Forgiveness & Beyond

by Tim Isbell  11/2013 
#forgiveness #reconciliation 

When people ask me for advice about their lack of joy or peace of mind, sometimes I discover that it is the result of carrying an unresolved resentment or anger over a past hurt. It may have been the parent who abandoned us, a spouse who betrayed us, a family member, a co-worker, or someone else. Usually, the hurt occurred years earlier. The perpetrator may still be in our life - or far away, or even dead.

When I sense that resentment is the root, it's time to talk about forgiveness. In the process, it helps to differentiate forgiveness from reconciliation and restoration. Understanding these three concepts helps people begin a process to resolve their resentment and move on.

If you work with people who need to forgive a past hurt, or if you need to process a past hurt of your own, this web page is for you.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is when I release a wrongdoer from their offense. It is letting go of my thoughts of "getting even" or wishing bad fortune on the perpetrator. 

God expects us Christians to forgive those who hurt us, whether or not they confess, repent, or ask for forgiveness. We don't forgive because the perpetrator deserves it. We forgive because we received forgiveness. We experienced God's forgiveness, through Jesus, who took the initiative to provide it before we asked. While hanging on the cross, Jesus asked the Father to forgive the very people who were killing him. On that day I doubt that they had any feelings of guilt or shame; maybe they never did! But when we take the initiative to forgive we are in good company - we are in the company of Jesus.

The Apostle Paul wrote, Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive (Colossians 3.13 NRSV). As part of The Lord's Prayer Jesus teaches, For if you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6.14-15 NRSV).

I've talked with people who suffered a serious hurt 10 or more years before. Often the perpetrator is long gone. Regardless of the proximity or availability of the perpetrator, God wants his followers to forgive them. And God stands ready to help us do this.

Another reason to forgive is that carrying long-term resentment destroys our own peace of mind. Our resentment seldom impacts the perpetrator as much as it does us, but always has a destructive effect on us. Secular psychologists understood this long ago! 

The forgiveness test

Sometimes people ask me for help with a relationship problem and after listening for 30 minutes or so, I realize that their whole story is about some hurt from their distant past. Eventually, I find an opportunity to ask if they've forgiven the person. They usually say, "Yes, long ago."

When this happens, I share with them a test that helps me determine if I'm still harboring anger against someone. Here's the test: If you were to see the person come around the corner right now, would your heart wish them well? Or would it tighten up? If your heart's reaction is to wish them well, you've forgiven them. If not, you have some work to do.

The work of forgiving 

Jesus taught his followers to, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (Luke 6.27-28). This takes work. I learned that a key part of the work of forgiving is to pray for the person who hurt me. But how, exactly, does one do this? My advice is that before praying for God to enlighten the perpetrator, pray for God to bless them. One way to do this is to use the BLESS acronym to frame your prayers: 

  • Body - ask God to bless their physical needs.
  • Labor - ask God to bless their work or schoolwork.
  • Emotions - ask God to bless their emotions.
  • Social - ask God to bless their social interactions with friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors.
  • Spiritual - ask God to bless their spiritual life.

Another part of the work is to give God permission to change your heart toward the perpetrator - to make your heart beat like his heart with respect to that person.

These are two prayers that we know are in God's will. The work of forgiveness usually takes time. Depending on the depth of the hurt it may take weeks or months.

Reconciliation & Restoration

Reconciliation is a big step beyond forgiveness. Reconciliation is re-establishing a fruitful working relationship between victim and perpetrator. God does not necessarily expect reconciliation from his followers in every situation. To understand this, let's consider two examples.

The dishonest church treasurer 

Suppose the church treasurer stole money from a church, got caught, and sincerely confessed. Forgiveness means that the church accepts her confession and when leaders and parishioners see the ex-treasurer walk in the door their hearts wish her well.

Reconciliation is when a non-financial ministry opportunity arises that fits the gifts and graces of the ex-treasurer, the church offers it to her, and other parishioners are okay with it.  

Restoration means the church gives her back the checkbook, and she becomes the treasurer again!

My counsel to such a church is that God clearly expects the church to forgive, and likely expects the church to offer reconciliation, but God probably does not expect the church to reinstate her as the treasurer.

The abusive husband

Suppose a husband physically and emotionally abused his wife over many years and did so in full view of the children. Eventually, she leaves him and months later files for divorce. Then the husband apologizes, starts taking anger management classes, recommits his life to Christ, and promises that he will never abuse her again. 

Forgiveness is when the wife sees the husband come around the corner, her heart wishes him well. His change of heart makes forgiveness easier, but she needs to forgive him regardless.

Reconciliation might mean that when he comes to a kid's ballgame or drama performance at school, she sits with him. And they have civil and respectful conversations in public and especially around the kids. It means they can respectfully process financial issues such as the kids support needs (medical, education, and so on).

Restoration means they rebuild the marriage, and he moves back in with the family, including sharing the bedroom.

My counsel to the wife is that God expects her to forgive, and in most cases he expects her to be open to reconciliation. But most likely God does not expect her to restore the situation to a fully functional marriage.

The general rule in healthy Christian community is that God always expects us to forgive, but does not always expect us to reconcile or restore.

Forgiveness can happen unilaterally; reconciliation and restoration take the full participation of all parties. 

Summary

  • Forgiveness means letting go of the offense so that when we see the perpetrator come around the corner our heart wishes them well. God expects his followers to forgive, even when the perpetrator does not or cannot ask for it.
  • Reconciliation means re-establishing a healthy working relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. God does not require this from the victim, though in many cases with a truly repentant perpetrator God will help bring this to completion.
  • Restoration means going back to the very arrangement from in which the hurt occurred. God does not require this in our relations with others. But he offers complete restoration to us in his relationship with us. (For more on the concept of God's offer of full reconciliation to us, check out Fully Reconciled Apprentices.)


Acknowledgement

Lewis Smedes' book Forgive and Forget taught me a lot about forgiveness and reconciliation. I've recommended it to countless people over the years. If you are teaching on the topic of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, or if you are struggling with this issue in your life, I highly recommend this book. It is short, simple, and very helpful.

My editor and wife, Robin, helped me see and separate the concept of reconciliation into two concepts: reconciliation and restoration.


Blessings,

Tim

(for notes on a sermon I preached in 1992 on this topic, click on Forgiveness)

(edited with Grammarly)


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