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As Christians we are commanded to forgive all men. When you have been betrayed and abused forgiveness can seem like an impossible mountain to climb. How can we possibly forgive someone who has hurt us so deeply? I believe the answer lies in understanding the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
We Must Forgive to be Forgiven
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught:
“If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15 KJV)
The apostle Peter asked “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” And Jesus answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21–22 KJV). Now in this case “seventy times seven” does not mean we get to count every sin someone commits against us and when it reaches 490 sins we no longer have to forgive them.
Instead of counting sins we should be focused on “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). “forgive one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). Most importantly “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
For they know not what they do. Those are the easy ones to forgive. What about those who know what they are doing? What about those who willfully continue in sin despite the hurt they are causing to others? What about those who abuse those they are supposed ot care for over and over again?
How can we possibly let go and forgive them?
What is Forgiveness?
In 2nd Timothy chapter 4 The Apostle Paul speaks of one who had done him “much evil.” In verse 14 he prays that “the Lord reward him according to his works”.
To forgive a serious offense we do not have to suspend justice. Forgiveness is our willingness to allow GOD to judge, rather than exacting our own justice or revenge.
When we can turn to God in faith, to pray that he will help the offender repent, and to allow God to judge and reward we can find the peace of forgiveness.
Forgiveness means that we accept humbly God’s righteous judgment with faith, hope, and comfort. With this acceptance we can find peace, even when our offender is unrepentant.
The concept of judgment and justice are not removed by the commandment to forgive even serious offenders. To forgive is to let go and let God be the ultimate judge. It is allowing God to decree the final punishment if that offender refuses repentance.
Forgiveness is NOT trust in the offender that they are repentant. Forgiveness is trust in God that he will make it right.
Forgiveness does not require an admission of guilt or an apology. Forgiveness can be achieved with or without the offenders participation.
Forgiveness is a process. You can’t just snap your fingers, forgive and move on with your life. Forgiveness can take minutes, days, or even years. The deeper the wound the longer the process of forgiveness will take.
Forgiveness is not a straight path. One day you may feel great and the next day you may be back on your knees begging for the strength to go on for just one more day. A down day doesn’t mean give up, it means you’re normal.
Forgiveness does not require forgetting. NOWHERE is scripture does God ever say we need to forget another’s offenses. We can heal ourselves without deleting the memory. God gives us our memories of pain because they keep us safe from further harm.
The Courage to Forgive
The most powerful story of forgiveness I have ever heard comes from the book “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom. Corrie was a Christian political prisoner in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Corrie lost her sister Betsie in that camp.
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often . . . the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. [Corrie ten Boom, with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 238]
Just as Corrie experienced the courage to forgive does not have to be ours alone. If we sincerely desire to forgive then the Lord will bless us with that forgiveness. We may have to ask over and over again. We may feel like we’ve forgiven only to have it all come rushing back. Pray again.
God will never give a command that is impossible to fulfill. If we pray in faith he will give us the strength and courage we need to forgive those who have hurt us.
Forgiveness Does not Require Reconciliation
God has commanded us to forgive, but he has not commanded us to remain in unhealthy or abusive situations. Forgiveness is not synonymous with reconciliation, though many Christians mistakenly believe that it is.
Forgiveness is an internal process between the victim and God. Reconciliation is an interpersonal process that requires the repentance of the sinner.
The opportunity for reconciliation occurs when the offender is willing to be accountable for the wrongs they have done and work to make amends. Just like forgiveness reconciliation is a process.
Words are not sufficient to rebuild trust. If an offender truly desires reconciliation they have to put in the work through action. The harm that they have caused takes time to heal. In cases of abuse and/or addiction we are talking about years, not weeks or even months.
If a victim refuses reconciliation you are NOT un-forgiving or un-Christian. You can forgive and never allow the offender to be a part of your life again.
Even God requires true repentance before reconciliation “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13 KJV)
What is Reconciliation
The process of reconciliation is dependent on the depth of the wound, the attitude of the offender, and the pattern of their behavior. If you are the victim is is not only acceptable, but incredibly wise,to wait and look for changes in the offenders actions and attitudes before pursuing reconciliation.
Restoring a broken relationship is impossible until the offender is committed to full confession and repentance, especially in relationships with repeated offenses.
If you are the offender you must be willing to work at real lasting changes for however long it takes to create a new relationship. There is no room for resentment, blame, or impatience in true repentance. Only true repentance deserves reconciliation.
Reconciliation requires the acceptance that the old relationship is dead. You can’t go back. Reconciliation is the building of a new relationship based on healthy attitudes and actions. Reconciliation can not occur without change.
Reconciliation requires strong personal boundaries on the part of the victim. It also requires deep humility, and a willingness to change, on the part of the offender.
Should I Reconcile?
Deciding whether to reconcile is a complicated process. Only God can look on the heart, we have to look on the outward actions.
In order to reconcile the offender has to stop their hurtful behaviors and anything associated with them. For an addict this means they not only stop acting out in addiction, but they are careful to avoid behaviors that may lead them to the desire to act out. Identifying and shutting down leading behaviors is just as important as stopping the acting out behaviors.
The offender then needs to take full accountability for their hurtful actions. A truly repentant sinner will not only accept accountability, but will actively seek it and welcome it form others. They do not get defensive when told that they are wrong. They sincerely seek to understand and avoid anything that may hurt the person whom they are attempting to reconcile with.
The offender can not downplay or dismiss any of their hurtful actions. They must also acknowledge that their actions were a choice, not a loss of control. For addicts a full therapeutic disclosure and polygraph are highly recommended and may even be necessary.
After taking accountability for their actions the offender then needs to recognize the effects that their hurtful actions had on their victim and show empathy for them. The offender should be able to explain both the short and long term effects that their actions had on others. They need to be able to do this without without feeling sorry for themselves, talking about how hard this is for them, or sinking into shame.
There is no room for resentment in this process. The offender has broken trust and they alone must rebuild it. This includes accepting the natural consequences of their actions, and not pushing the victim to forgive or reconcile faster than they are willing or able to do.
The offender needs to create an environment for the victim that is safe. This may require giving up friends, avoiding certain locations, giving their victim unrestricted access to their phone, and more. They should do all these things willingly knowing that they created these circumstances through their hurtful behavior.
For a full reconciliation to take place the offender needs to make amends for their behaviors. This goes far beyond saying sorry. It means that the offender is willing to take action to restore that which he took from the victim. What amends looks like will be different in every relationship. Let the victim take the lead. Find out what they want and need.
An offender needs to realize that their living amends will last until the day they die. They can not slip back into old addictive or abusive patterns. True reconciliation requires a complete change of heart.
Boundaries Provide Safety
Yes we are commanded to forgive, but forgiveness does not require reconciliation. Putting healthy boundaries in place when dealing with a person who is harmful actually makes us MORE Christlike. When the people of Nazareth tried to kill him Jesus never returned!
If you need help with setting firm, yet appropriate boundaries I would highly recommend the book "Boundaries" by Cloud and Townsend.
Pray for the courage to forgive. Also pray for the courage to set and maintain heathy boundaries. Observe the offender and make a wise decision whether reconciliation is in your best interests.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are both processes, not one time events. Take it slow, and have patience that God can make all things work for your good.
Have you struggled to forgive someone who is unrepentant? Have you ever had to set boundaries to keep you safe from an offender? How to you find the courage to forgive and/or reconcile? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!