Peter Hynes charts the steps we must take from being wronged to forgiveness and reconciliation.
The journey of forgiveness
by Peter Hynes
We have all heard it said that time and distance heals many wounds. But in reality, both are often very poor healers, because they leave deep, infected wounds that fester. The harm might feel trivial to an outsider—“Your father forgot we were supposed to meet at the restaurant after his work to celebrate your birthday, and went home instead”—but for the teenage birthday boy, it is just further proof that his father really doesn’t care for him.
With such wounds, we all know that it isn’t easy to forgive someone. Sadly, our society and even our churches don’t do this very well. But whether the hurt be physical, emotional or spiritual, if it is left uncared for, one or both parties can get stuck in a broken relationship, unable to move on.
As Christians, one thing we know is that the gospel is very demanding. In comparison, our natural tendency is to be quick to curtail its demands in order to give us some breathing space. However, when it comes to forgiveness, Jesus never allows us to get comfortable: in the Lord’s Prayer, he requires Christians to forgive unconditionally: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). So as we consider the topic of forgiveness, we know that somewhere in the process, there must be repentance, and that the goal should always be reconciliation and restoration. But what do these words actually mean? What are their boundaries? And how do they fit together?
1. Acknowledging the wrong
First of all, in forgiveness, reconciliation is required because there has been breakdown in the relationship between two entities. In order to bring about reconciliation, there must be an acknowledgement of the wrong and agreement of its precise nature between the two parties. Each side needs to know what they are forgiving or what they need to repent of.
If the parties don’t agree on this, the only other possibility of reconciliation is turning a blind eye. This is very common when we choose to ignore the other person’s wrongdoing and, instead, say, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). We may choose to do this with “small” offences—particularly if we want to continue to live in harmony with the offender.
But what about occasions when the offended party doesn’t realise they have been wronged, or is no longer around? For the offender, it can be torture to live with a guilty conscience. So, naturally, we might seek to cover up our sin (for example, through rationalising, excusing or justifying ourselves) and not reveal it. But if we are still secretly engaging in such practices (for example, viewing pornography or engaging in an adulterous affair), even if it’s hidden, our sin will manifest itself in other ways (for example, a strained relationship with our spouse).
The difficulty here is how to deal with guilt: how can it be removed if there is no forgiveness or possibility of forgiveness?
2. Forgive unconditionally, repent unconditionally
For the Christian, depending on whether they are the perpetrator or the victim, after acknowledging the wrong, they must either forgive or repent. Furthermore, such forgiveness or repentance must be unconditional, without expecting that the other person will also forgive or repent. True forgiveness and repentance find their proper starting point with God, for with all sin, he is the primary offended party. Christians forgive because God has forgiven us far more than any wrong done to us. David is a prime example of this: after having committed adultery and murder, he said to God in Psalm 51, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (v. 4). Of course, his sin wasn’t just against God, and he knew that; rather, when he finally realised the magnitude of what he had done to the most glorious and holy God, his sin against man appeared trivial in comparison. God forgave him (2 Sam 12:13)—something David did not forget for the rest of his life.
However, in human relationships, it’s rare that the offence is exclusively one-sided; there is usually a pattern of escalation—of responding, of refusing to take responsibility for our actions, but instead preferring to blame it on another. (See, for example, Genesis 3:12-13, where Adam blames his sin on Eve, then Eve blames the serpent.) But if we bring God into the picture, it helps us see that we are ultimately responsible for what we do and how we respond, and we are therefore in a better position to forgive or repent unconditionally.
3. Reconciliation and reparation
That said, forgiveness must not be equated with turning a blind eye; we mustn’t oppose forgiveness and punishment. The story of Achan in Joshua 7 reveals that repentance doesn’t dispense with punishment: God knew from the beginning what Achan did, and in his gentleness, he brings Achan to acknowledge his sin. Yet this doesn’t mean Achan avoids the penalty. Quite the contrary! But it does set the scene for God to act out his justice without appearing harsh.
The offence may also have a civil or spiritual dimension that cannot be ignored. If the offender has broken a law (civil or divine), they will have to face the consequences for that too. It’s important to remember that the forgiveness offered by the victim doesn’t free the offender from the required penalty.
Furthermore, if a wrong has been committed, something must be done to repair the material and emotional damage, and to restore justice and truth, as well as the relationship. Perhaps the offender reimburses the victim for what has been stolen over the course of an agreed schedule. Or the offender pays for any repairs resulting from the inflicted damage. In any offence, the offended party must be allowed to obtain from the offender what is needed for them to rebuild their lives.
Forgiveness and repentance are about dealing with our emotions—our internal animosity. They are about not letting the offence become our identity. They are about taking responsibility for what happened to us, or for what we did, and, more importantly, for what we are going to do about it.
But sadly, we must accept that, for some relationships, full reconciliation and restoration may not happen this side of eternity. Nevertheless, even though the grieving or the consequences may continue for a long time, they will not continue into eternity, and for that we can be thankful.