What did one of us say, or what happened, that caused anger to boil over between us?
Why did we spit verbal venom on one another that day?
Why did the argument degenerate into a fist fight?
Honestly, I can’t remember why.
Scene 1 Spring 1968
Dennis, my older brother by three years, came by the house when I was home from college one weekend. Our parents were out running errands. Our verbal missiles quickly turned into a physical brawl. Our arms flailed and our knuckles pounded the flesh of each other’s chest and face. We had never fought that ferociously, even as kids.
Suddenly I screamed at the top of my voice, “Dennis, I hate you!”
Those stinging words took the fight out of Dennis. He turned and walked away.
In the years that followed, we were civil when we saw each other. Neither of us ever brought up the fight. Yet we didn’t stay in touch. We never wrote letters to each other, and seldom, if ever, called each other.
Scene 2 May 1982
My first year as a college prof at Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) had ended. I sighed with relief at the respite from the rigors of designing and teaching courses for the first time. Perhaps fewer responsibilities and demands on my mental energy enabled the Holy Spirit to get a word in edgewise. Out of the blue, He rekindled my memory of the fight, especially what I had yelled at Dennis fourteen years earlier.
“Why am I thinking of this now?” I wondered. Then the Spirit gave a clear-cut command.
“Go home. Tell Dennis you don’t hate him. Do it now!”
I wasn’t comfortable following through, but the prompting was so strong I knew I had to obey it. That same day, I called mom to say I was driving up the next day. (The house where we grew up was about a hundred miles away, in western North Carolina.) I also surprised Dennis with a call. He lived just a few miles from our old homeplace. I told him I was coming up the next day, and said I wanted to take him to a new movie I knew he’d want to see: Rocky III, about the boxer played by Sylvester Stallone. The movie shows Clubber Lang knocking Rocky Balboa haywire and winning the title, then events led up to the climax: their rematch. Dennis agreed to meet me at mom’s house after he got off work.
When Dennis arrived, we exchanged superficial information, and talked excitedly about the new movie release. We were in the yard, away from mom’s earshot. Then I cleared my throat and accomplished my purpose for the trip. With a tremulous voice and tear-soaked eyes, I said:
“Dennis, back when I came home from college one weekend, we had a loud argument and fist fight. I don’t recall why we were mad at each other. But I remember the fight ended with me yelling, ‘Dennis, I hate you!’
“I want you to know that I don’t hate you! You are my brother, and I love you. I am sorry for what I said. Will you forgive me?”
He seemed taken aback by my apology, but he said he forgave me. His words seemed sincere. It was what he said next that stunned me.
“You know, a few days ago I had a flashback to our fight. I especially remembered your harsh words to me.”
Though he didn’t explicitly voice it, I heard the implications of his words loud and clear. My words had hurt him. Perhaps he had wondered if I still felt animosity toward him.
Heeding the Holy Spirit’s Leading
A coincidence? Not on your life!
The timing of the rekindling of that incident, and the Spirit’s nudge to make things right with Dennis, was perfect in light of Dennis’ own recollection of the fight that very week.
How do I know it was the Holy Spirit who spoke to me?
As an Amish person might say it, I know one thing for sure and for certain. The enemy, Satan, doesn’t ever coax us to obey God’s Word and to make things right with another person. If an inside whisper directs us to heed a principle or command in Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking.
If you ever sense a niggling uneasiness of mind or spirit, and it morphs into a specific memory of a wrong that you need to make right, don’t engage in an internal debate, wondering whether it’s the Lord speaking, or whether it’s a fancy notion you concocted. Don’t rationalize away what the Spirit says because a lot of time has passed, or because you wonder how the other person will react.
Fourteen years late is far better than never.
Model how to handle sin by apologizing from your heart. You can’t control the other person’s reaction. Paul wrote, “So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18, emphasis mine).
Rocky Balboa had been haunted by the horrific punishment he had received in the first fight with Clubber Lang. After promoters announced a rematch, Rocky couldn’t get his heart into training. He was scared stiff the same thing would happen again. Then a challenge from his wife rejuvenated him. Of course, he knocked out Clubber and won back the title. (After all, it was fiction!)
Ironic, isn’t it?
Sitting beside Dennis a few hours after my apology, watching Rocky pulverize his highly-favored opponent, offered a healing balm for a heart wound that had been festering inside each of us, after our own fight fourteen years earlier. I’m not saying we became best friends, but the rupture was repaired. More warmth described future encounters between us.
Heeding the inside whispers of God’s Spirit–when clear biblical teaching inspires that voice–provides a knockout punch to pain and bitterness that eclipses the roundhouse left that Rocky employed to knock Clubber Lang to the canvas.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
In the picture, taken in June, 2019, I’m on your right, Dennis to your left.