There is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Let's focus on the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. God is clear that we always need to forgive. He is also clear that you cannot always reconcile with the person who hurt you. You may recall Jesus mentioning this in Matthew 18. Jesus mentions that we are to confront those who harm us, clearly letting them know how they wronged us so that they will have a definite opportunity to change and make things right. However, in verse 17, God describes that, after a process of varying attempts to allow the harmful person to make a life change, it is spiritually and morally correct to distance yourself from a person who continues to harm you. When you have a clear understanding of this resolution process and of the definitions of forgiveness and reconciliation, it can (1) free you from the past to move forward and (2) release you from the guilt of breaking off a relationship.
Discovering your voice and speaking your truth is an important part of personal growth and establishing healthy boundaries.
Speaking to someone who wronged you was considered a positive action even under Mosaic law. The Jews have a saying that the ruin of a nation was caused by not confronting the person who harms other people. It is easy to see how the complete breakdown of relationships, families and all social structures can be attributed to not correcting a destructive person. Correcting someone is not taken out of ill-will or hatred, but with the desire of restoration of the relationship. Restoration may not be possible. However, speaking your truth and voicing of the harm done to you is necessary for your own well-being. Check out Leviticus 19 in the Mosaic law.
-You shall not hate your brother in your heart but you shall surely rebuke your him lest you incur sin because of him.
-Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke him frankly so you will not share in his guilt.
-Let there be no hate in your heart for your brother; but you may make a protest to your neighbor, so that he may be stopped from doing evil.
God’s Scriptural guidelines on confronting a harmful person are still effective for us in our culture.
After doing a little research on this passage from Matthew 18, I was impressed with how Scriptural instructions dealt with a harmful person. I believe they still apply in modern culture.
1. Privately speak to the person who harmed you and explain why their words or actions were a violation of your boundaries and socially acceptable behavior. [The exception to this would be if you are in a situation were physical harm is possible.]
2. If the destructive person does not desire to make a lifestyle change after this initial discussion, take 2 or 3 people of credibility who are familiar with the situation to again speak to the person in hopes of restoration. [This is similar to family members confronting the person before taking the matter outside the family.]
3. If the person with harmful behavior still feels no remorse and motivation to change, one last attempt is made by a group of credible people to again explain the violations of the boundaries and the need for change for healing to take place in the relationships. In Scriptural context, this is referring to a group of church leaders such as the pastor and elders. This is actually comparable to doing what is termed an Intervention in our culture, where you have family, credible friends, and a therapist as a group sit down and reason with the destructive person.
4. If all attempts fail, Scripture says that the person is to be treated as “a Publican or tax collector,” meaning that you should no longer have social interaction with the person due to their decision to continue a destructive behavior or lifestyle. Publicans and tax collectors were people that Jews did not have social interaction with due to their lack of moral character.
This withdrawing of social interaction is (1) in hopes that the person will be ashamed of his or her harmful actions but also (2) that you will not continue to be affected by it. Henry goes on to say, “Those who show contempt for the rules of society forfeit the honors and privileges of it until they are willing to change, submit to [society rules] and follow through with reconciliation.”
Resolution can come to your heart either through forgiveness alone or forgiveness and reconciliation. But, since the actual wrong can never be undone, forgiveness within yourself and canceling the person’s debt to you, must take place.
A Definition of Forgiveness is:
“Forgiveness is something that we do in our hearts. We release someone from a debt that they owe us. We no longer condemn them. The person who owes me the debt does not have to ask my forgiveness. It is a work of grace in my heart. It is freedom from the abusive person who hurt you. The Bible compares forgiving people to releasing them from a legal debt. (pp. 251, 262 Boundaries, Townsend and Cloud).”
This can be very difficult. Drs. Cloud and Townsend point out that forgiveness means “that we will never get from the other person what was owed us because we have decided to cancel the debt and not try to collect. And this is what we do not like. It involves grieving for what will never be. (Boundaries, p. 263).” Grieving is part of the healing process, we have to allow ourselves to grieve over the fact that the past cannot be changed. The past cannot be the way we wished it would have been. Unforgiveness keeps you involved in the destructive relationship because you are still expecting some form of repayment from the harmful person. Allow yourself to grieve over the past so that you can release it, be freed from it and live for a healthy present and future.
Reconciliation cannot always take place because it involves the cooperation of both people.
The spiritual work of Jesus through His death and resurrection was to bring a “legal” payment for our sins. Jesus paid off our debt. His actions restored us and opened the possibility for reconciliation. Even though God has offered forgiveness on His part to all, not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity to have reconciliation with Him. It takes both people to have reconciliation. Though you forgive someone for hurting you, it does not mean that they are trustworthy. It takes time for them to prove a lifestyle change. There are people living harmful lives who verbally say they are sorry, but then continue to live the same harmful, destructive lives. Such a lifestyle is so horrendous in the sight of God that John the Baptist called religious leaders who lived this way 'a brood of poisonous snakes and enemies of all that is good.’ (Matthew 12:34) A changed life is the only proof of a changed heart. The Greek term here for repentance, metanoeo, is a reversal of one’s decision, including the reversal of one’s thinking and feeling–the logical result then being a reversal in one’s actions (Strong’s Dictionary of NT Words).
Forgiveness focuses on releasing the past. Reconciliation is a matter of having a healthy future with proper boundaries.
If the harmful person is not repentant and will not change the destructive patterns of his or her life, forgiveness is all you can do. Forgiveness alone will bring you resolution. However, when a true change of heart occurs and then of lifestyle change takes place in the hurtful person, reconciliation is the next step. Realize that it takes a passage of time for the repentant lifestyle to be proven. Many therapists suggest that the social separation has to take place like in the Scripture mentioned. You need to see that an appropriate lifestyle-one that is not destructive-is lived out by the person who harmed you for a period of at least 6 months before working toward social interaction again and reconciliation in the relationship. Your part in the reconciliation is to live out proper boundaries in your life, only allowing healthy social interactions and speaking out clear messages when someone violates the rules of healthy social behavior. Healthy boundaries also involve resulting consequences for those who violated your boundaries.
Consequences vary with the situation. If someone dumps on you, that isn’t healthy. Don’t do their work for them again. Don’t make excuses. Don’t cover it up. Allow them to experience the loss. If someone is verbally, emotionally or physically abusive, speak out the violation of your boundaries. Like the Scriptural example, stopping social interaction with that person is necessary so they experience the consequences of their behavior, i.e. the loss of a relationship with you.
When people fail, we continue to forgive. But reconciliation can only take place with people who are honest about their failures, learn from the mistakes and make changes in their lifestyles. This is the type of situation that is healthy and one we can all work with. As Scripture says, “We all fail in many ways."(James 3:2) There is a clear difference, though, in a person with whom you cannot work toward reconciliation. When a person continues in dishonesty by denying that they have hurt you or lives like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, claiming to have done no wrong, they do not live in reality. A complete change of direction must take place for reconciliation. Your boundaries need to stay in tact, keeping out the harm, even though you have forgiven them. Move on. Take time to grieve and heal.
“Boundaries: When to Say, “Yes,” When to Say, “No,” to Take Control of Your Life” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.