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.