Forgiveness or Reconciliation – Understanding the Difference

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A misunderstanding of forgiveness can keep you from receiving the desired resolution to the hurts you have suffered.

Some people continue to allow others to harm them because they wrongly believe that, to be loving and forgiving, they must keep giving in to the other person’s demands or lifestyle. Other people avoid forgiveness due to the fear that it requires a lowering their boundaries and allowing the person to hurt them again.

Such misconceptions takes place due to not understanding the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. God is clear that we always need to forgive, but He is also clear that you cannot always reconcile with the person who hurt you. You may recall my mentioning in another post God’s instructions in Matthew 18 on dealing with someone who harms you. In verse 15, He says that we are to confront those who harm us, clearly letting them know how they wronged us so that they will have a definite opportunity to change and make things right. However, in verse 17, God describes that, after a process of varying attempts to allow the harmful person to make a life change, it is spiritually and morally correct to distance yourself from a person who continues to harm you. When you have a clear understanding of this resolution process, and of the definitions of forgiveness and reconciliation, it (1) frees you from the past to move forward and (2) releases you from the guilt one usually feels from breaking off a relationship.

Learning to have a voice and speak of how you were wronged to those you trust as well as to the person who harmed you is an important part of personal growth and establishing boundaries.

Let’s take a slight detour and focus on why you need to be able to express your personal boundaries as well as violations to them. ACC, referenced below, says that confronting a person who wronged us was considered a positive action even under Mosaic law and that the Jews had a saying that the ruin of a nation was caused by not confronting the person who harms other people, “No man reproving another.” It is easy to see how the complete breakdown of relationships, families, and all social structures are described as stemming from not confronting a destructive person. Such action is not taken out of ill-will or hatred, but with the desire of restoration of the relationship. Restoration may not be possible, but the voicing of the harm done to you is necessary for your own well-being. Look at these 3 translations of Lev. 19:17 in the Mosaic law.

-You shall not hate your brother in your heart but you shall surely rebuke your him lest you incur sin because of him. AMP

-Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke him frankly so you will not share in his guilt. NIV

-Let there be no hate in your heart for your brother; but you may make a protest to your neighbor, so that he may be stopped from doing evil. BBE

God’s Scriptural guidelines on confronting a harmful person are still effective for us in modern culture.

After doing research on this passage from Matthew 18, I was so impressed with how the accurately Scriptural instructions to dealing with a harmful person still apply in modern culture that I want to share with you the research from these two sources. Let me briefly list the process and then share the detailed commentary on it.

1. Privately speak to the person who harmed you and explain why their words or actions were a violation of your boundaries and socially acceptable behavior. [The exception to this would be if you are in a situation were physical harm is possible.]

2. If the destructive person does not desire to make a lifestyle change after this initial discussion, take 2 or 3 people of credibility who are familiar with the situation to again speak to the person in hopes of restoration. [This is similar to family members confronting the person before taking the matter outside the family.]

3. If the person with harmful behavior still feels no remorse and motivation to change, one last attempt is made by a group of credible people to again explain the violations of the boundaries and the need for change for healing to take place in the relationships. In Scriptural context, this is referring to a group of church leaders such as the pastor and elders. This is actually comparable to doing what is termed an Intervention in our culture, where you have family, credible friends, and a therapist as a group sit down and reason with the destructive person.

4. If all attempts fail, Scripture says that the person is to be treated as “a Publican or tax collector,” meaning that you should no longer have social interaction with the person due to their decision to continue a destructive lifestyle. Publicans and tax collectors were people that Jews did not have social interaction with due to their lack of moral character.


This is a paraphrase of comments on the Matthew 18 passage by Adam Clarke’s Commentary, as it was written in old English.

Note that first there is a public step to solve a private dispute. Men capable of injuring their fellow man are often so hardened that they reject the kindest expostulation [The effort to reason earnestly with someone in an effort to correct them.] If a person acts in this way, shall we give him up? No, we must make an internal effort: Tell it to the group. The whole assembly must hear the situation, and they plead with him. He is to have the opportunity of hearing the judgment and advice of the group. Should this last attempt fail, he must be considered incapable of being corrected. The brother is then left to himself. We desire a person’s deliverance from a destructive life. In all probability, the obstinate person will ridicule the action of the group, and yet there is some possibility that he will be led to a change of heart and mind. Nothing is done vindictively, but with the purpose of setting the person right. The harmful person who will not be reconciled incurs much guilt by resisting the attempts of love.

In the Matthew Henry Commentary, he makes another valid point. As in the Matthew 18 passage and others, Scripture recommends that if someone in a church group has harmful behavior, use this process to try to resolve it within the group, rather than take it to a judicial system that is run by non-godfearing people. His take is that if the person refuses changing the destructive lifestyle, a person then may feel justified in using the courts to correct the situation. I’ll again paraphrase this as it is in old English.

If he…persists in the wrong …and proceeds to do you more wrong, let him be as an unbeliever; take the benefit of the law against him, but let that always be the last remedy …break off your friendship and social interactions with him, though you should be no means act out of revenge…You should desire healing of his life, desire to preserve his friendship, but, since he would not, he has forfeited it.

This withdrawing of social interaction is (1) in hopes that the person will be ashamed of his or her harmful actions but also (2) that you will not continue to be affected by it. Henry goes on to say, “Those who show contempt for the rules of society forfeit the honors and privileges of it until they are willing to change, submit to [society rules] and follow through with reconciliation.”

Resolution can come to your heart either way, via forgiveness alone or forgiveness and reconciliation, but, since the actual wrong can never be undone, forgiveness within yourself, canceling the person’s debt to you, must take place.

A Definition of Forgiveness is:

“Forgiveness is something that we do in our hearts; we release someone from a debt that they owe us. We no longer condemn them…The person who owes me the debt does not have to ask my forgiveness. It is a work of grace in my heart. It is freedom from the abusive person who hurt you. The Bible compares forgiving people to releasing them from a legal debt. (pp. 251, 262 Boundaries, Townsend and Cloud).”

This can be very difficult, for as Townsend and Cloud say, forgiveness means “that we will never get from the other person what was owed us [because we have decided to cancel the debt and not try to collect]. And this is what we do not like, because it involves grieving for what will never be. (Boundaries, p. 263).” Realizing grieving is part of the healing process, we have to allow ourselves to grieve over the fact that the past cannot be changed; it cannot be the way we wished it would have been. Unforgiveness keeps you involved in the destructive relationship because you are still expecting some form of repayment from the harmful person. Allow yourself to grieve over the past so that you can release it, be freed from it, and live for the present and future.

Though we should desire it when possible, reconciliation cannot always take place because it involves the cooperation of both people.

Other than the Matthew 18 example already given, another example is with Jesus Himself. His spiritual work through His death and resurrection was to bring a “legal” payment in the spiritual realm for our sins so that we can be forgiven of the guilt from them and have restoration and reconciliation in our relationship with God. Yet, though God has offered forgiveness on His part to all mankind, not everyone appropriates or takes advantage of the opportunity to have reconciliation with Him. It takes both people to have reconciliation. Though you forgive someone for hurting you, it does not mean that they are trustworthy; it takes time for them to prove a lifestyle change. In Mattew 3:7,8, John the Baptist, the prophet who announced Jesus’ coming as Messiah to the Jewish people, condemned the religious leaders of his day because of their hypocrisy, pretending to be repentant – changed. He told them that they had to produce a lifestyle that was a proper expression of repentance or proved their repentance. The point for us today is the same; there are people living harmful lives who verbally say they are sorry, but then continue to live the same harmful, destructive lives. Such a lifestyle is so horrendous in the sight of God that the prophet called these religious leaders a brood of poisonous snakes and enemies of all that is good. A changed life is the only proof of a changed heart. The Greek term here for repentance, metanoeo, is a reversal of one’s decision, including the reversal of one’s thinking and feeling–the logical result then being a reversal in one’s actions (Strong’s Dictionary of NT Words).

Whereas forgiveness focuses on releasing the past, reconciliation is a matter of having a healthy future with proper boundaries.

As mentioned earlier, if the harmful person is not repentant and will not change the destructive patterns of his or her life, forgiveness is all you can do. Forgiveness alone will bring you resolution. However, when a true change of heart and then of lifestyle takes place in the hurtful person, reconciliation is the next step. Realize that it takes a passage of time for the repentant lifestyle to be proven. Many therapists suggest that once the social separation has taken place, as mentioned earlier in the Scriptural example, you need to see that a socially appropriate lifestyle-one that is not destructive-is lived out by the person who harmed you for a period of at least 6 months before working toward social interaction again and reconciliation in the relationship. Your part in the reconciliation is to live out proper boundaries in your life, only allowing healthy social interactions and speaking out clear messages when someone violates the rules of healthy social behavior. Proper boundaries also involve resulting consequences for those who violate your boundaries, consequences varying with the situation. If someone dumps responsibility on you that isn’t yours, don’t do their work for them again; let them experience the loss. If someone is verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive, speak out the violation of your boundaries, but, as in the Scriptural example, stopping social interaction with that person is necessary so they experience the consequences of their behavior, i.e. the loss of a relationship with you.

When people fail you, you continue to forgive, even if it is solely for your own benefit. But reconciliation can only take place with people who are honest about their failures, learn from the mistakes, and make changes in their lifestyles. This is the type of social situation that is healthy and one you can work with. As Scripture says, “We all fail in many ways (Jms. 3:2)” Here is the clear difference, though, in a person with whom you cannot work toward reconciliation. When a person continues in dishonesty by denying that they have hurt you, or like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, by claiming to have changed when they do not live out a real life complete change of direction, your boundaries need to stay in tact, keeping out the harm, even though you have forgiven them.

“Boundaries: When to Say, “Yes,” When to Say, “No,” to Take Control of Your Life” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. It is an average reading level and the book gives real life relationship examples throughout to make it easy for you to identify your personality type, weaknesses, personality types of friends, family, co-workers, etc. I believe it was on the NY Best Sellers List for several years. The ISBN on the softcover version is 0-310-24745-4.

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One Response to “Forgiveness or Reconciliation – Understanding the Difference”

  1. Anger and Its Residual Effects Part 2 | Says:

    […] giving in to evil people. Forgiveness takes place in your own spirit. If you missed the post on Forgiveness or Reconciliation – Understanding the Difference, follow the link. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves […]

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