Forgiving is not the same as reconciling. In researching the topic of forgiveness for a doctoral degree a number of years ago, the discovery of the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation was the single most life changing discovery of the project. Remember, forgiving means surrendering to God the right to judge (an offense). Forgiving restores relationship with God, whereas reconciliation restores relationship human to human (the offender. with those offended). The good news for the offended is that the freedom of forgiveness is not tied to the offender's ability (or willingness) to reconcile. Another important thing to learn is that trying to reconcile before forgiving may actually cause more harm to a relationship than not attempting to reconcile at all. Forgiveness prepares your heart and helps make your attitude more responsive rather than reactive. Let me explain more here.
First, let's define reconciliation. According to Webster's dictionary it is “the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.” Reconciling is often not an easy choice. It may require humility and vulnerability to let other people see who you really are on the inside. It usually requires confrontation. The self-confrontation involved in forgiving is one thing, but confronting another person because of an offense can be very scary. The lack of willingness to confront is often the greatest barrier to reconciliation.
Like forgiving, reconciling is not an option for a Christian. It is a mandate. We must take very seriously the responsibility of attempting to "set things right." In the previous article called The Commission to Forgive (posted 11/1/15), I quoted a passage from the Apostle Paul's letter to the first century Corinthian church which includes the statement that Christ himself “has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation” (see 2 Corinthians 5:15-20). So, what might the results of this ministry of reconciliation look like? I encourage you to read the entire fourth chapter of Ephesians to get a good snapshot of an answer to that question. Some of the phrases that jump out are these, “live a life worthy,” “be completely humble and gentle,” ”be patient, bearing one another in love,” “keep the unity,” “speaking the truth in love,” “grow and build up,” “put off your old self,” “put on the new self,” “be made new in the attitudes of your mind,” and “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Summarizing the chapter, “ Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. ... Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29:32). Reconciling is meant to benefit not only the offended, but the offender as well. When relationships are restored and functioning well, the community at large will also benefit. Church, business, government, and other organizations thrive on healthy relationships between individuals.
It takes at least one party to initiate reconciliation. It takes two parties to obey the mandate for completing reconciliation. One of the most common reasons for relational breakup and disunity is a disagreement, disappointment, or offense that has never been processed through. It is not okay to walk away from a relationship, group, or situation just because you become angry or hurt by things that didn't go your way. It is okay to have desires, preferences, and high expectations of character (remembering that no one is perfect), but it is not okay to avoid healthy confrontation of brokenness that causes relational separation and division. I discuss healthy conflict in a separate article.
In the previous article I stated, “Surrendering your right to judge doesn't mean you are surrendering your rights for justice to be served.” In fact, when the “heart work” of forgiveness begins to produce its good fruit, it requires the action steps (toward reconciliation) to deliver the results to the world around you. Forgiving an offender does not mean the offender is relieved of due consequences to be paid for an offense. For example, in the case of abuse, forgiving an abuser is different from holding the abuser accountable for his or her actions. The safety of the victim must be established and if the abuser's actions are criminal behavior, the laws must be enforced to protect from further victimization and give the victimizer an opportunity to turn away from the sin of abuse and be restored as a person with worth and dignity. The abuse victim may or may not ever be reconciled to the abuser, but the power of forgiveness can free the victim of the damage caused by the victimization. The more completely forgiveness is achieved, the greater the degree of freedom to be lived.
It is also true that the more completely forgiveness is achieved (the more an offense is surrendered to God), the more prepared an offended person is to attempt reconciliation. It only takes one party to forgive. It takes two parties to reconcile. Remember, there are two sides to every offense (the offender and the offended), and you may find yourself on either side at any given time in a relationship or circumstance. If the offense seems unintentional on the part of the offender, forgiveness may be exercised by the offended, but for reconciliation to be complete, the offender may still need to become involved. Perhaps for example, a minor miscommunication of traveling directions by Jane causes John to be late for an important appointment. John may forgive Jane and decide it's not worth mentioning Jane's mistake to her. John may even hold himself responsible for not double checking or using a different source to find the information he needed. But then another similar incident occurs between Jane and John, and John has a harder time to forgive and the need to reconcile becomes more evident.
The teaching of Jesus addresses the issue of repeat offendenses among brothers and sisters in Christ. One reference is in Matthew 18:15-17. I'll not go into detail here, but when reconciliation is attempted by the person offended, and the offender wants nothing to do with reconciliation or justice, it is time to get help from a friend or advocate. Forgiveness, without pursuing reconciliation or justice, may only make the situation worse for everyone.
Sometimes offensive behaviors get excused as personality traits, styles of leadership, attributes of professionalism, or “everybody does it” generalities. They may even pose as necessity to keep the peace, tolerable as long as no one is getting hurt, or as a short-term loss to achieve a long-term benefit
However, the truth, requires pain with gain, no short-cuts to relational integrity, confrontation to achieve inner peace, and trustworthy character to facilitate trust. Leaders can fall into the trap of offense as quickly as anyone else. Look at Moses for example. One of the strongest leaders of the ancient Israeli people, witnessed an incident of severe injustice against a kinsman. Although his intentions were good in trying to help his fellow Hebrew brothers and sisters, his attitude and behaviors that led to killing an Egyptian slave-driver back-fired. Moses had to escape and live in hiding for 40 years as a result of his mistake. Attempting short-cuts, when it comes to forgiving and reconciling,often erect negative relational walls that create confusion, erode authenticity, prohibit collaboration, and ultimately destroy trust and trustworthiness.
People are not the enemy. People's actions (offenses) are the enemy. We have a great Enemy who uses offenses (people's actions) in an attempt to divide and conquer. We must be wise to this tactic and vigilant to resist the trap of offense. People align with the enemy when they refuse to reconcile.
Sometimes you can become an "enemy" of yourself. A person's perception of low self-worth and poor self-concept is at the core of all human problems. God gave his only Son Jesus as our saving grace to reconcile us back to the Father. Father creates worth and value into each child born into the human race. The broken pieces of the human heart are reconciled back to Father through Jesus Christ (again see 2 Corinthian 5:15-20). Your true value is based on who God made you to be as His son or daughter. It's not based on what you have done or failed to do. Believing in Jesus and surrendering your heart to God means you are relying on Christ's completed work of reconciliation. It does not mean you have to come up with the strength to forgive and reconcile, but rely on the strength God gives you (see Matthew 11:28-29). You have a choice to rely on the power of God every time you are offended. Why not do it?
Some offenses seem more difficult to forgive and reconcile than others. Examples might be infidelity of a spouse, murder or other crime against a family member , or severe injustice of a tribal nature. When God's power is invited into the situation, hope is much more free to win over a hopeless cause. After reconciling with God (receiving his unconditional love), reconciling with fellowman becomes easier. This is a continual process. Christ's work is complete, but our work of cooperating must be ongoing.
May I encourage you to take the following steps toward deepening a commitment to reconciliation as a more common practice in your life. First, identify an area of unforgiveness or unreconciled problem you have toward another person. Next, if forgiveness is not complete, make a list of all the actions that caused offense (hurtful words spoken, mistreatments, negligence, transgressions). Be as specific as possible. Pray, confess, repent for any of your own reactive judgments, and forgive. Next, (if you believe you have surrendered your judgments to God), pray and discern strategy to address the offense with the offender. Go in a spirit of humility and empathy, recognizing the flip side of offense is in your own life as well. Keep the circle of people who know about the offense as small as is necessary to bring resolution. Do not engage in slander or gossip to make yourself become an offender. After completing the actions you believe are necessary to bring resolution, and there still is no resolution, commit to following the path of asking an advocate to go with you (as outlined in Matthew 18:15-17) if the offender is a brother or sister in Christ. Otherwise, pursue the matter with the appropriate systems of justice to bring resolution. Obviously, in cases of abuse or endangerment, the above steps should be abandoned to seek help immediately, outside the inner circle of the problem.
If you believe you've tried the steps outlined above and you still feel "stuck," it is probably time to get the help of a trusted friend or counselor. Try going back to step one and examine forgiveness. Be willing to allow God to show you a deeper level of forgiveness. God is most glorified when we allow him to lead us through this process. If there are numerous situations in your life that need to be reconciled, start with a small one, work it through to success, and don't become overwhelmed by trying too many, too soon.
One more tip is to discern whether the offender needs to be involved at all. The offense may be small enough for you to simply need to forgive. If you are 100% sure of what you are letting go, and totally certain the efforts of attempting to engage the other party would outweigh any potential benefits, let it go. Misunderstandings, errors, and accidents are just part of our broken human condition. Take the Beatles' advice and "Let It Be!"
When it must be, be a reconciler. A real friend will want to be reconciled. Be a friend, and make things friendly again.
by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry