Back when I was getting out of my own abusive marriage, I binge-watched Patrick Doyle on the Dove YouTube channel (no longer available). There was one that was particularly helpful in explaining the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation called How Reconciliation Works (again, no longer available.)
This is a subject a lot of Christians are confused about. I know I was.
Here’s the conventional Christian way of thinking:
When someone does something that is hurtful to you, you need to forgive and be good buddies anyway. Even if they aren’t sorry or continue to hurt you, your job is to overlook a multitude of sins, turn the other cheek, and never keep a record of wrongs.
That’s what the Bible says, right?
The only trouble is the Bible says a lot of other things about relationships too. And depending on what’s going on, we will need to respond in wisdom using all of the Word of God as our guide. Not just small parts.
Especially not the small parts that people sometimes use as weapons to control and subdue others.
Patrick begins by pointing out something that was been a game-changer for me. And it’s this: Forgiveness doesn’t = reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things.
We can forgive those who sin against us, but forgiveness is something that takes place between the one who has been hurt and God.
Did you catch that? Because I had to pause for a minute and wrap my brain around it.
When someone hurts me, I go to God and work out the forgiveness part. Not the other person. I forgive, not to set the other person free – only God can save people.
I forgive because God wants to set ME free!
This issue was always confusing to me because I thought forgiveness was letting the other person off the hook. Like, they could do something nasty toward me, and I’d forgive them. “Oh, no problemo. I forgive you. Dude, it’s all good.”
And then they’d do something else nasty, and I’d forgive them. “Hey man, it’s okay. Just walk all over me with your crap-caked boots. My name is Creamy Shag Carpet.”
They never had to be sorry. They never had to change. As long as I was doing my Christian duty, they could do whatever they wanted to.
And all of this was supposed to eventually cause a metamorphosis in the other person and give God glory.
So if forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation, then what is reconciliation, and when do we do it?
Reconciliation is when you take a damaged relationship and heal it. When people go through the reconciliation process right, the relationship has the potential to be even stronger than it was before.
Conversely, when the reconciliation process is circumvented by well-meaning but “patch-it-up-quick” folks, the hurt party can become resentful over time, and the relationship isn’t healed; it’s more deeply damaged.
Reconciliation is not a requirement. It’s the desired outcome, but it can only truly take place when four things have happened:
One: The Offender is Convicted by God
How many times do we take things into our own hands and try to play the part of the Holy Spirit?
Both of my hands are raised.
Because putting pressure on someone to be convicted is a wasted effort. It’s not even real conviction.
The person may go through hoops to get you to calm down or go back to the status quo, but they will never, ever, ever, ever change because you pressured them to change.
Ever. So why try?
Conviction is a work of the Holy Spirit, so let Him do it. And if the other person is never convicted of their sin, that’s an important piece of information about their spiritual health that will help you make future decisions about your relationship with them.
Don’t ignore it or make light of it. To never be convicted is serious business.
When a person is convicted by God about his/her sin, they are convicted about specifics, not generalities.
Has anyone ever said to you, “I’m sorry I hurt you all these years” and then expect you to forgive and forget? All is well – let’s move on?
As I tell my kids, “Sorry Charlie, but sorry doesn’t cut it.” A person who is convicted by the Holy Spirit will be remorseful over the specific things they have done without anyone else telling them what those things are!
So it’s never going to go like this: “Hey, just tell me what I did wrong! I’m sorry! I SAID I WAS SORRY! How am I supposed to know what I did wrong if you don’t tell me?”
That is not Holy Spirit inspired. That isn’t a person who has any self-awareness or insight into his/her effect on others.
When we hurt someone, we need to humble ourselves and own our sin. God says “a broken and contrite heart I will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
Contrition is brokenness over sin. It recognizes that I have failed. I have no rights. I’m wrong. I will take responsibility and change my behavior.
Without this conviction piece, you won’t be able to reconcile with them. Patrick Doyle puts it this way: “There is no hope for reconciliation.” Think about it logically. Is the relationship healed when the offender refuses to repent?
This next part was my Big Lesson in 2015, and God had been trying to teach me this for three decades. I’m a slow learner. I knew it intellectually before 2015, but I didn’t believe it in my heart.
Here is the lesson, and it has two parts: what the offended should never do and what the offended must do.
- The one who is offended must never become the convicter. They need to quit going to the other person in an attempt to deal with them. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.
- The one who is offended absolutely must put the relationship on the altar and be willing to let it go.
Patrick says “The most loving thing you can do to an offender is give them a boundary.” When you give an unrepentant offender a boundary, they fling their stuff on you and go running in the other direction!
So you have to be willing to say goodbye. Until you are, you’ll be stuck trying to make it work by yourself, and that will mean pretending, placating, avoiding, and stuffing.
Do you think that’s a real relationship?
I’ve idolized people, and I’ve wanted their love and approval more than I wanted God and His approval. I had to have the acceptance and even admiration of others.
In my closest relationships since childhood, I have not been willing to let go. I have not wanted to detach. There was something broken in me that had to hang on to those relationships even though I was being used, and they were destructive.
And I loved God desperately! But you see, He sees our hearts, and He knew I didn’t love Him as desperately as I loved approval and acceptance. He wants all of us. Every corner of our being. The wide-open spaces and the dark hidden crevices.
I’m not sure I could make all of this click on my own. I tried, and I couldn’t “get it.” But finally, God flipped on the light switch, and everything fell into place. It made sense, and now I was ready. I let go. Really and truly. And I was FREE! But it did have to be a God-given empowerment. God-given courage.
It’s been several years now since I let go, and those years have progressively moved me in a new, healthier direction in all of my relationships. It has also helped me see more clearly what to keep and what to let go of.
Did I only cover one step? This is getting too long. The next step is all about how you can tell if someone is really sorry.
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