What do we do when a relationship is fractured by an offense? How do we find forgiveness and reconciliation?
And what do we do when we are faced with the problem of the unrepentant offender that will not or has not reconciled to us.
We might even question God, saying, “Do I have to forgive them? Am I required to reconcile to them when they are unrepentant and still actively offending me?”
First, these are two separate issues. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Listen to the definitions of these two words (Paraphrased from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):
Forgiveness – The state of having given up resentment or claim to requital from an offender. To have granted relief from payment or indebtedness by an offender.
Reconciliation – The act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement. To have restored a friendship or partnership, so that harmony is regained.
With these definitions in mind, we may understand that the Bible offers different, yet related, instructions for forgiveness and reconciliation. Let’s restate the two questions, offering brief answers followed by biblical support:
- Is forgiveness of others required? Answer: Yes, always.
- Is reconciliation with others required? Answer: The attempt is required. The outcome is not.
Forgiveness is always required. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he taught them to say, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). If we don’t forgive, how can we pray the way the Lord taught us? We can’t.
We are always to forgive because God has forgiven us. We forgive whether the offender asks for it or not. Forgiveness is drawn from the limitless supply given to us in Christ. As the apostle Paul told the Ephesians,
Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Forgiveness is the grace that oils the grinding gears of our human relationships. It keeps us right with one another as Christ has made us right with God.
Reconciliation is to be attempted (Unless it is either unwise or impossible due to circumstance). The truth is, we can forgive someone without them even being in the same room. But it takes both parties sitting at the same table to reconcile. We should attempt to reconcile, but we cannot determine the response of the other party. The only outcome we can control is our own attempt at peace. As the apostle Paul told the Romans,
Romans 12:18 (NIV) If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
What does an attempt at reconciliation look like? We have the teaching of Jesus to help us with this. He gave very specific instructions, I’m sure knowing that we would need it often. The following Scripture passage is often used by church leaders to help an offending member be reconciled, but a careful reading reminds us that it is addressed first to the one who was personally offended.
Matthew 18:15-22 (ESV) 15“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 21Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Here is a summary of the steps Jesus taught for finding reconciliation with one who has offended us:
- Go privately to the person and name the offense. If you are reconciled, then you have found harmony again. This offense is not to be named again. But if not..
- Go again with a witness.The witness should come from your common fellowship (church, family, friends, etc.), showing that the offense affects a larger body of people. Notice, that the Lord is still advising us to limit the number of people that know about this. We are not trying to punish the offender by exposing his sin. We are trying to help him repent and be restored to fellowship. But if he will not repent and be restored…
- Tell it to a common fellowship (“Church” is the translation of “ekklesia,” which could also be translated “assembly”). If this does not involve a church member, perhaps the gathered assembly might be your family or circle of common friends. In this case, you are letting the others in your common fellowship know that the offender refuses to reconcile.
- Break fellowship with the unrepentant offender. You are basically allowing them to have what they have chosen. They have been made aware that continued offense without repentance and reconciliation has led to this break of fellowship. Now they are to be released. Yet, we must be ready to welcome them back, if they desire to return and repent.
Notice that all of these meetings are to be in person (Not texting, emailing, phoning, etc.) Notice again, that in verses 21-22 that Jesus taught us to forgive as many times as needed, but He did not teach that we have to stay in relationship with an unrepentant offender. Forgiveness is our Christian duty. We must always forgive. But sometimes we have to forgive without being able to reconcile.
Christ’s death and resurrection are God’s means of forgiveness for all of humanity, yet not everyone is reconciled to God. Many remain separated from Him. I’m sure that this grieves the heart of God because for His part, He has done all, in Christ, to make things right between us.
We are to be like God in this. We are to do all that we can to reconcile, but sometimes the only way to find peace is to let the person go their own way. Yet always praying for them that the possibility for reconciliation may someday come.
(I’m aware that this is a brief response to a very complicated issue. There are often extenuating circumstances that I did not address in this article.)