Forgiveness is different from reconciliation.
Start with forgiveness.
- Jesus clearly warned that God will not forgive our sins if we do not forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25).
- It’s not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving, but that God expects forgiven people to forgive (Matthew 18:21-35).
Forgiveness happens in the context of one’s relationship with God (apart from contact with an offender). The problem is that people assume that forgiving an offender requires them to offer immediate reconciliation. It doesn’t.
Reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships. And sometimes restoration is a process, especially when trust is deeply broken. Restoration might have to be a slow and lengthy process.
Different from forgiveness
Forgiveness is not conditioned on the response of an offender. Forgiveness happens in the presence of God (Mark 11:25; Romans 12:17-21).
Reconciliation is conditioned on the attitude and actions of an offender. While its aim is restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process. If such an offender is genuinely repentant, he will recognize and accept that the harm caused by his words or actions will take time to repair.
In many 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 (Romans 12:17-21), but not always an automatic restoration of relationship.
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 often not enough to restore trust. 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.
Timing of Reconciliation
The process of reconciliation depends on the attitude of the offender, the depth of the betrayal, and the pattern of offense. When an offended party works toward reconciliation, the first and most important step is the confirmation of genuine repentance on the part of the offender (Luke 17:3).
An unrepentant offender will resent your desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance. The offender may resort to lines of manipulation such as, “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving,” or, “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”
Such language reveals an unrepentant heart. Don’t be manipulated into avoiding the step of confirming the authenticity of your offender’s confession and repentance.
It’s advisable in difficult cases to seek the help of a wise counselor, one who understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Such a counselor can help the injured person establish boundaries and define steps toward reconciliation that are restorative rather than retaliatory.
It’s difficult to genuinely restore a broken relationship when the offender is unclear about his confession and repentance. We should strive to be as certain as we can of our offender’s repentance—especially in cases involving repeated offenses.
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. As 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
There are seven signs that indicate that an offender is genuinely repentant:
- 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”).
- Welcomes accountability from others.
- Does not continue the hurtful behavior or anything associated with it.
- Does not have a defensive attitude about being in the wrong.
- Does not dismiss or downplay the hurtful behavior.
- Does not resent doubts about his/her sincerity or the need to demonstrate sincerity — particularly in cases involving repeated offenses.
- Makes restitution where necessary.
“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).
See also: Leave your Grudge with the Judge