Over the years I have wrestled with the concept and practice of reconciliation. I’ve had to ask for forgiveness more than a handful of times in my life (and by that, I mean often) but that has not always led to reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are often linked in our practice and our understanding and yet they are distinctly different. God is in the business of both forgiveness and reconciliation and he has called us to be a part of it.
1 Corinthians 5:18-20 says, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
Our work as ambassadors begins with pointing people to forgiveness in Christ Jesus and practicing that forgiveness with those around us. So how can we be ambassadors of reconciliation? Is it enough to forgive--do we also need to reconcile?
We've all had arguments and misunderstandings that have led to failed relationships. Some of these relationships experienced forgiveness while others drifted off like mist. I have had to ask for forgiveness as well as give it, and yet many of those relationships did not end in the restoration of the relationship. It seems more often than not that I have failed at reconciliation. In some cases we both moved on with our lives. In some instances the “moving on” was easy because we didn’t live near each other any longer. In some cases we did not actually forgive, we just tried to ignore the hurt and push through with the relationship, but it never worked. It was more like both of us were trying to sweep it under the rug or shove it into a closet, never to be opened again. But we both knew the rug had a lump in it that would cause us to stumble and never should we open the closet lest we die from the avalanche of hurt. Real forgiveness needs to happen for relationships to heal and for there to be any chance of genuine reconciliation.
Ignoring our relationship hurts is not only unhealthy but it’s not the way we, as believers, are designed to live. Relationships are important to our identity as image bearers of God. To be created in the “image of God” (Gen 1:27) is to be relational in every sense of the word. God himself exists in the fellowship of the trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our relational God calls us to do life with one another in all its ups and downs. We are blessed when we realize the impact of investing in the lives of one another. Fractured relationships don’t mend on their own. We say “time heals” but time itself doesn’t change anything. It is not the time that heals, but what we do with the time. Time spent in anger just exacerbates our brokenness and drives a wedge into our relationships. Time spent turning our hurts over to God and learning to forgive brings healing.
Many of us find ourselves saying that, “We’ve forgiven so-and-so for what they have done” and yet we actually have not let go of the pain and anger. I'm sure many of us also have said “they have forgiven me” but then we still wonder if they have actually forgiven us. Being unsure about the status of the relationship may be an indicator that our relationship is not yet healed and we still have some work to do. As people created for relationship what we desperately want is the healing that we experience through forgiveness and reconciliation.
So how do forgiveness and reconciliation differ? Forgiveness is putting aside our anger and allowing God to be in charge of justice. Forgiveness is giving up your right to be vindicated. Forgiveness allows us to be in the same room with someone who has hurt us without being angry. When we forgive we no longer desire to throw daggers, but instead we can wish the other person well. Reconciliation differs in that it involves a healing repair of the relationship. We can forgive an abuser while establishing boundaries that prevent abuse from continuing. In reconciliation, we embrace one another again with love and hope. One of the significant differences between forgiveness and reconciliation is that we can forgive without reconciling but we cannot reconcile without forgiving. We should strive for healing and reconciliation as God calls us to be reconciled with one another (Ephesians 2:14-18), even while we recognize that it is not always possible on this side of heaven.
Jesus gave instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 for how to respond when someone sins against us. The steps he gives have the goal of working toward restoration. We address the situation one on one and then bring in a third party if there is no repentance. If the offender is still unwilling to repent, then there are boundaries put in place to protect ourselves and others. This may even mean a severing of the relationship, where you are no longer aligned but instead pray for them as you would for any lost sinner.
We are not obligated to maintain broken relationships. Some relationships will not and should not be reconciled. It is unhealthy to put yourself back into a situation where you have been abused and your trust has been repeatedly violated. It is unrealistic to hope for a restored relationship when someone is in bondage to their addiction or mental illness. In these cases, reconciliation is going to be dependent on God’s actions and we can still look forward to it on the other side of heaven. Although a relationship may remain unreconciled, with God’s help we can still forgive one another and stop carrying anger. We can hold these broken people up in prayer asking for God to transform their hearts and lives, because we know that all things are eventually going to be made right through the redemptive blood of Christ Jesus.The cross of Christ plays a major role in our lives as Christians.
Scripture tells us repeatedly that Christ’s death and resurrection have brought us forgiveness for our sins. We sin against God, each other, and ourselves each and every day. But when we confess those sins, we are not only forgiven but we are reconciled back into fellowship with God. Christ through his work upon the cross (2 Corinthians 5:18; Romans 5:10), atoned, washed clean, and restored us into fellowship with God. In the cross God forgives and also restores us. The cross becomes the hinge on the door of grace.
As the father embraced his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), so God, in his faithful love, sees us and comes running in full embrace enveloping us in his love. Even though we’ve hurt him his love and mercy washes over us. The encouragement from God is that we should strive for reconciliation whenever it is possible. We should seek to forgive but also to embrace, love, and be reconciled. We read in Hebrews 12:14 that we are to strive for peace and seek holiness. Holy living requires that we deal with our anger in constructive ways instead of sweeping it under the rug only to trip back over it later. We acknowledge our hurts and follow the path to reconciliation that Jesus gave us in Matthew 18.
So let us reconcile our struggles with reconciliation knowing that scripture is the redemptive story of God's love for his fallen and broken people. Let us move past merely hoping our anger and differences dissipate on their own. Instead let us fight our fears, move past our discomfort, to seek the healing of broken relationships. Let us strive to be the community that God calls us to be. Jesus prayed in John 17:23 saying, “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Fellowship is important to God-–so let it become important to us.