Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation

Back when I taught Sunday school our class did a study based on Gary Chapman’s, “Love as a Way of Life”.  There was a week on forgiveness and let me tell you, I disagreed on so many levels with him on forgiveness that I pretty much just had to rewrite the lesson on forgiveness for my class.  I’m not an expert by any means but it made for a good discussion in class. I always welcome feedback and comments. I believe I even tried to send a message to Gary Chapman. I doubt it ever made it to him, but I sure wouldn’t mind his thoughts as well!

First, I looked up what the dictionary had to say about what it means to forgive, and one of the definitions it gave was, “to cease to feel resentment against.”  Good definition.  I think a good way to understand it is to contrast it with justice.  Justice says, “Somebody has to pay for this”, while forgiveness says, “You owe me nothing”.  Forgiveness is one of the cornerstones of our Christian faith.  It is something that is offered to us by Christ and because of that, we can extend forgiveness to others.  None of us has done anything to deserve Christ’s forgiveness.  It is there because he loves us and has paid the cost of our sins for us.  This is the key, I believe, in understanding what forgiveness means when applying it to others.  We are forgiven, no matter what our actions.  Therefore, we have the power to forgive others no matter their actions or if they even receive it. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Col 3:12-13 and Ephesians 4:31-32 say, “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.”

This is where Gary Chapman loses me because he states numerous times that forgiveness involves actions on both sides.  This, instead, is reconciliation.  You can forgive someone but have no need or desire to ever be reconciled with the person.  We are called to attempt to reconcile with the individual but if they do not want to participate, then reconciliation can’t happen.  You have done your part though. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and then remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matt 5:23-24

I want to highlight that he uses the words “brother or sister” when needing to be reconciled. The word “brother” is used in every translation I looked the verse up in. “Or sister” is included in this version which is NIV. I believe he was being specific in referring to other believers. He does not say if ANYONE has something against you nor does he say “neighbor” which we know Jesus used when talking about who we should love and ultimately “neighbor” means everyone you encounter. In fact, Matthew 12:48-50 tells us who our “brother” is:

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

I believe in the command to be reconciled, he was specific about the WHO because reconciliation is going to require action on both parties, and you would assume a fellow believer, or one who does the will of the Father, would take the steps to be reconciled. Theoretically, it will be less likely with a non-believer.

If it were true that I could not truly forgive without the participation of the person who hurt me, then for me to be right with God would be dependent on the actions of someone else.  There’s no way that could be true.

Another misconception that people have about forgiveness is that by forgiving someone, you are ignoring the wrongs they have done.  This is also not true at all.  Forgiving someone is not allowing that person to have power over your emotions any longer.  It is releasing them to God and letting Him deal with the justice that is due.  “For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay, and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.” Heb. 10:30

A quote that I’ve heard, but not sure where it originated, is “unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  This is so true.  We think that by holding on to our anger, bitterness, and resentment towards the person who has wronged us they will somehow be punished.  The only one being punished is us.  We must understand though that there are going to be times when forgiveness is not going to involve a future relationship with the individual.  An example is in 2 Timothy 4:14-15.  Paul writes, “Alexander the metal worker did me a great deal of harm.  The Lord will repay him for what he has done.  You too should be on your guard against him because he strongly opposed our message.”

Paul very well could have completely forgiven Alexander and held no resentment toward him. He may have even gone to Alexander and let him know that he had been hurt by him but has forgiven him.  This, however, does not mean that Paul is going to be ignorant in continuing to place trust in Alexander to help fulfill his missions.  So, he has forgiven Alexander, but I think you could argue that he has not fully reconciled with him and that there may not be a future relationship between the two. Reconciliation would involve Alexander seeking to change his behavior and building a new history of trust with Paul.  There is no evidence that this happened.  So, forgiveness involves just the party that has been hurt.  Reconciliation involves both parties.

Forgiveness is an amazing gift that Christ has given to us and that He expects, and requires, us to exercise. When we do not forgive, we allow bitterness to take root in our hearts.  And this, my friends, is one of the ways we allow Satan to begin to have a foothold in our lives.