lead to restoration.
Jacob and Esau
The twin sons of Isaac are perhaps the best-known example of a broken relationship made whole. On more than one occasion, the younger brother, Jacob, usurped privileges that were due his older brother, beginning with Jacob swindling Esau out of his birthright:
[Esau] said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.Genesis 25:30-34
Not long after this, Jacob devised and carried out a plan to steal their father’s blessing from Esau as well. Jacob’s schemes left Esau bitter and spiteful:
Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”Genesis 27:41
Jacob fled from his brother, and they lived apart for years. Finally, after both had grown and raised families, they prepared to meet again.
Still, Jacob remained fearful and sent men ahead of him with gifts for Esau.
And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.”Genesis 3:20
So how did Esau respond when they finally met?
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.Genesis 33:4
The gifts, Esau said, were unnecessary. Yet Jacob, owing to his own repentance and contrition, insisted that Esau accept them.
Joseph and his Brothers
Jacob’s rift and restoration with his brother would not be his final experience with relationship repair. He witnessed a rift among his own sons as well.
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, and his brothers resented him for this. So they plotted to trap him and leave him for dead, but when a trade caravan approached, they decided instead to sell Joseph into slavery.
The brothers reported to Jacob that Joseph had been carried off and killed by wild animals.
Despite Joseph being forced into slavery, God was with him and raised him from a lowly slave to the governor over Egypt.
When famine in the land forced a reunion between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph found himself in a position of power over his brothers, but when he revealed himself to them, he received them with mercy and compassion:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.Genesis 50:20-21
Joseph saw how God had used their separation. At the same time, his brothers had come to a place where they had to face and repent of their previous resentment.
Paul and John Mark
During Paul’s missionary journeys, he enjoyed the assistance of a number of helpers at different times. But sometimes, the help he received was less than reliable:
Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:37-39a
The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened at Pamphylia that prompted John Mark to abandon his work. But here we see that Paul was not as eager to reconcile with John Mark as Barnabas was. For the remainder of Acts, we don’t hear any more from Barnabas or John Mark (Acts was written by Luke, who traveled with Paul).
Even though we don’t see the story unfold, we get to see the end of the story:
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.2 Timothy 4:11
Sometime after Paul was imprisoned, he reunited with John Mark. John Mark was with him when he penned letters to Philemon and the Colossians. And here, nearing the end of his life, Paul specifically requests that Mark be brought back to him because he is useful.
Philemon and Onesimus
Speaking of Philemon, Paul’s brief letter to his friend was prompted by Philemon’s fractured relationship with Onesimus, his runaway slave, who met Paul during his imprisonment.
Paul’s plea to Philemon is a simple one: Be reconciled, and make your relationship better than before:
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you… Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother…Philemon 1:12-16
The Ultimate Reconciliation
Each of these stories shows us how God works out changes in individuals and uses those changes to restore broken relationships. And each of them serves to remind us that the relationship that God most wants to restore is the one between Himself and us.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they brought separation between man and God. And it is through Jesus that our sins are forgiven and we are restored to a right relationship. He uses the harm done to Jesus to bring about good. He frees us from slavery to sin and makes us His children.
And because we are God’s children, He fills us with His Holy Spirit, by which we become conduits of grace, healing, and restoration with those around us.