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 unresolved resentment or anger over 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. 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 still harbor anger against someone. Here's the test: If I see the person come around the corner right now, would my heart wish them well? Or would it tighten up? If my heart's reaction is to wish them well, I've forgiven them. If not, I 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 my heart toward the perpetrator - to make my heart beat like God's heart with respect to that person.

These are two prayers that I 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 his confession and when leaders and parishioners see the ex-treasurer walk in the door their hearts wish him 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 him, and other parishioners encourage him in it.  

Restoration means the church trusts him with the treasurer's job again!

My counsel to such a church is that God expects the church to forgive, and eventually offer reconciliation. Further, I think God at least hopes for the restoration of the treasurer's role. It's part of the church modeling life as citizens of heaven in full view of the surrounding culture.

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, takes an anger management class, recommits his life to Christ, and promises that he will never abuse her again. 

Forgiveness occurs when the wife sees the husband come around the corner and 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 school performance, she sits with him. 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. In many cases, I think God at least hopes for a full restoration of the marriage as part of Christians modeling life as citizens of heaven in full view of the surrounding culture.

The general rule within a healthy Christian community is that God always hoping for restoration. But, especially when one of the parties is outside of Christian faith, God still expects the Christian to forgive. 

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

Summary


Basis

Test

Value

Forgiveness

We forgive because we’ve been forgiven.

When the forgiven comes around the corner, the forgiver’s heart wishes them well.

  • We need to forgive for our own psychological health.

  • It blesses the community.

  • It offers a positive witness to the unchurched.

Reconciliation

God offers us reconciliation.

The forgiver welcomes the forgiven to participate alongside them within the community, except in areas of an infraction.

All the above plus:

  • It redeploys the gifts and graces of to the community.

  • It further showcases God’s ways to the unchurched.

Restoration

God offers us full restoration.

The forgiver welcomes the forgiven to participate alongside them in any part of the community.

All the above plus:

  • It radically blesses the community.

  • It radically showcases God’s ways to the unchurched by fully living out the way of the future Kingdom in this world for all to see.

Acknowledgment

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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