Forgiving and Reconciling

This is a post I originally made on December 6, 2009. I am re-posting it in light of a sermon I am working on in Matthew 5:21-26.

Everett L. Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope (InterVarsity Press, 2003)

I picked up this book several years ago at a conference. It sat on my shelf with nary a glance inside its covers. However, recent conflicts in my extended family and in families within the church caused me to take a look at what it said.

Worthington is professor and chair of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also a believer in Jesus Christ. His book draws insight from both psychological research and biblical principles.

Worthington’s book has enormous credibility because of his own life experience. At the time he was doing extensive research on the nature and process of forgiveness, his mother was brutally beaten with a crowbar, sexually assaulted, and left to bleed to death in her own home by two would-be robbers. Her murder tested Worthington’s own understanding and practice of forgiveness.

The first challenge in forgiveness is wanting to forgive. As C.S. Lewis, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have someone to forgive.” When we are hurt, offended, betrayed, neglected, forsaken, or abused the last thing we want to do is forgive. We want justice not mercy.

Worthington details two primary motivations for forgiveness:

  1. For personal benefit. Many research studies show that forgiveness reduces anger and stress and brings spiritual, emotional and even physical health to the forgiver.
  2. For the benefit of the other person. The offender needs forgiveness. And as we empathize with them and show grace to them, we come to a greater understanding and experience of the grace of God.

Surprisingly, Worthington’s research showed that people who forgave for their own benefit had less long-term peace and less lasting results than those who forgave others as an altruistic gift of grace. He concludes, “Forgiveness is for giving, not for getting” (27).

Next, Worthington defines some terms.

  • Unforgiveness is not just the hurt, anger, or fear that someone experiences when wronged, but rather the state of mind and attitude that develops after prolonged rumination on the transgression. “Unforgiveness must ripen through rumination. Only after mentally replaying the transgression, the motives of the transgressor and the consequences of the transgression do we become unforgiving. It takes time and reflection to develop unforgiveness” (31-32).
  • Forbearance is the inhibition of initial revenge and the avoidance of immediate retaliatory words, actions and motivations.
  • Decisional forgiveness is the promise not to act in revenge or avoidance in the future because of the transgression.
  • Emotional forgiveness is the replacement of the negative emotions associated with unforgiveness with other-centered emotions such as empathy, compassion, and love.

Worthington believes that too many Christians stop at forbearance or, at best, decisional forgiveness. He argues that true biblical forgiveness goes one step further to emotional forgiveness. The father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is the model of both decisional and emotional forgiveness. God wants us not only to decide to forgive but also to forgive “from the heart” (Matthew 18:35). Such forgiveness can only be done through the power of the Holy Spirit (not our own strength); thus such forgiveness is the heart of Christianity.

Worthington provides five essential elements in the process of emotional forgiveness. The five elements form the acronym REACH.

  • Recall the hurt. “You can’t forgive in the abstract. Forgiveness occurs when you work through specific events with specific people” (77). “Instead of suppressing our feelings, we must come to grips with them. Instead of turning from the fear and anger, we must face them” (85). However, “we should try to recall the hurt as objectively as we can” (87). Hurt feelings have a way of distorting our perceptions. One offense gets multiplied in our minds. And we conveniently forget our own part in the conflict and tend to see ourselves as “innocent victims  who were cruelly abused. While sometimes that is accurate, most of the time events that lead to unforgiveness have more than one side to them” (87).
  • Empathize. Emotional forgiveness depends on the willingness to see the situation through the eyes of the other person. “Most people want to get along more than they want to fight. …So when people hurt or offend me, I should consider whether they feel I have threatened them—whether I have really done so or not. …Why might the person have hurt me? Is he or she covering vulnerability, responding to the situation, trying to survive or reacting to a painful past?” (104-5). One helpful technique is the empty chair where you imagine sitting in the seat of the person who hurt you and explain, in their words, what happened and how they felt at the time. Learn to walk a mile in their shoes, so to speak.
  • Altruistic gift of forgiveness. “When we are wronged, it is easy to feel morally superior. To forgive I needed to go beyond empathy. I did that when I was able to see myself as not so different from the murderer” (115). Humility is essential to forgiveness. Humility recognizes that I am a sinner in need of grace as much as the person who hurt me. In giving forgiveness, one remembers that they have received forgiveness from God and also from others at some point in their lives.
  • Commit publicly to forgive. “If I wall hard-won forgiveness inside my heart by confining it to a private experience, then doubts can creep in. But if I do or say something to indicate that I have forgiven, those acts add bodily experiences that announce to my brain that I have forgiven. My words and actions become a public record that I have forgiven. It becomes harder to doubt that my forgiveness was real” (135).
  • Hold on to forgiveness. “…Hurt does not equal unforgiveness” (146). We will still feel the hurt from time to time but as long as we do not drift back into rumination and an unforgiving spirit, then we can hold onto forgiveness through the pain.

In the next section of the book, Worthington addresses reconciliation. While forgiveness is a personal act in one’s heart, reconciliation is a relational act between two people. “Reconciliation is defined as reestablishing trust in a relationship after trust has been violated” (42). Forgiveness does not automatically lead to reconciliation. For instance, a person betrayed by marital infidelity can forgive their spouse and yet not experience reconciliation if the spouse refuses to repent and continues in their sin.

I had never really thought through the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. It helped me understand mankind’s relationship with God. Because of Christ’s death, all sins have been paid for and forgiven. But reconciliation between God and man can only occur when a person turns, acknowledges sin, and embraces that forgiveness. Forgiveness is one way. Reconciliation is two way. Forgiveness removes the barriers and opens the door to relationship. Reconciliation is the movement of both parties into that relationship.

Reconciliation in human relationships is a touchier process than forgiveness because it requires two (or more) people to move toward each other in understanding and forgiveness.

One thing clear in Scripture is that whether we are the offender or the offendee, as Christians, we are to take the initiative in trying to make things right (Matthew 5:23-24, 18:15-17).

Worthington details four steps that must be taken by both sides for relationship and trust to be restored. He calls this the Bridge to Reconciliation.

  1. Decide to reconcile. Reconciliation entails risk. People put their time, effort and egos on the line when they try to repair trust. We risk being taken advantage of. Even thinking about reconciling is risky. It requires us to consider our own part in a relationship. What if I’m to blame? What if I confess my part? Do I diffuse the other person’s responsibility? Will it let him or her off the hook? Will he or she seize on this as an admission that I am to blame? If I admit wrongdoing and the other person doesn’t, does this lower my bargaining power? Does it make it less likely that the other person will want to reconcile? Do I set myself up to clean toilets for the rest of my life because I am now one down to the other person? These and many more risks are inherent in seeking reconciliation. It’s no wonder that most people let damaged relationships, like sleeping dogs, lie. They might get bitten” (178).
  2. Discuss. This step has the potential to bring healing or further explosion thus it must be undertaken by both sides with humility and a desire to understand. “Two self-identified victims are usually found in relationships both blaming the other. Both ‘victims’ usually believe that they perceive the events correctly. The other person is, thus, wrong (at best) or lying (at worst)” (191). How a person gives a reproach is key. If the reproach is perceived as an attack, then it will usually result in defensiveness and further alienation. However, if the reproach is worded gently, without an assumption of the other person’s motives, then discussion can be fruitful. For example, “When you insulted me, I was surprised and hurt. You are usually not this way. Can you tell me what was going on? Help me understand.”
  3. Detoxify. Research indicates that relationships deteriorate in a common four-step progression. First is criticism (first mentally then verbally), then defensiveness (I have done nothing wrong), then contempt of the person as a whole (they’re a jerk), then a cold war (they will not ever hurt me again). In the end, a person sees only the negative in the other person. Even positive traits or actions can be interpreted negatively. “They are only trying to flatter me.” Detoxifying the relationship requires a conscious effort to re-see the person in a positive light. Contempt and defensiveness must be overcome, and criticism must be balanced with grace. “…Make a list of the other person’s good qualities and another list of the pressures on him or her. It’s hard not to feel at least some empathy when you’re looking at a list in black and white” (233).
  4. Devote. The final step is to commit to love the other person despite their flaws. This step often requires a grieving process—where we recognize and grieve over what we have lost but choose to move forward with hope in the relationship.

At the end of the book, Worthington acknowledges that no amount of research or study can make forgiveness and/or reconciliation a reality. “In the end, though, a science of forgiveness—even when coupled with knowledge of forgiveness from theology and the humanities—can take us only so far. It’s a long plunge from a hurt and unforgiving heart into the refreshing water of a heart at rest in forgiveness. Knowledge won’t make us jump. We can stand at the brink knowing how to forgive but not willing to jump” (257).

We cannot make or demand that someone reconcile with us. We can only open the door through forgiveness and then invite the person in. “No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside” (258).

As the apostle Paul says, If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18). Part of living peaceably with others…and following after Jesus Christ…is forbearing, forgiving, and seeking reconciliation.

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One Response to Forgiving and Reconciling

  1. BRBarnabas says:

    Sounds like an interesting and helpful read. What joy can be found when not only God’s forgiveness is embraced but reconciliation with God is experienced. Praise be to God for His grace through Christ Jesus, the Saviour of our souls. He bore so much to save even me. Hallelujah!

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