I assume in this post that all parties are Christian believers. Reconciliation with an unbeliever can, of course, happen, and should, but it is done a little differently and I don’t intend to write about that.
By the command of Jesus, when we sin against someone or someone sins against us it is not enough just to seek our own healing. At some point we must be truly concerned about the other party as well. When we are, the measure of healing when it is achieved can often be multiplied beyond our best imagining, and we see the grace of God working powerfully.
Seeking forgiveness from God is comparatively easy. Even a sacramental confession, scary as it can be, has a dependable outcome. One can always trust God to love and forgive, and (in this life) we know that we don’t really have to face him directly. Seeking forgiveness from another person, however, immerses us in a thorny real-life application of what we claim to profess. This can be very risky because (1) we DO have to face someone directly and (2) there is no guarantee or assurance, as there is with God, of a “happy outcome”.
I must add quickly, though, that whenever I have sought reconciliation with another person, or another person has done so with me, it has invariably been an easy and rewarding experience. The only hard part is thinking about it first.
I think there are four main reasons why people may choose a course other than reconciliation whenever they have sinned against another person, or been sinned against: pain, fear, anger, and pride. All of these are very powerful and can influence even devout believers, causing a detour from the way that Jesus has commanded us to follow. They must be overcome before reconciliation can take place.
For example, this is how pride affects those who are sinned against: there can be a kind of sweet, contrary pleasure in being wronged, because it creates an illusion of power over another and produces a false sense of “rightness” in oneself at suffering an injustice: it is easy to think, “I am better than the person who wronged me.” I confess there are times that I have felt this masquerade pleasure and have given it up only reluctantly. When I did so, a genuine pleasure immediately followed.
Reconciliation does not, cannot, and should not mean that a relationship will go back to the way it was. The past can be redeemed, but not changed or treated as if it didn’t exist. “Forgive and forget” is a secular saying; it is not Christian. “Forgetting” is not part of genuine forgiveness. The saying becomes Christian when it means “forgive and then allow the sin no more power to continue a rupture in your relationship”—i.e., “forgive and let it go.”
Reconciliation can mean either rebuilding and strengthening a relationship or closure with a measure of peace. That is, in reconciliation a relationship that has been damaged by sin can be renewed with greater strength and power than would have been possible before, or it can come to a peaceful, if poignant, end with the assurance that there is no unfinished business.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are processes; they often take place over a span of time rather than in an instant. Sometimes the span of time needs to be long. One can ask for, or grant, forgiveness too soon. Doing so may mean that one wants an illusion of peace without allowing oneself or the other party an opportunity to do the necessary work. For forgiveness to be full, it must be freely, completely, and knowingly given. To ask for it, or grant it, too soon is not really to know it in its richness; it is to settle for an “easy fix”. Sometimes it can take fifteen or twenty or more years to ask for or grant forgiveness.
Sometimes time is needed just because one or both parties need to mature to the point where they are able to address the process of forgiveness and reconciliation sufficiently and properly. Adults who were abused as children, for example, need adult maturity to process and understand the issues involved before any forgiveness they offer can have full richness.
I remember being told of a woman who had been severely abused in childhood for years by her mother. Eventually the woman came into contact with a certain Episcopal Bishop (who told me the story himself). Through the Bishop’s ministrations the woman eventually chose to release the harm done to her by her mother and forgive her. As soon as she did so, her mother—who had long been estranged from her daughter and lived across the country from her—suddenly felt a great burden lifted from her. In the power of the abrupt lightening in her soul, she sought out her daughter and the two were movingly reconciled.
The one who asks for forgiveness may need a long time to prepare for the request, but the one who is asked to grant it may be taken by surprise and therefore be unprepared to do so. I have sought out people against whom I had sinned twenty years before, and others have sought me out after many years. In these cases asking for or granting forgiveness has invariably been a rich and exhilarating, liberating experience, but it took those years for both parties to be ready to do what needed to be done. A delay longer than necessary, however, can multiply hurt, sorrow, and damage more than necessary. It is always sin that is messy— forgiveness and reconciliation are just about always simple, deep, energizing, and powerful.
There was a time when I took a severely injured party to meet with the offender more than two decades after the offense, when even two therapists strongly counseled against it. The offended party, however, decided to follow my suggestion and as it turned out, there was gratifying reconciliation—not perfect or complete, by any means, but a good beginning that eventually involved others. The injured party decided to risk much for the possibility of much greater reward—and got it.
Sometimes it takes the immanence of death to bring about the right opportunity. I know personally of someone who had caused grief and sorrow to her family for many years. When she was dying, she hung on until her husband said, “I forgive you.” A tear fell and a peaceful death followed shortly afterwards.
In this blogpost I have not considered the effects of ancillary relationships that parties in a broken relationship have. They also heavily influence the course of sin, injury, forgiveness, and love. That is, whenever a bond between two people has been damaged by sin, all the other relationships both parties have, both past and present, influence the course of what happens next. “Family of origin” issues and the present counsel of friends and advisors all contribute either to further estrangement or reconciliation.
Even a brief glance at the personalities in “Romeo and Juliet”, just to pick a well-known example, shows the truth of this quite handily. And these observations are just the barest beginning of real-life complications that I have seen all too frequently, or been a party to. I will not take the time here to share my reflections on the complexities of these issues. It is beyond the scope of this blogpost to look further at this element in dealing with sin and forgiveness, but it is important to point out that, regardless of the influences other people have in our lives, ultimately each individual must decide personally what he or she is going to do about the estrangement that a sin has brought about, and only the individuals who are most affected by the sin have the power to tip the scales—friends and advisors do not have that much power unless we give it to them.
Over all, in the universe of glory and the boundless ocean of God’s love, is it not obvious that even the worst sins are like dust motes? What will the relationship be like in heaven between Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the persecutor Paul who consented to his murder? It is inconceivable that there would be bad blood between them. Do we not see from this that any sin can be forgiven—not only by God but by the offended party as well? —that what is complicated on Earth becomes the easiest and most natural thing when we do things God’s way? Can we not see that the sole “unforgivable” sin—the “sin against the Holy Spirit”—is eternally refusing the unutterably consoling and life-giving love that God endlessly offers his people, of which forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of sinners is an essential facet?