This post will be a long one, but I promise it'll be worth it. Especially if you belong to a church or small group, this will come in handy time and again as you navigate conflict.
Remember that time you hurt someone or were hurt by someone? Do you remember the feelings? Feelings of hurt, betrayal, and pain; or feelings of guilt and shame. Also, hopefully, a feeling that you should forgive or seek forgiveness. And, beyond forgiveness, a yearning for reconciliation and healing.
This post will describe the way to get from hurt to reconciliation. A lot of churches fall into the trap of "forgive and forget" which is not a biblical idea. It looks like this: Forgiveness=Reconciliation
The biblical way to reach reconciliation is a mixture of forgiveness, responsibility, repentance, accountability, boundaries and healing. It looks like this:
(Sorry for the Math)
As much as I'd like to say this is a linear process where you start with one thing and move through a certain order to reach the end, it is not. Instead, it is often a long process of revisiting these things many times over. But, if done well, it builds up a healthy community.
I'll first describe each of these terms, and then mention what the process looks like if one of these things is missing. And, I'll also describe what role a congregation should play in this process. I'll turn comments on for this post so you can let me know what you think below!
Miroslav Volf draws a good distinction and definition for forgiveness:
“The difference between justice and forgiveness: To be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That's what the forgiving God does.”
It is, in its most basic sense, a letting go of what someone owes you when they hurt you, but not to let go of what they owe themselves. You can condemn what they do, but you allow yourself to see them as worthy of being better. To condemn is to leave them in a state of "less than". This happens regardless of whether they actually get better. Forgiveness is the way we move from a system where we keep track of each others' wrongs and into a system where we encourage each other to become a new creation everyday. You can, and should, forgive all offenses against you just as God has forgiven you. You can, and should, seek forgiveness from those who are hurt by you. A congregation should call people to forgive and to seek forgiveness. And, in some cases, to help people accept forgiveness and stop condemning themselves.
Responsibility is taking ownership of your actions. It is the naming of what you did and saying sorry. I remember as a child that my brothers and I used to fight, a lot. When our fights were broken up by Mom or Dad, we were made to apologize to one another and take responsibility for what we did. When I punched my brother, it was not enough to say "I'm sorry you got hurt" or "I'm sorry your face headbutted my fist". I had to take ownership of my actions by saying "I'm sorry I punched you". No spin, no buts, no deflecting or minimizing. The only way I could take responsibility was to own up for everything I had done and admit to myself and others that I did it. Confession is an important part of the Christian life. But, it's not just between you and God. To take responsibility, especially when hurting another person, is to express that responsibility to others in the church. And just like water can wear down a rock over time, small issues can add up over time. Just ask my wife in 5 years (or now, whatever)!
REPENT YOU SINNERS is unfortunately how many people encounter this word. How Jesus wants us to use this word is I MUST REPENT FOR I AM A SINNER. no one can repent for you. Repentance is defined as turning in the opposite direction. If you were walking north, and you turn south and begin walking, you've repented of going north. If you gossip about someone, and choose to stop gossiping about them and instead build them up with your words, you've repented of gossip. When it comes to reconciliation, it's not enough to just say you're sorry. You must strive and be oriented in a direction that won't hurt the other person again. For reconciliation to happen in a healthy way, a person must do more than continue a cycle of hurting others and saying sorry. Repentance breaks that cycle. But also know, repentance is not about perfect behavior; it is about orientation and the trajectory of behavior.
Accountability is when a person repents and asks others to help him/her maintain their repentance. If a person doesn't repent, you/congregation can hold a person accountable through proper boundaries. Both are examples of healthy accountability. Jesus created the church to be a community that helps each other. We help each other with financial, emotional, and physical tolls that accumulate in life. We are also to help each other be salt and light in the world. When we fail to hold each other accountable, we fail to remind each other about how we are new creations. About how we're more than the sin in our lives. About how we're more than the old, corrupted people before God's grace invaded us. And we'll fail to be a safe place. Accountability is extremely important in the community of God. And, a quick but important note, some actions require accountability from the police. If there's abuse, breaking of laws or someone's life is in danger, you must notify the police. The Church can walk alongside them in the accountability process, but it's unhealthy to not report what needs to be reported.
Healing is a little more difficult to define. Healing in a relationship has many facets, but some of the most important are the rebuilding of trust and a conjoined hope for the future. Imagine that you have a friendship and that you rate that friendship on a scale from 1-10. Let's say you start at a 7. But, your friend is kind of a jerk, and they decide to steal your girlfriend and your bike. So, you drop that relationship down to a 2. If you forgive that person, they take responsibility, repent and seek accountability, you could put that relationship back to a 7. But, it won't be the same. Sometimes damage, hurt and wounds always seem to linger no matter how much time has passed. I've seen marriages where people work really hard to repair and reconcile, but there's been too much damage to have the relationship stay together. It's tragic, but it is one of the consequences of our sin--we can't always put the toothpaste back into the tube. The goal and hope is healing; in reality, it may take a long time or it may never happen on this Earth for the wounds to fully heal. Healing takes time, and it requires a safe space to experience the relationship is a new way to rebuild trust.
Doctors Cloud and Townsend wrote a book called Boundaries, and in it they define boundaries as "A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances. Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions. Emotional boundaries help us deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others. Spiritual boundaries help us to distinguish God’s will from our own and give us renewed awe for our Creator." Every relationship has boundaries; not every relationship knows what those boundaries are or how to understand them. We usually only know a boundary exists when it is crossed. It's essential to use boundaries and name them when it comes to the areas of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What happens if one of these things is missing?
These six things (forgiveness, responsibility, repentance, accountability, healing and boundaries) are the ingredients to reconciliation. There is a natural progression from one to another; but, if you've ever been hurt or hurt someone else, then you know that often times you need to revisit these areas time and again. But, what happens if one of the ingredients is missing? Similar to a recipe, if you leave out an ingredient, you won't have a finished product. In this case, you won't find reconciliation.
If you leave out forgiveness, then the offender will always be reminded of and condemned for their past actions. This never allows them to be better, and it keeps them in a state of owing another person, shame, and condemnation.
If you leave out responsibility, then what happened can't be named, accepted, and repented. An offender who never takes responsibility thinks they're actions are ok, and won't ever see a need to change. With no responsibility, there is no way to determine what needs to change and why it happened in the first place.
If you leave out repentance, then you have an offender who will be prone to repeat the same behavior that hurt others. It leaves them in a terrible spot as they will continue hurting others and not have the relational connections that a person needs in life. It leaves others in a state of constant fear or anxiety, wondering when the next time pain or suffering will arrive.
If you leave out accountability, it enables the offender to continue in their unrepentant ways. If they've repented without accountability, then there's no discernible authority given to anyone to gauge the fruit of that repentance. If the congregation refuses to hold someone accountable, then the offender is enabled to continue to hurt others with no consequence or repercussion. As a pastor, it is difficult to trust people who don't set up accountability.
If you leave out healing, reconciliation won't lead to a strong, new relationship. With no healing, there's a forced obligation to the relationship that benefits no one.
If you leave out boundaries, there is no way of identifying and talking about transgressions that people may commit. If you don't name the boundaries, then the boundaries of individuals and communities will be up to each individual person, which is a situation where only the strong survive.
What's a Church to do?
The community of God should call those who offend, and those who are offended, to strive for these six values. A church should always tend to these six areas whenever conflict arises and people are hurt. There is no shortcut to reconciliation; no matter how anxious conflict makes us feel, it is sometimes a long road to reconciliation. With truth to name a situation and hold people accountable, and grace to give people a chance to change and heal, a church can be a place where true peacemaking reigns. We shouldn't be a place that sweeps things under the rug in order to keep the peace. We shouldn't be a place that turns a blind eye to those who are hurting. We shouldn't be a place that is ineffective in calling people to be new creations. We should be a place that holds people to a high standard of loving one another as God has loved us while also journeying alongside them as they attempt to live up to that high standard. To not call people to that high standard would be to neglect bringing God's will on Earth, and indeed, it would fail to reflect what God has done for us.
A church must stand strong with each of these values, or they will not be the church Jesus created. And if there are offenders who are irresponsible, unforgiving, unrepentant, unaccountable and continue hurting others, the church must be strong enough to tell them there is no place for them in the Kingdom of God. No one likes doing that; but for the health and witness of the church, it is necessary.
So, you made it to the end, huh? I hope you now understand how forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. We should always forgive, but reconciliation requires more than just forgiveness. And if you are a part of a church, it's up to you to do these things as well as call others to do them as well.