Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Joseph is thrown into the well.

My next post on the Biblical Counseling Movement will address problems in the movement’s theology. But before I delve into that, another context post is called for. In this post, I want to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Much like repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are often deeply misunderstood terms. Many people, including some biblical counselors, don’t draw a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. They believe that reconciliation is proof that true forgiveness has occurred, and if you aren’t reconciled to the one who hurt you, you haven’t forgiven.

Which, according to the Bible itself, is totally inaccurate.

The Bible shows us that forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation are distinct from each other and relate to each other in very specific ways. The main thing to note is that reconciliation cannot occur without both forgiveness and repentance first being present. This can go two ways:

Forgiveness + Repentance = Reconciliation


Repentance + Forgiveness = Reconciliation

The gospel itself provides a clear picture of this principle at work. Jesus forgave the sins of mankind when he went to the cross. Even as his abusers surrounded him with ridicule, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). At the same time, Jesus repeatedly called upon people to repent. He made it very clear that without repentance, there could be no reconciliation with God.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” ~ Matthew 7:21

In fact, Jesus once encouraged his disciples to extend forgiveness only upon a wrongdoer’s repentance:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” ~ Luke 17:3-4

We know what repentance is and what it looks like. But what is forgiveness?

Anytime Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the gospels, it is almost always couched in financial terms: debt, cost, repay, etc. That’s because sin always causes a loss, or debt. And it is totally reasonable, under normal circumstances, to expect that debt to be repaid (which is restorative justice). We see this all the time in civil and legal matters. If someone runs a stop sign and hits your car, he or she is obligated to repair, either through insurance or personal payment, the damage he or she caused. The law obligates the negligent driver to restore your property to pre-accident condition.

Forgiveness is cancelling the debt caused by sin. It is releasing the offending party from the obligation to repay you for the loss caused by their offense. In cases where the offense is minor, the loss may be relatively easy to bear. In other cases…not so much.

However, I do believe that forgiveness becomes most critical in situations where the loss is greater than the offender can repay. Expecting repayment when someone has shattered your favorite picture frame is reasonable. But extending the same expectation to an abuser who has robbed you of your innocence, safety and peace of mind can be a fool’s errand.

I say this as an abuse survivor. Some losses are just too great for one person to restore. No doubt, a sincere apology can bring a great measure of peace and significantly aid the healing process. But no person can give you back a lost childhood. No one can restore decades lost to a controlling marriage. The person who murdered your child cannot raise him or her from the dead. To stand with your hand out demanding that an abuser restore you to wholeness in instances like these only leads to bitterness and disappointment. In these cases, forgiveness severs the expectation binding abuser and survivor and allows the survivor to seek healing from healthier sources.

Forgiving does not mean the pain of loss magically disappears. (The loss still exists and must be dealt with.) It does not mean that what the offender did does not matter or that the offender should be exempt from justice or accountability. And it certainly does not mean that a person should seek to be reconciled to his or her abuser.

Many times, when biblical counselors speak about forgiveness, they reference the Old Testament story of Joseph. Joseph was abused by his jealous brothers. They seized him, stripped him of his beloved coat, dumped him into an empty well, and would have left him to die if not for some Egyptian slavers who were passing by at an opportune time. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, then lied to their father and claimed that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

True, Joseph did forgive his brothers. And by the end of the story, he reconciled himself to them. But here is the part most biblical counselors leave out:

Joseph did not reconcile until he had tested his brothers’ repentance.

See, in the beginning, Joseph’s brothers did not care about the grief their actions caused. They let their father weep and mourn for years, thinking that his most beloved son had been killed. At any time, they could have said, “Dad, Joe is alive. We sold him to some slavers out of jealousy. Forgive us. We’ll go buy him back.” But they didn’t. They did not begin to walk in repentance until they were confronted with the reality of their past actions in their first encounter with Joseph (see Genesis 42:14-21).

When Joseph’s brothers show up at the palace where Joseph is governor, Joseph doesn’t even reveal to them who he is. Instead, he sets his brother Benjamin up as a thief and threatens to enslave him to see how his brothers react. Only when Judah, the one who sold Joseph into slavery, offers to take Benjamin’s place for the sake of their father does Joseph reveal his identity, extend forgiveness, and invite his brothers to be reconciled (see Genesis 44).

Here is what Joseph didn’t do:

– Joseph didn’t hop the first chariot down to Canaan when he became governor.

– He didn’t show up at his brothers’ house and request a private audience with his abusers.

– He didn’t say, “Forgive me for being angry all these years over my enslavement. It was wrong.”

– He didn’t say, “Despite how you might feel about me now, I want us to have a good relationship.”

Joseph didn’t even allow himself to be alone in the same room with his brothers until he saw that they were fully repentant.

The same scenario plays out in many other Bible stories. Reconciliation is only offered when the offending party demonstrates true repentance.

Those who do not repent are not entitled to reconciliation:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” ~ Matthew 18:15-17

* * * * *

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” ~ 1 Corinthians 5:9-13

Forgiveness is always appropriate and should be pursued with a willing heart. It lifts the survivor’s burdens, draws the survivor closer to Christ, and significantly aids the healing process. But forgiveness does not automatically include reconciliation. There is no reconciliation without repentance. The Bible tells us so.

23 responses to “Forgiveness and Reconciliation

  1. “Joseph did not reconcile until he had tested his brothers’ repentance.”

    When asking one go those involved in my abuse how it might be addressed, I got this reply:

    “[LL] I have nothing to address! If you or anyone else are still living in what you believe is a result of anything I have done, then its theirs and your problem because of your unrighteous response to what you believe I have done. Your freedom and theirs does not depend on me doing anything. Pray, forgive, bless, move on, but don’t wait or expect me to own responsibility for their or your failure in refusing to to move on.”

    • ouch.

      I got told (a demand) “you have to forgive me”
      me: “forgive you for what?”
      them: Silence.

      If someone demands forgiveness but avoids acknowledging or tries to turn it into a “your perspective” issue, they don’t want forgiveness- they want absolution. They want to be absolved of responsibility, for the issue to never have existed.
      It’s a manipulative way to then not be held accountable for repeat offences (“you said you’d forgiven me” = you aren’t allowed to bring this up, and you have to treat this offence as if it is the first time, not the 100th).

  2. Sorry to bother, but this is something that I’m interested in since the way that Jesus has people “reconcile” and “forgive” has been one of the few things that I could just NEVER accept as good or appropriate, no matter how much wiggling I did. So I have a couple of questions, only if you’re willing to answer.

    You distinguish very much between reconciliation and forgiveness, which I think is good. But I still don’t find the idea that “you MUST forgive 7×7” to be very compatible with that… especially since it claims the person who wronged you is genuinely “repentant” and yet they commit the same damn crime against you 49 times! That does NOT sound like repentance. That sounds like systematic abuse. I don’t see how to possibly read this any other way. Now, of course, it simply says you must forgive, not reconcile. But forgiveness can still take great strength of will, and it still requires being open to allow your abuser to come and “repent” over and over, even if it’s just over the phone or email (not things that Jesus had at hand, of course) which means he meant that you might be expected to have them repent IN PERSON or, even then, through a moderator that might allow you to be lured into their manipulations again. How can you be sure that they’re really “repenting” if they commit the same sin 49 times? That completely undermines the very definition of repentance which includes “not doing what you are repenting for”. I simply do not see how this can possibly reconcile, with all the mental gymnastics my rather fevered (at the moment) brain can conjure up. Now, again, forgiveness can be a personal step for the abused leading to healing… but the verse doesn’t say “forgive when you’re ready.” It says “don’t just forgive… forgive 49 times” which seems to, at least, leave the victim in a place of feeling burdened with the expectation and pressure that they must find forgiveness since their abuser is asking for it without giving them a lot of wiggle room or grace. Do you see it that way?

    Furthermore, the verse in Matt 5, 23, it says “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” It specifically says “reconcile” there and I’m wondering if this is meant to apply to the person committing the crime, or the one harmed? I’ve always heard it referring to the one harmed, but the passage leaves it a bit ambiguous and I’m not a scholar. Thoughts? And, even if it is directed towards the abuser, it still places some pressure on the victim that their continued refusal to reconcile is preventing a person from being able to make their offering. Is that okay?

    The anecdote from the commenter above seems to speak to this… that attempting to open at all to an abuser a chance to reach repentance resulted in cruelty and further emotional barbs that this person now has to suffer (I won’t speak for him/her on how they feel about that, but I can’t imagine it feels particularly great.) It just seems to me that the emphasis that Jesus places on forced forgiveness, and repeated repentance, even if we define it separately from reconciliation, is inseparable from harming at least some victims. And, given that our very way of life is designed so that the weaker have less ability to define terms and set boundaries, and the strong have more ability to do so, I cannot find any way to accept Jesus’ teachings here as moral. He knows that repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are often hard to distinguish from each other (especially if there’s emotional abuse) so why on EARTH would he say such a thing? (Of course, there’s the possibility that the entire verse was poorly translated or was added later, etc, but then why study it if we have to admit that it doesn’t actually work?)

    I just don’t see it. Thoughts?

    • Hi !
      I had some of the same questions a few years ago. I couldn’t work out how people could call all sin “sin” as if it was all the same, or expect forgiveness to be applied the same in every circumstance. It was like saying a pot-hole full of water, a man-made dam and the pacific ocean are all pools of water – I for one wouldn’t be drinking out of the pot-hole or the pacific ocean.

      I was reading Isaiah 53 and it occurred to me that the Bible uses sin, transgressions and iniquity… so was there a difference? (Psalm 32 & Exodus 34 are also good examples).

      I did a Hebrew & Greek translation search to see if anything came up. These are some of the links I found (there are plenty more)…

      Basically I came to the understanding that God does recognise sin as WHAT we do & WHY we do it, and responds accordingly. In reference to Luke 17, I think if there is a pattern of behaviour it ceases to be a “missing the mark” sin, and is either a “willful sin” (transgression), or a act of rebellion against God (iniquity), and our response should match it. And the Bible actually does teach us how to respond, but we often overlook the teachings (Proverbs is full of warnings and how-to respond advice). Consequences are a reality of all sin. That may include cutting off contact/communication.

      In reference to Matthew 5. I thought the same thing about it being ambiguous. I do think that over time the focus (culturally) had shifted from an unhealthy push for repentance (fire & brimstone preaching), and has swung too far in the other direction focusing on forgiveness, hence the reason for this passage more often being aimed at people who need to forgive.

      My frustration is that forgiveness teaching is often out of context, and usually aimed at the individual. But God does have a lot to say about corporate responsibility. So while we individually have a responsibility to be forgiving & repentant, we are also to uphold & intervene in the lives of those around us and help support the weak and vulnerable.

      The story of Jacob and Esau is an interesting one to look at from the forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation perspective too.

      I think the other thing that needs to be taken into consideration is the reality of what circumstances we are able to control or influence. Some of the teachings of Jesus are aimed at those who have no power, and rather than a passive accept-your-victim-status-and-be-happy, it is a recognition of powerlessness, and a way to cope. Much the same way that most of us have adapted to many situations around us that we would change if we could, but because we can’t we make the best of it. There is a difference between that and being manipulated into a powerless position and then being told we can’t do anything about it. I always loved the movie/book “the Hiding Place” as it is a good example of forgiveness lived out.

    • I think you’ve raised some excellent questions, and I’m happy to respond.

      Anytime I am faced with seemingly conflicting passages like this, I always go back and examine the context in which they were written. The verse in Matthew 5 is part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus outlines a moral code of behavior for his followers. Let’s look at the preceding verses:

      21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

      A note at the bottom of this passage informs us that some manuscripts say, “angry with a brother or sister without cause.” In any case, Jesus is addressing abusive behavior, specifically slander and name-calling. This is the context for verse 23.

      Let’s look at verse 23 in a different translation:

      “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

      The verse is addressing the offender. Jesus is saying that it is the offender’s responsibility to go and make things right with the person harmed. This is backed up by the following verses, in which Jesus addresses the issue of lawsuits: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” I think the adversary would have to have a genuine grievance for prison to be the final result.

      Now let’s look at the 70 x 7 verse in Matthew 18. Notice that it appears right after the section on dealing with sin in the church, in which Jesus demands repentance from the one who sinned on pain of being treated like “a pagan or a tax collector” (excommunication from fellowship). It is in this context that Peter asks, “So, how many times do I forgive a fellow believer who sins against me?” Because of the context, it is assumed that Peter is referring to one who has sinned and repented. Jesus responds that those who have repented should be forgiven every time. Then he tells the parable of the unmerciful servant to illustrate why: The master, Jesus, has forgiven us a huge debt that we could have never repaid. So when we hold petty debts against others and ignore their genuine cries to be forgiven, we stir up God’s wrath. This passage clearly has to do with showing mercy to the repentant, not subjecting oneself to repeated abuse. Note: The verse never says the fellow disciple was committing the same sin. It could have very well been different sins.

      Offenders always have a chance to repent. It is not something that a victim has to grant. Remember, repentance isn’t just words that comes out of one’s mouth. It is a reversal of behavior, coupled with genuine remorse. A person who is aware of how much pain they have caused may decide, in the best interests of their victim, to not attempt communication. However, that does not stop them from changing and living a Christ-honoring life. Also remember in the example of Joseph, he didn’t open himself to his abusers until he had determined that they were truly repentant. Jesus may have placed great emphasis on forgiveness and mercy, but he also had very harsh words for abusers. We are to be both as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16). It is totally biblical to evaluate the fruit of repentance before opening oneself to a former abuser.

      I hope this helps.

      • Thank you, that was very informative… the Matthew 5 verse especially. Funny how I’ve ALWAYS heard people apply that verse to the person who was injured, never to the offender. Kinda messed up.

        I understand where you’re coming from with the 70×7 verse, but I can’t say I’m 100% comfortable with it still. I can understand that we shouldn’t hold petty grudges against people, especially if they are genuinely remorseful. But if someone commits 490 petty crimes against me, I have a hard time seeing how there can be any sort of actual repentance going on each time. At some point I think it’s fair to stop believing that the other person has actually repented, regardless of what they do, because they’ve just caused too much pain. Maybe they do go on to lead a good life and honestly turn their life around, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to forgive them.

        That’s just my personal opinion, but I have to say, when I stopped being a Christian, probably the most freeing thing was finally being able to say “I don’t have to forgive you if I don’t want to” and I think that was healthy for me. Granted, I almost always find forgiveness in the end for most things, but there are still a few wrongs that have been committed that I have not forgiven, and I’m okay with that. It is quite possible that I will eventually forgive, but it is good to not be obligated to do so. Instead, my refusal to forgive is a purposeful reminder to myself that I do not need to open myself up to my family again, that I don’t need to ever defer to them, that I don’t need to feel ashamed or guilty for wanting nothing to do with them. Some people can probably come to terms with all of these things and also forgive and maybe eventually I will too. But for me, right now, I need to be able to deny them forgiveness to continue to protect myself and I feel like addressing those individual needs is lacking in these Bible verses.

        All the same, your explanation makes it all much less terrible than I had always believed it to be which, honestly, is kind of nice to know since so many people look to the Bible for these answers.

    • I have wrestled with these similar thoughts as I maneuvered through a few difficult relationships. I studied the word fervently for confirmations or revelation or understanding for a long time. These are the conclusions I have found and believe be truth.
      1st, as far as forgiving repeatedly, yes we forgive all offenses regardless of how numerous they may be. We do it for our own peace and healing. However, that doesn’t translate to reconciliation and in some cases we may have to use our good judgment to know when to stop trusting someone. Ex: I can forgive my abuser for all 490 times abuse occurred, but I don’t have to put myself in the same position again or allow that person opportunity to repeat the offense. The cycle can stop if we choose stop it.
      2nd, when I read that verse in Matthew, in various translations, it always sounds to me that if you might be the offender, then you drop what you are doing go make things right. It will still remain the other person’s responsibility to forgive you before you can reconcile, but the point of that verse is to convict us, that if we have committed any offense to another that we attempt to make things right again. God wants us to care for our earthly relationships just as much as he wants us to tend to our relationship with him. If we drop our offering at the altar, or skip church, to make apologies and attempt to bring peace back into a friendship, He’ll understand and even be proud of us for doing so.
      Each person has equal responsibility in a relationship. If we are the ones forgiving, we hope for repentance but we are not responsible if their repentance is ingenuine and are proven untrustworthy. Likewise, if we are the offender (and we will be at times) we must repent and apologize to the ones we hurt. Hopefully, they will forgive us, but if not, we can at least move forward knowing we our part.
      Hope this helps do some mind untangling 🙂

  3. Also, I hope I’m making sense and not coming off wrong here because I’m so out of it with a head-cold or whatever the hell this is, ugh. Please be understanding and I’ll try to explain myself if that’s the case.

  4. Love this post!
    This is pretty much the same way we teach it in our divorce recovery group.
    -Forgiveness is by and for yourself. The other party is not really involved, but it frees you from the burden,
    -Repentance is acknowledging the wrongdoing, discontinuing the behavior, developing healthy alternatives and not putting any expectations on the offended party.
    -Reconciling is not possible without forgiveness and repentance of both parties. There can also be different levels of reconciliation and the most intimate are not always appropriate or possible.

    • “There can also be different levels of reconciliation and the most intimate are not always appropriate or possible.”

      An excellent point, which I appreciate you bringing out, Loren.

      Yes, even with both repentance and forgiveness, one should not expect the relationship to pick right up with the same level of intimacy as previous. Sometimes, politely cordial is close enough.

  5. Thank you very much April. Very good article and particularly accurate and pertinent in light of all the false counseling and notions being laid upon us in this regard. Another aspect of the enslaving wrong teaching about forgiveness is “you must never speak of this again or you are guilty of unforgiveness.” Wrong. That is a tactic used by the wicked to keep their evil a secret and is a real sign of non-repentance. No, we don’t hold the debt over someone if we have forgiven them. But that does not mean that an abuse victim is somehow bound to never speak again of what was done to her. Secondly, I would like to note that true forgiveness does not always include reconciliation even when there is true repentance, nor is it advisable that it should. As you point out, some sins have irreversible consequences, at least in this life. A rape victim should not be reconciled in relationship to her rapist even if he is a picture of real repentance. In fact, such a repentant person would never even expect or ask for reconciliation. Same thing in regard to abuse. There is no obligation at all for an abuse victim to reconcile in relationship with her abuser, even if he is repentant (an extremely rare scenario by the way) and even if she has truly forgiven him. Wait until heaven for that one. Thanks again, April.

  6. An excellent post on a much needed topic! I like how you expressed that both forgiveness and repentance are essential to reconciliation…and that it is possible to forgive without reconciling.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. I really appreciate the way you explain the relationship between forgiveness, repentence and reconciliation. Really good insights, and a good correction, as you point out, to leaders or counselors who try to coerce people into reconciling when the conditions just haven’t been met. What you say here really resonated with my family. Thanks.

  8. Seems overall forgiveness repentance reconciliation should happen in a ‘God’s timing’ sort of way. Like we think of a friend and then all of a sudden they call when they haven’t called in months. I think we make too much ‘theology’ rather than application of scripture. Kinda like much talk about gardening or gathering and very little effort put in to actually do it (obey scripture). When we put too much human ‘theologically correct’ effort into it, someone gets hurt or lost in the whole process it seems. The final result of abundant life doesn’t get achieved. More likely achieved when people have knowledge, wisdom and actual study of scripture in hand.