The most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed is reconciliation between two hurting sinners. I am passionate about seeing broken relationships healed. But, what do we do with that broken relationship that haunts us? Is it ever okay to give up pursuing reconciliation with another person?
Well, it depends.
First, let’s define a few terms.
Human forgiveness does not depend on the attitudes or actions of the offender. When in conflict, an offended person can (and must) forgive the offender, even if the offender fails to repent or confess their sins. Why?
All of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven by God when we put our faith in Christ. Jesus secured our forgiveness through His perfect work on our behalf. As forgiven sinners, we are wealthy in grace. Our wealth is so vast, and our gratitude so deep, we can’t not settle the “debts” others owe us by extending forgiveness.
On account of the gospel, even massive debts of pain, loss, and grief can be settled from our own “bank account” of grace. Our grace accounts are so great that we will never miss the payments we make to set others free of the relational debts they owe us.
Reconciliation requires mutual repentance, confession, and forgiveness.
Not all relationships “break” as a result of conflict, therefore reconciliation (as defined above) is not always required. Conflict in which no one is harmed, and Christ’s reputation is not damaged, can be resolved when one person covers another person’s sin with love. Love in the form of unilateral forgiveness is sufficient to make the relationship whole again. We call this overlooking an offense. When a husband absent-mindedly leaves his shoes under the coffee table after agreeing to put them away, the irritated wife has it in her power to make whole the relationship by choosing to cover the offense with forgiveness, even in the absence of a conversation, by reminding herself of how much she has been forgiven in Christ.
When a relationship breaks because someone is harmed or Christ’s honor is damaged, reconciliation is necessary. Reconciliation requires both parties to recognize their sins and failures (repent), own their contributions to the conflict (confession), and forgive each other. A broken relationship cannot be made whole when only one (or neither) party takes responsibility or forgives. Reconciliation is not in the power of one person. It takes two people to reconcile a relationship.
Restoring a relationship is different than reconciling a relationship.
While reconciliation requires mutual repentance, confession, and forgiveness, restoration is a process of rebuilding trust, respect, and closeness in a relationship. Reconciliation and restoration have different goals with different paths. However, restoration requires sufficient reconciliation.
The illustration of a broken bone might be helpful to understand the difference between relational reconciliation and restoration. A broken bone must be “set” or returned to its proper place in order to heal properly. Some breaks are so serious that the break and the surrounding tissue damage require extensive intervention in order to bring the broken bone back into place. When the injured limb is finally in a position to heal, the protective cast is employed.
Reconciliation is like setting a broken bone and, when conflict is severe, reconnecting severed arteries or torn muscles. Restoration, on the other hand, is like placing a cast around the “reconciled” bone, providing the necessary time to heal, and employing physical therapy to regain the use of the injured limb.
It is unhelpful to attempt to restore what has not been reconciled. Counseling that focuses on restoring trust and respect, in the absence of reconciliation efforts, fails to be effective for people in significant conflict.
Make Every Effort
Believers are called to “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone…” (Hebrews 12:14). The apostle Paul instructs us that, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). How are we to live at peace?
Living at peace with others is hard work. It is also transformative. When we keep in mind the message of the gospel, God reconciled us to himself through Christ, we are inspired to see and own our sin, seek forgiveness, help others see and own their sin, and extend forgiveness. With God’s help, we are enabled to repent, confess, and forgive.
However, others with whom we find ourselves in conflict might not choose to join us in this God-honoring endeavor.
What Do We Do Then?
When we have done all we know to do to pursue reconciliation, and we have prayed and asked God for help, and we have repented and confessed our sin, and we have forgiven the person who has hurt us, and we have included others in the process to help promote reconciliation, and we have turned to our church for help, and we don’t know what else we can do… there is still one thing left to do.
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
Leaving room for God’s wrath is not washing our hands of the relationship, turning our back on the person, ceasing to be concerned for them, or hoping that God punishes them. Leaving room is an act of faith in the God who is always at work to grow us more into the likeness of Christ.
Leaving room is an act of hope in the God who delights in reconciliation, and might choose to work in other ways to promote repentance, confession, and forgiveness in the reluctant party.
Leaving room is an act of love when it is accompanied by a watchful and prayerful heart waiting for the “green light” to reengage our efforts to live at peace.
Join the Conversation
How could you apply these principles of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration to your life and relationships?