Forgiving Versus Reconciling

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Many choose to forgive because forgiveness has benefits for the forgiver. Forgiveness is a canceling of a “debt”. One can choose to forgive so that anger doesn’t destroy one’s own sense of well-being, though this may require a grieving process. To forgive is to release oneself from an expectation that another person has to fulfill some requirement or redeem the relationship. It is no longer holding in hostility. Restoring the relationship, though, is a step further. A Biblical example of reconciliation, the restoring of proper relationship, is forgiveness and repentance. Repentance is a u-turn involving a realization of the impact of a wrong, full remorse, a commitment to change, and actual behavioral changes over time.

Seeing the impact of your behavior on another when there has been hurt is difficult. We are called to have a clear view of our actions (1 John 1:8). The Bible describes repentance as a knowledge of truth (2 Timothy 2:25-26). Understanding the full impact of one’s actions requires compassion and patient excavation of the hurt person’s experience and emotion. Only that person can say when he or she feels understood.

Healthy frustration and sorrow over one’s actions sets the stage for legitimate change. The Bible distinguishes between sorrow that leads to valuable change and sorrow that destroys. Paul writes, “For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (1 Corinthians 7:9-10). Sorrow without change leads to depression, anxiety and addictions.

The first fruit of change is planning change. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). What internal changes are needed to make long-lasting external change? Producing fruit requires growth and learning to fully understand the emotions that drive unhealthy outcomes. An honest look at these “unacceptable” feelings requires a relationship that can accept those feelings and one’s failures so that the usual patterns of avoidance are disrupted. This is called grace, and is the only way to grow. Otherwise, instead of pruning and growing, one cuts down the tree. (The Bible uses this metaphor for judgment).

Finally, repentance is proven by change (Acts 26:20). It is making agreements and building trust by keeping those agreements. The Bible says let your “yes” be “yes” and “no” be “no” so that honest agreements will be kept (Matthew 5:37). A covenant represents honest intentions for a renewed relationship. “Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us” (Genesis 31:44).

While humans continue to fail, remorse and grace can lead to reconciliation by caring about the impact of one’s behavior, making personal changes that lead to lasting changes, and re-working honest agreements for the future. “Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you (Isaiah 54:10). God is able to forgive and reconcile based on repentance simultaneously, while we may have to separate the two processes.

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