There is a big, big difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Most people don’t understand this. What’s more, this confusion explains why so many intelligent people have so much trouble forgiving people who hurt them.
As we have explained in the past, forgiveness is the act of intentionally letting go of a grudge or offense, and refusing to roast the offender over the flames of resentment deep in your heart for years to come. Forgiveness does not wait for the offender to repent. The Lord Jesus Christ forgave the people who conspired to crucify him even as they mocked him from the safety of the mob. Forgiveness is something I do for God and myself: refusing to waste even an ounce of my creative energies keeping someone locked in a dungeon in my mind. I don’t have to forget the offense or pretend it doesn’t matter: I simply give up my right to feel like a victim with a grudge simmering on the back burner.
In sharp contrast, reconciliation goes far beyond forgiveness. That’s why it requires repentance and genuine change. To be reconciled is to restore the offender to the place he or she held previously in my life. It means to welcome the offending spouse back home; to return to family gatherings with siblings who once excluded me; to relax and enjoy a friendship with someone who once said something unkind about me.
Here’s how the pieces fit together: if my investment banker squanders the funds I have entrusted to his care, it would be good for me to forgive and refuse to hate. I would still be able to testify against him and allow a jury to convict him. If he is sentenced to prison, it will protect others. And even if he never goes to prison, I would be under no scriptural obligation to entrust my funds to him again. Forgiveness does not require injustice or recklessness. If the investment banker was also a good friend of mine as well, reconciliation would require that I restore him as a friend- not as my banker!
The familiar story of the prodigal son, in Luke 15, is about forgiveness, but true reconciliation is not possible even in the parable. Granted, the father has already forgiven the lad by the time he returns home; and the repentant young man does indeed receive a cordial welcome. But don’t miss an important fact: he can never again be an heir. As observed in Luke 15:31, he has already squandered his share of the inheritance. What remains belongs to the older brother.
Reconciliation must restore the original relationship; hence, it’s not always possible. Forgiveness means only that I refuse to play the victim any longer; that I release all my rage and resentment against someone who has behaved badly. Forgiveness is good for my blood pressure and for my spiritual health: it frees God to continue forgiving me.
Next time, we’ll look at the steps to reconciliation. In the meantime, lift up the cross!