The Lord Jesus explicitly commands us in Scripture that we are to forgive those who have committed offences against us. And he makes no exception even when those offences may be egregious. However, many people make the mistake of treating this command to include both forgiveness and reconciliation as if they are synonymous, and must be packaged together. This is not the case. They are two distinct things, and they do not always go together. Forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation.
In the preceding articles (starting with "Forgiveness: Confronting My Bitterness, Resentment, and Anger"), I’ve outlined the biblical teaching and expectation of forgiveness. Christians are to be marked as those who forgive people who have hurt us. We don’t carry grudges ("The High-Stakes Gamble of Withholding Forgiveness"). We do not stew in the poisonous trap of bitterness and resentment. Jesus commands that we forgive those who have wronged us. This can only be done by first focusing on how much we’ve been forgiven by God through Christ. We start by meditating vertically on the grace God has lavished on us in forgiving our sins ("The Starting Point of Forgiving Others"). Then, we are able to turn horizontally to forgive those who have sinned against us ("Forgiving the Unforgivable").
Being capable of forgiving someone, despite the severity of their betrayal or harm against us, first begins with acknowledging that forgiveness doesn’t start with that person. Forgiveness starts with us and focuses on God, long before it ever looks at anyone else. We are not ready to forgive others until we understand how unbelievable it is that God has forgiven us. If we live under the deception that we deserve forgiveness, or have earned forgiveness from God, then we’ll never forgive as freely as we’re commanded to. You will be incapable of forgiving others because you will always base your forgiveness on the offending person’s merit, worthiness, or remorse. Forgiveness doesn’t require anything on the part of the one receiving our forgiveness. We may never see or interact with that person again, yet still be able to forgive them. This is because the ability to forgive is, in fact, given to us by God through the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, as we forgive those who have hurt us, we are subsequently freed from the bondage that withholding forgiveness enslaves us to.
Conversely, reconciliation is different. Reconciliation is the act of restoring the relationship between the offender and the person offended. This is why some people struggle with the idea of forgiving people who have physically, emotionally, or spiritually harmed them. How can you forgive someone who has made a life-changing medical mistake on your son? How can you forgive someone who raped you? How can you forgive someone who killed your loved one because they were driving drunk? How can you forgive any other number of things that seem impossible to forgive? This can only be done by separating forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiving the individual does not require having or maintaining any relationship at all. Some offenses permanently fracture the possibility of any relationship. A woman raped by a man is not expected to forgive if forgiveness means she has to be in his presence and pretend to be friendly.
So when is reconciliation possible? What is God’s expectation for reconciliation?
The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation is that forgiveness requires nothing from the person we’re forgiving. They don’t even have to know we are forgiving them. Reconciliation requires repentance from the offender, and even then, he or she does not dictate the terms of reconciliation. Should a husband forgive his wife if she had an affair? Yes. That is both the command and expectation of him according to Scripture. But is reconciliation also expected? That depends on a number of factors. First, she must repent of her sin. She has to stop cheating on her husband. Reconciliation is impossible apart from this action. But even if she repents of her adultery, it may take time and ongoing faithfulness on her part before reconciliation with her husband is possible. Even then, the breach of trust could be so damaged and irreparable that the relationship cannot be salvaged. In other words, as the one who sinned against her husband, she doesn’t control the terms of reconciliation. The husband must forgive her, but reconciliation is made of something different. Reconciliation requires repentance, the rebuilding of trust, and ultimately the grace of God to accomplish it.
There are powerful stories of reconciliation. This is because of the power of God to restore broken things. He can take broken relationships and mend them back together. He is capable of healing the deepest of wounds. Thus, we shouldn’t automatically conclude that God isn’t interested in reconciliation. It delights God to see enemies reconciled and for peace to reign in relationships. Consider that God reconciled us to Himself through the blood of Christ. He forgave us of our sins, but He also restored us to relationship with Himself. That reconciliation required our repentance. Repentance is the key to any hope
s for reconciliation in our estranged relationships today.
This series of articles is exploring forgiveness from a biblical perspective. The next article will outline how we can make forgiveness stick instead of reverting back to bitterness, anger, and hate in our hearts. The point in this article hasn’t been to start up a new topic on reconciliation, but to understand its relationship to forgiveness. Instead of struggling to forgive others because we think it implies reconciliation, we can separate them as two different things. We can do the hard work of forgiving people who have hurt us, leaving the possibility of reconciliation up to their actions and God’s power to heal our hearts.
Erik is the Lead Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.