"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Matthew 5: 23-24

Someone tapped me on the shoulder as I was paying for my purchases at a toy store. I spun around and found myself face to face with my former friend Barbara. She gave me a tentative smile – one that I didn’t return.

The memories of how she’d hurt me came rushing back into my mind: All the times she’d either been late or stood me up for the appointments we’d made to get together, and all the weak excuses she’d made without seeming to care about how much of my time she’d wasted. Sure, I understood that it had been stressful for her to adjust to new demands after her second child was born, but I felt she should have respected me more. And since our daughters had been close friends, too, Barbara’s unreliability had hurt my daughter as well as me.

Afraid of confronting Barbara about the problem, I’d let resentment pile up in my heart until it turned into bitterness. Finally, I spilled out my frustrations as kindly as I could on the phone with her, hoping we could resolve the issue through our conversation. But she didn’t want to talk about it, and when I pressed her to, all I heard was an awkward silence. Then our conversation ended – and so did our friendship.

I missed Barbara after that, but every time I felt the urge to call her, the thoughts of her failure to change or even apologize stirred up bitterness again. When my daughter asked about her daughter, I felt justified in saying that Barbara didn’t care enough about getting together with us anymore and would only hurt us again if she did. After all, if she really cared, wouldn’t she make time to see us? And if she really could be trusted, wouldn’t she keep her word when making appointments?

As time went by, it became easier to simply harden my heart against Barbara. I had decided to view her as someone who didn’t care, as someone who couldn’t be trusted. So that became who she was to me for several years, until I saw her in the toy store.

“It’s so good to see you again!” Barbara exclaimed as the cashier finished bagging my toys. “Let’s get together sometime soon to catch up.”

I mumbled, “Good to see you, too,” unsure of whether or not I really meant it. Then, too nervous to talk with her any further, I grabbed my bags, walked past her quickly, and left the store.

Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I felt a wave of guilt wash over me, and I knew I should have stayed to talk with Barbara. Deep down, I not only felt obliged to, but I really wanted to. I missed my friend, and now I had missed my chance to reconnect with her. Calling her again would be too awkward, I decided, so I pushed all thoughts of her out of my mind and drove to the next store on my errand list – my local Wal-Mart.  

Once inside, I no sooner stepped into the book aisle than I saw Barbara browsing nearby. What are the chances of running into the same person twice in one night? I asked myself. Surely this meeting was meant to be. But then a ridiculous thought entered my mind: Should I turn around and run out of the aisle before she looked up and saw me? That’s when I decided I’d been running away from the problems between us for far too long.

“Barbara!” I made myself say.  “Hi. Um, how are you?”

We stood in the middle of the aisle for more than hour, oblivious to the other shoppers around us as we apologized to each other for giving up on our friendship and updating each other on our lives.

Then we set a date to meet to talk more – and when it came time to meet, Barbara showed up on time. For the first time, we talked completely openly and honestly about the issue that had loomed so large between us before. Instead of causing an argument (as I’d feared before), the discussion actually drew us closer together. Now we could understand that we each did care, and we could trust each other. When we communicated clearly, our problems faded away.

Now that Barbara and her family belong to the same church as my family and me, we see other regularly. We’ve done more than just make up for lost time; we’ve forged a stronger friendship because we’ve learned how to communicate better. The same principles that helped us can also help you in your own friendships:

Be honest with yourself and with your friend. "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another" (1 John 1:7a). If something’s bothering you, don’t deny it. Be willing to face and talk about it instead of just ignoring it. Problems won’t just go away; they must be solved. For a long time, both Barbara and I let fear keep us from admitting we had a problem in our friendship. Then, when I finally raised the issue, neither of us knew how to discuss it openly, so we just avoided each other instead.

Deal with problems sooner rather than later. The longer you leave a problem unresolved, the more likely it is to get worse. Tackle problems as they arise. Barbara and I could have saved ourselves several years of estrangement if we’d just been willing to work on our problems in a timely manner.

Set realistic expectations. Don’t just assume that either you or your friend can do something. Think about whether or not it’s reasonable before committing to it. It’s better not to promise something than to make a promise and not keep it. So ask yourself and your friend questions to determine what you should expect of each other in various situations. Barbara told me she felt like I’d expected her to get together more often than she could during that stressful season of her life, so she made appointments she’d hoped to keep, but often couldn’t. If I would have adjusted my expectations of how often we would get together, and if she would have adjusted her expectations to reflect her time constraints, we would both have avoided unnecessary disappointment.

Set healthy boundaries. It’s okay to let your friend know that she’s offended you in some way (and she should be free to tell you the same). Respecting each other is an important part of every relationship. Sacrificing the boundaries you need will only lead to resentment that will eventually erode your friendship. When I kept agreeing to meet Barbara without first mentioning how hurt I was by her lateness or failure to show up to a previous appointment, I was inviting her to keep treating me the same way. But when I finally spoke up, Barbara realized the full impact of her behavior. She later thanked me for pointing out the problem, saying that my insistence on protecting my schedule motivated her to work on her time management skills and led to a healthier life for her.

Forgive. "Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col 3: 13). As imperfect people living in a fallen world, you and your friend are each bound to make mistakes. Be willing to forgive each other every time that happens. Refusing to forgive will poison your soul with bitterness, blocking your ability to be close not just to your friend, but also to God. Choosing to forgive will give you freedom. Don’t wait until you feel like forgiving your friend (or yourself), because you likely never will. Instead, trust God to help you do it, and expect that your feelings will follow your actions. After I chose to forgive Barbara even when I didn’t feel like it, my affection for her increased. And after I chose to forgive myself for letting go of our friendship, the guilt I’d felt before simply disappeared.