From forgiveness to reconciliation

“He said I am sorry but it’s at least the tenth time! I don’t know what to do. I am told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive and the Lord knows I’ve tried. But each time I forgive him, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes and I just get more angry. What should I do?”

Sound familiar? I encounter people all the time who are trying to forgive someone who has repeatedly hurt them. They know it’s their Christian duty to forgive but often feel they’re being taken advantage or manipulated. They also have a disturbing sense that they’re enabling the selfish behavior of their offender.

Is there something wrong with this picture? Is this what forgiveness requires? Is it possible to forgive someone while withholding reconciliation from him? There is an urgent need in the Church to learn the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is always required by God but it does not always lead to reconciliation.

Forgiveness

Jesus warned that God will not forgive our sins if we do not forgive those who sin against us (see: Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25). It’s not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving; instead, God expects forgiven people to forgive (See: Matthew 18:21-35). Yet forgiveness is very different from reconciliation.

It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with her offender. Reconciliation is focused on restoring broken relationships. Different from forgiveness, restoration is a process and, when trust has been deeply violated, restoration is often a lengthy process.

Reconciliation

It is important to understand that (unlike forgiveness) reconciliation of a broken relationship is a process conditioned on the attitude and actions of an offender. Those who commit significant and repeated offenses must realize that their responses and actions affect the timing of the process. Those who are genuinely repentant will accept this fact with brokenness and humility. f course, only God can provide the needed strength for embracing the process. 

In some cases, even if an offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt, and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is personal freedom from a vindictive or vengeful response (see: Romans 12:17-21), but not always an immediate restoration of relationship.

Minor offenses

Forgiveness and reconciliation occur together in relation to minor offenses. In relationships shaped by the gospel, “love covers a multitude of sins” (i.e. offenses)” (I Peter 4:8). Those who withhold restoration over minor offenses are lacking in genuine love based in the gospel (see: Ephesians 4:32-5:1). Where such love is absent, immaturity and manipulation will threaten unity. Please take time to review the two principles for resolving conflict here.

When deeply or repeatedly betrayed, however, forgiveness does not necessarily require that one immediately grant the same level of relationship back to an offender. Even when God forgives our sins, He does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not enough to restore trust in such cases.

When a husband speaks harshly to his wife in a way that is out of character, his acknowledgement of sinning against her should be received with forgiveness and restoration. If he repeatedly speaks this way, he should expect his acknowledgements of wrong to be more difficult to receive. If the pattern continues, his wife could appropriately tell him that she forgives him but will not accept his harshness in the future without consequences. 

When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when the offense has been repeated.

The act of forgiveness surrenders the desire for revenge in the context of one’s relationship with the God who said, ““It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” (Romans 12:19). Forgiveness is first about God. When genuine, the heart of an offended person should be open to the possibility of reconciliation (unless personal or family safety are clearly at risk). Forgiveness requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and to regain trust. When a person has repeatedly behaved in a sinfully harmful and irresponsible manner, he must accept the fact that reconciliation will be a slow and difficult process.

Three main considerations in the timing of a process of reconciliation:

  1. The attitude of the offender
  2. The depth of the betrayal
  3. The pattern of the offense (often repeated offenses)

When an offended party works toward reconciliation, the first and most important step is to confirm whether the offender is genuinely repentant (Luke 17:3). An unrepentant offender will resent a desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance. He might even resort to lines of manipulation.

    • “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving.”
    • “You just want to rub it in my face.”
    • “I guess I should expect that you want your revenge.”
    • “I am not the only one who does wrong things, you know?”
    • “Are you some kind of perfect person looking down on me?”
    • “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”

These lines of manipulation reveal an unrepentant attitude. Don’t be tricked into into avoiding the step of confirming the authenticity of your offender’s confession and repentance. Carefully and prayerfully use the seven signs of true repentance listed below. I highly recommend seeking the guidance of a wise counselor to help you see things clearly — (but only one who understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation). Such a counselor can help an injured person establish boundaries and define steps toward reconciliation that are restorative rather than retaliatory.

It’s hard to genuinely restore a broken relationship when an offender is unclear about his confession and repentance. You must be as certain as you can of your offender’s repentance—especially in cases involving repeated offenses or deep betrayals of trust. Even God will not grant forgiveness to one who is insincere about his confession and repentance. The person who is unwilling to forsake his sin will not find forgiveness with God (Proverbs 28:13).

Of course, only God can read hearts –– we must evaluate actions. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16a). We must not allow superficial appearances of repentance to control our responses. Displays of tears or appearing to be sorry must not become substitutes for clear changes in attitude and behavior.

Seven signs of genuine repentance:

The offender

  1. Accepts full responsibility for his or her actions. (Instead of: “Since you think I’ve done something wrong…” or “If have done anything to offend you…”).
  2. Welcomes accountability from others.
  3. Does not continue in the hurtful behavior or anything associated with it.
  4. Does not have a defensive attitude about his or her being in the wrong.
  5. Does not have a light attitude toward his or her hurtful behavior.
  6. Does not resent doubts about his or her sincerity – nor the need to demonstrate sincerity — especially in cases involving repeated offenses.
  7. Makes restitution where necessary.

Thought: “If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. Forgiveness which by-passes the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality (John R. W. Stott, Confess Your Sins, p.35).

Ten Guidelines for those hesitant to reconcile:

Those who have been significantly (and repeatedly) hurt are not wrong for feeling hesitant about reconciling with their offenders. When your offender is genuinely repentant, however, it’s important to be open to the possibility of restoration (unless there is a clear issue of safety involved). Jesus spoke about reconciliation with a sense of urgency (see Matthew 5:23-24). If you’re hesitant to reconcile, work through the following ten guidelines with the aid of a wise counselor.

  1. Be honest about your motives – Make sure that your desire is to do what pleases God and not to get revenge. Settle the matter of forgiveness (as Joseph did) in the context of your relationship with God. Guidelines for reconciliation should not be retaliatory.
  2. Be humble in your attitude – Do not let pride ruin everything. Renounce all vengeful attitudes toward your offender. We are not, for example, to demand that a person earn our forgiveness. The issue is not earning forgiveness, but working toward true reconciliation. This demands humility. Those who focus on retaliation and revenge have allowed self-serving pride to control them.
  3. Be prayerful for the one who hurt you – Jesus taught his disciples to pray for those who mistreat them (Luke 6:28). It is amazing how our attitude toward another person can change when we pray for him. Pray also for strength to follow through with reconciliation (see: Hebrews 4:16).
  4. Be willing to admit ways you might have contributed to the problem – “Even if you did not start the dispute, your lack of understanding, careless words, impatience, or failure to respond in a loving manner may have aggravated the situation. When this happens, it is easy to behave as though the other person’s sins more than cancel yours, which leaves you with a self- righteous attitude that can retard forgiveness (i.e. relational forgiveness). The best way to overcome this tendency is to prayerfully examine your role in the conflict and then write down everything you have done or failed to do that may have been a factor.” (Ken Sande, The Peacemaker, p. 168). I do not recommend this point to promote the notion of equal or shared blame for all situations.
  5. Be honest with the offender – If you need time to absorb the reality of what was said or done, express this honestly to the one who hurt you. Yet we must not use time as a means of manipulation and punishment.
  6. Be objective about your hesitancy – Perhaps you have good reasons for being hesitant to reconcile, but they must be objectively stated. Sometimes, for example, repeated confessions and offenses of the same nature make it understandably hard for trust to be rebuilt. This is an objective concern. Clearly define your reasons for doubting your offender’s sincerity.
  7. Be clear about the guidelines for restoration – Establish clear guidelines for restoration. Requirements like restitution can be clearly understood. Others include financial accountability, holding down a job, and putting away substances, attending counseling, taking medications, etc…
  8. Be realistic about the process – Change often requires time and hard work (Philippians 3:12-14). Periodic failure by an offender does not always indicate an unrepentant heart. By failure, I am not including behaviors like violence or relapses into adultery. Behavior patterns typically run in deep channels. They can hold a powerful grip on a person’s life. A key indicator for change is the attitude of the offender. While proceeding with caution, be careful about demanding guarantees from a person who has truly expressed repentance. If the person stumbles, the process of loving confrontation, confession, and forgiveness may need to be repeated. Setbacks and disappointments are often part of the process of change. Don’t give up too easily on process of reconciliation. Keep the goal of a fully restored relationship open.
  9. Be mindful of God’s control – “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). “We know that God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). “When you are having a hard time forgiving someone (i.e. being restored), take time to note how God may be using that offense for good. Is this an unusual opportunity to glorify God?  How can you serve others and help them grow in their faith? What sins and weaknesses of yours are being exposed? What character qualities are you being challenged to exercise? When you perceive that the person who has wronged you is being used as an instrument in God’s hand to help you mature, serve others, and glorify him, it may be easier for you to move ahead with forgiveness (i.e. restoration)” (Ken Sande,The Peacemaker, p.165;cf. Hebrews 12:7;I Pet.2:23b; 4:19). (Italicized words added).
  10. Be alert to Satan’s schemes – In Ephesians 4:27, the apostle Paul warns about the possibility of unchecked anger giving Satan an opportunity in our lives. A few verses later, the Apostle wrote, “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. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:29-5:2). Meditate on these words and put them into practice! (See also: II Corinthians 2:14; Hebrews 12:15).


Steve Cornell

See also: Forgive, or else!

52 thoughts on “From forgiveness to reconciliation

  1. It is hard for one to break a life habit. When we see them trying we should encourage instead of telling ourselgves that he will go back to his old ways but tell him or her how glad that they are trying. Me must forgive because God says so we forgive until we can feel forgiving

  2. Ella says:

    A good friend of mine told me about this article in the newspaper. It’s as though you wrote it just for me! It is nice to know I am not the only one going through this. I am a young mother and putting a child in the mix of all this, makes it that much more heart breaking and challenging. Thank you for clearly defining the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Do you know of any women groups or Christian counselors in the Lancaster area that would be focusing on this subject? Thank you again for writing this article! God Bless

  3. SAM says:

    Great article, but there’s one relational aspect I don’t think it covered. Let me tell you a little about the situation (feel free to edit as you see fit).
    Please know it is my hearts desire to act in a Godly, loving manner. Also, please know that I have forgiven the offender. I am just in a quandry about how to deal with someone who refuses to admit to wrongdoing; someone that I am in contact with not only during the small group Bible study (5 people) we both attend, but the social time before and after Bible study – it is the social time I am not sure how to deal with; how do I respond when this person comes up to me and starts talking?

    A Christian friend who attends the same Bible study I do became verbally abusive because I couldn’t come to repair something for them that day and my assurance that I would do it the next day after Bible study was not good enough (It wasn’t that it wouldn’t work out). The verbal abuse (lasting about 15 min) was personal, over the top (and had nothing to do with the issue at hand, and ended with them hanging up. I finally decided to send a letter and confront the person, who called and left what I can only describe as a “haughty” message on my machine, making it clear beyond a doubt that there would be no apology.

    I feel that quitting Bible study would be running away from the problem. There must be a Godly solution to dealing with this kind of situation.

    • Sheri says:

      SAM, I hope you received an answer sometime in the last 4 years. The basic answer is found in Matthew 18, beginning at verse 15. First, have a face to face meeting with the friend. If he dosn’t hear you in that scenario, the next step is to take one or two others with you. The point is that the offender will repent. . If it goes as far as the brother in Christ still hasn’t repented, the next step is to go before the church (whether that is the entire body of members or only the leaders, I don’t know) Christ wants us to live in unity. We are not a healthy body under his headship if we ignore the infections. — While that is the basic answer, that doesn’t mean it will be simple and uncomplicated. People relationships never are. You might come across a situation where you can’t find godly others willing to operate under this principle. Continually lay your life before the Lord and follow what He would have you do. That might lead to quitting the bible study or even that particular church. Or, it might lead to repentance, restoration and spiritual growth for you both.

  4. Lee Banguilan says:

    Thanks for this article. Yes, some CHristians are confused between forgiveness and restoration. They think that forgiveness equals restoration, but I agree that they are not the same especially when the conditions required for restoration is not fulfilled, i.e. asking for forgiveness, making necessary changes, etc.

  5. Excellent posts! I will be sharing these with the group of survivors I work with. Many of us experienced abuse within faith based communities, and your articles address issues they struggle with. I will add your blog to our resource page as well.

    Thank you,
    Catherine

  6. carolyn says:

    This is an excellent article on a topic very much needed in The Church and even more so in the counseling realm (discovered through personal experience)…
    It is a well explained and Biblically solid presentation. Thank you so much.
    Looking forward to more good artcles from you…

  7. howdy, i’ve been trying to think through this for some time. what are we to do with paul’s command in ephesians 4:32, where we are to forgive one another AS God in Christ forgave us? is it biblical to forgive those who don’t seek it [i.e. apologize/repent]? does God forgive those who refuse to repent when they have blatantly sinned against Him? the Bible is replete with examples and Scriptures that clearly show He will not forgive the unrepentant; to do so would mock His holy justice. please do not see this as an attack, but my honest wrestling with this text, and how to apply it to some people who have asked me what they should do (i am preaching through ephesians right now).

  8. I have a question about reconciliation. Does reconciliation always mean returning to the type of relationship you once had, or can it mean forging a new type of relationship through reconciliation?

    • This really depends on the situation. If trust is badly damaged, it takes time to restore a good relationship. It also might require guidelines and boundaries. Some times the offender’s response determines what kind of relationship is possible. As I said above, three main considerations shape the timing of a process of reconciliation:

      1. The attitude of the offender
      2. The depth of the betrayal
      3. The pattern of the offense (often repeated offenses)

      Sometimes safety concerns make it impossible to restore the same kind of relationships. It just depends on the details of the situation — using the principles above.

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