Forgiveness and reconciliation are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Here we look at how the two can play out in real life. As we look specifically at the context of certain verses in scripture, it’s important that ministry leaders and teachers remember that any discussion of forgiveness must be balanced with a conversation that includes the topics of repentance and atonement if we are to avoid negligence and remain faithful to scripture.
verb (used with object),for·gave [fer-geyv], for·giv·en,for·giv·ing.
to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
to grant pardon to (a person).
to cease to feel resentment against:to forgive one’s enemies.
to cancel an indebtedness or liability of:to forgive the interest owed on a loan.
verb (used without object),for·gave [fer-geyv], for·giv·en,for·giv·ing.
to pardon an offense or an offender.
verb (used with object),rec·on·ciled,rec·on·cil·ing.
to cause (a person) to accept or be resigned to something not desired:He was reconciled to his fate.
to win over to friendliness; cause to become amicable:to reconcile hostile persons.
to compose or settle (a quarrel, dispute, etc.).
to bring into agreement or harmony; make compatible or consistent:to reconcile differing statements; to reconcile accounts.
to reconsecrate (a desecrated church, cemetery, etc.).
to restore (an excommunicate or penitent) to communion in a church.
To paraphrase the above definition of forgiveness, I’m going to call it “to pardon an offense.” To paraphrase reconciliation, I’m going to call it “to heal a breach and make the relationship balanced.”
Context for This Thought Journey
There is clearly overlap between forgiveness and reconciliation. When one person has done something to offend or harm another, the person who was harmed or offended will need to forgive if reconciliation is going to take place.
But after our second experience in a toxic church environment (see this post), the elder involved sent David and I an email that began, “I hope you can forgive me for [a rather inconsequential action].” He then went on to twist facts, manipulate scripture, and accuse David and I of leaving out of a desire to avoid Matthew 18 (Matthew 18:15-17 specifically is often used as a template for church “discipline,” more appropriately called church “punishment”). While he was asking for forgiveness, the words he chose to use in the remainder of the email showed no fruits of repentance (repentance being a desire to change).
I forgave him (and responded so) for both the inconsequential offense he had committed, and for the laundry list of things that he had neglected to mention but needed forgiveness for even more. Mentally, the act of forgiveness was quick and easy. But it took a long while for forgiveness to settle into my soul.
I imagine forgiveness looks differently for different people and different offenses. But for me, it meant that I got to a point where I was no longer ruminating (even unintentionally) on what he had done. It meant that I was no longer making decisions based entirely out of fear. Though I must admit that I still carry a burden of caution, and certain events or conversations with others will briefly bring back unpleasant memories. But I no longer carry the burden of overwhelming fear. And my biggest prayer for him (on the rare instance that I think to pray for him) is that he would see the error of his ways (a) so that he may be reconciled to God and experience the mercy of God’s forgiveness and (b) so that others do not have to experience what I did. I don’t need an (actual) apology from him, or even desire one, to have arrived at this place.
The other two incidents that sharpened my definitions of forgiveness and reconciliation occurred to other people, many years apart. First, a friend felt a burden to reach out to a former romantic partner and ask for forgiveness. The request was rebuffed, and the friend was (at the time, at least) rather put out. Apparently, the former romantic partner was not ready to forgive. Now, I don’t know details of how or why the relationship ended. So, assuming there was nothing more tangible my friend should have done (like pay metaphorical child support for the metaphorical child they’d abandoned with this former romantic partner), I don’t think the lack of forgiveness would, practically speaking, have any impact on my friend’s relationship with God. After all, we are each responsible for our own sin, not another person’s, before God. If you have done everything you can to make up for a wrong you’ve committed, and the other person still does not want to forgive, they are not more powerful than God. Their lack of forgiveness does not come between you and God. That is their burden to bear.
The other incident that sharpened my thoughts around forgiveness was hearing a gentleman share about his forgiveness for the man who molested him as a child. The molester was (to my recollection) never held to account for his crimes or sins, and was now deceased. The gentleman sharing the story told how he had forgiven the molester and would willingly tell him so, if he weren’t deceased. But that if he encountered the man around children, he would warn the children’s parents. And if he saw the molester in a church, he would tell church leadership to keep the molester away from children. Because he did not want others to be hurt as he had been. Which, if we’re still looking at Mathew 18, is entirely appropriate. Mathew 18:6 recalls the words of Jesus himself, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
These stories are among those that have led me to the conclusion that forgiveness is something we do more for our sake (for our own mental health and for our relationship with God) than we do for others. And reconciliation is something we do more for the sake of others.
Looking at King David, Bathsheba, and Uriah
Clearly, reconciliation is not possible when the person committing the offense is dead. If reconciliation and forgiveness were actually the same thing, then anyone who needs to forgive someone who is dead would be up a creek without a paddle when it comes to their relationship with God.
As I’m writing this, I wonder if this explains King David’s prayer in Psalm 51, when he states, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David wrote this psalm after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba (or more appropriately phrased, raped Bathsheba; note that Nathan’s words in 2 Samuel 12 paint the allegorical lamb as completely innocent of any wrongdoing); had her husband, Uriah, killed when the resulting pregnancy couldn’t be covered up; married Bathsheba; and been confronted by the prophet Nathan.
Sometimes people use this verse to minimize David’s sin against Bathsheba, saying that the even bigger offense was against God. But I think this is missing the point. I’d point out that, at this point, by the standards of his day, David had already made up for his sin against Bathsheba by marrying her, giving her the protection of his name and committing to support her economically. (I do not think this is an appropriate consequence for rape in modern society, but that’s a digression.) For more information, see Marg Mowczko’s article on Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
However, with Uriah already dead, when Nathan confronted David about his sin, there was no one other than God from whom David could ask forgiveness for Uriah’s death. And even though God forgave David (2 Samuel 12:13), David was not given a free pass for his actions.
David’s newborn son, the son of Bathsheba, died. (Which, as the mother of a miscarried baby, is something I struggle with.) And the rest of the account of David’s rule was filled with family strife. One of his sons, Amnon, raped one of his daughters, Tamar. When David did nothing in response, another son, Absalom, killed Amnon (2 Samuel 13). Later, Absalom plotted to overthrow David. In the course of the rebellion, Absalom raped ten of David’s concubines in open daylight (2 Samuel 16:21-22). (Which, paired with the threat Nathan gave in 2 Samuel 12:11-12, I also struggle with.) And even though David and Bathsheba’s son Solomon inherited the throne after David’s death, the kingdom of Israel split in two during the next generation of the dynasty. Lastly, even though David is given the honorific “a man after [God’s] own heart” in the New Testament (Acts 13:22), there is a reminder in the genealogy recorded in Matthew that “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” (Matthew 1:6).
There was no “forgive and forget” in the situation of David with Bathsheba and Uriah.
Which leads me to my next point.
When Reconciliation and Forgiveness are Not Interchangeable
Reconciliation requires both repentance and an acceptance of consequences on the part of the offender. Reconciliation, when it is healthy and fully genuine, requires not just forgiveness on the part of the person harmed, but also requires the offender to both repent and accept the consequences of their actions.
Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is also known as the idea of atonement, a concept that was particularly brought home for me by the movie “Atonement.” (Disclaimers – it’s been a number of years since I’ve seen the film, and the film is not from an explicitly Christian perspective.)
If I break something that belongs to somebody else, I fix it or get them a new one, or pay to have it repaired or replaced. This is simply part of being a decent human being who respects other people and their personal property. There is also Biblical precedent for this theme of atonement, as found in Exodus 21. And if the damage occurred because of negligence or deliberate action on my part, a true repentance would include a changing of actions on my part to prevent something similar from happening in the future. This is also a Biblical precedent, as is noted in Exodus 21:29 and Exodus 21:36. Note that, in these two verses, there is a different level of atonement required for “repeat offenders.”
As a side note, even in simple bookkeeping there’s the idea of giving something up in atonement in the process of reconciling accounts. If two accounts (like the transactions recorded in my personal budget and the transactions recorded on my bank statement) are out of whack, whichever account has the error is the one that has to “give up” something in order to be balanced. My budget can’t simply keep the extra money it shows by telling the bank statement to forgive my clerical error (assuming the bank’s record is the more accurate one).
My accidentally breaking an inanimate object that is easily replaced is one thing. But take a moment to think about how this might play out in relationships between believers. If a church leader (or any member, for that matter) lies about another and damages their reputation, the harm cannot be repaired with a simple “I’m sorry” communicated in private. To display true repentance, the person lying must (a) stop lying and (b) tell people who believed the lie that it was not true, publicly from the pulpit if necessary. (See, for example, the public apology of Dan George, a former elder at Harvest Bible Chapel. Or the public interview William Throckmorton did with Dave Bruskas and Sutton Turner, two former elders of Mars Hill Church.) If a spouse is physically or emotionally abusive, even when the offending spouse offers an apology, evidence of true repentance will only be made clear with the passage of time and a pattern of changed, improved behavior. (See this and this article by Andrew Bauman, for example.)
Even when the injured party forgives, when reconciliation does not include repentance and an acceptance of natural and reasonable consequences by the offender, it is simply enabling more sin on the part of the abuser or offender.
And since when is enabling more sin supposed to be encouraged in the church?
Yes, there is room for grace and for mercy. There is room for a recognition that old patterns of behavior often change slowly and can, depending on the type and severity, need outside intervention in the form of licensed counseling, professional addiction therapy, etc.
But let’s stop using forgiveness as a short-cut to reconciliation, church.
On a personal note, while I am uncomfortable sharing details, there have been times in my personal life where people I am close to have lied to me or about me, either blatantly or through omission. For the sake of my sanity, I have forgiven them. For the sake of mutual relationships, I have maintained a semblance of reconciliation. But there has been undeniable damage to the relationship. While my forgiveness has provided some personal healing, there is a deep scar that is still painful and would not be there had the wound received proper care and attention from the onset.
Church, if we are going to bear scars, let them be for the sake of Jesus and at the hands of those outside the church. Not for the sake of the pride or comfort levels of other believers who are going around causing wounds.
If someone shows you a verse urging you to “forgive and forget” (or something similar like “overlook an offense“), I’d take a very close look at the context. Is this cheap forgiveness urged in the context of major hurts suffered from the hands of other believers? Or is it radical forgiveness urged in the context of hurts suffered from the hands of unbelievers, those outside the church to whom we can better model Jesus’s atoning sacrifice on our behalf?
To my knowledge, persecution in the Bible comes at the hands of unbelievers, not other believers.
On a Practical Level
If you are in a position of leadership, encourage forgiveness, for the sake of the individual forgiving and for the sake of their relationship with God. And every single time you preach or teach or counsel on forgiveness within the body of Christ, balance this out with a word to the people being forgiven: “And if you are the person whom other people are constantly having to forgive – stop it! Whatever it is causing people to have to forgive you, do better! Otherwise, you are not following the even more numerous commands to love one another.”
After all, let’s take a look at just one of the “forgive one another” verses, Ephesians 4:32. We have a single verse commanding, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The entire chapter preceding this single verse is about changed behavior in the community of believers, which is the fruit of healthy repentance.
Let’s take a look:
- “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (v.1)
- “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (v.2)
- “speaking the truth in love” (v.15)
- “you were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self” (v. 22) – changed behavior
- “be made new in the attitude of your minds” (v.23) – repentance
- “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (v.24) – changed behavior
- “put off falsehood and speak truthfully” (v.25) – changed behavior
- “in your anger do not sin” (v.26)
- “anyone who has been steeling must steal no longer” (v.28) – changed behavior
- “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” (v.29)
- “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v.31)
And then, after all of this, believers are told to forgive one another.
Just for fun, let’s look at another forgiveness verse, Colossians 3:13. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Let’s take a look at what is preceding in the chapter:
- “set your mind on the things above, not on earthly things” (v.2)
- “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (v.5)
- “now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (v.8)
- “do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator” (v.9-10) – changed behavior
- “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (v.12)
And after all these, believers are instructed to forgive one another. Looking at the context of these two verses in particular, the calls to forgiveness seem to be more like a reminder to not continue to harbor a grudge if someone has shown genuine repentance and taken tangible steps to make up for their mistakes or sin, rather than as a short-cut to a shallow, unhealthy kind of reconciliation.
So, to anyone in ministry, if you want to avoid negligence when teaching about forgiveness and reconciliation, remember that the two concepts are not interchangeable, and to include repentance in the equation. If the Bible does so, how can we do any less?
So, literally a day after I drafted this post, old teachings of a professor of Biblical counseling came to light and are making the rounds of various blogs, such as here and here. To summarize, Dr. John Street claims that a Christian wife married to an abusive, unbelieving husband needs to stay in the marriage (i.e., be reconciled to him) in order to turn the husband into a Christian, just like missionaries in hostile countries put themselves in danger to win unbelievers to Christ.
The two blogs linked above have already addressed one aspect of this particular teaching in some depth. I would like to briefly address some others, since I’m on the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation this week.
In many situations, such as one that occurred at the church Dr. Street is an elder of, Christian wives are in abusive marriages to men who claim to be Christian, but do not act like it. In this case, the abusive husband (or wife, for that matter), is not an unbeliever. He is instead a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a false prophet, for by their fruit we will recognize them (Matthew 7:15-16). And we are not supposed to tolerate false teachers or prophets in a body of believers. So why do we tolerate an abusive spouse who claims to follow Jesus?
Jesus makes the metaphor of wolves in sheep’s clothing in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he also states, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). To me, this particular scripture makes a lot more sense in the context of an abusive spouse than does 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. Particularly since marriage is affirmed throughout the Bible as something sacred, and wives of noble character are referred to as worth more than rubies (Proverbs 31:10).
With 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, the context is simply that of a believer being married to an openly unbelieving spouse. There is no mention of abuse or suffering of any kind. In fact, it says to let the unbelieving spouse go peacefully, if that is their desire, for “God has called us to live in peace.” And abuse is the opposite of peace.
For further resources on abuse within marriage, please check out the following (all are Christian resources0:
- Natalie Hoffman’s website regarding emotional abuse in particular: https://www.flyingfreenow.com/
- This interview with Sarah McDugal analyzing a church’s poor response to an abusive marriage situation: https://julieroys.com/podcast/sarah-mcdugal-analyzes-abuse-at-john-macarthurs-church/
- Also, Sarah McDugal is autistic, so her resources may also be helpful for autistic individuals in particular: https://www.wildernesstowild.com/wild-coaching
- This website run by Gretchen Baskerville, who works in divorce recovery ministry: https://lifesavingdivorce.com/welcome-to-life-saving-divorce/
- The Divorce Minister’s website, dealing primarily with divorce after infidelity: http://www.divorceminister.com/en/
- Resources from Wade Mullen, a professor and researcher who writes about abuse in general: https://wadetmullen.com/