11 March 2011

Question of the Week:
Forgiveness or Reconciliation?

by Anne Lang Bundy

What is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation (in the context of being vulnerable to further abuse)?
~ Anonymous

Once again, a question is posed which defies adequate explanation on a lone page. This week, five contrasts from the Bible will be presented. Next week will look at how biblical truth plays out in relationships.

Accountability & Forgiveness:

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more ... if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen ..." (Matthew 18:15-17 NKJV)

"Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." (Matthew 18:21-22 NKJV)

Holding someone accountable for doing wrong to you, with a goal of reconciliation, is separate from the unrelenting forgiveness of heart that Jesus teaches.

Non-resistance & Escape:

"But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (Matthew 5:39 NKJV)

And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?" ... Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him. (Acts 22:25,29 NKJV; other examples of escape are Acts 5:17-20; 9:23-25;12:7-10)

Jesus both taught and set the example of accepting abuse without retaliation. But we should avoid injury when possible.

Marriage, Separation, Divorce:

A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife... If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And [likewise] a woman ... if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:10-15 NKJV)

God hates divorce. If separation is necessary, Christians are instructed to remain unmarried and work for reconciliation. Only if the non-believing spouse divorces is the believer released from the marriage. (An exception is divorce for sexual immorality—see "Can Marital Sex be Sinful?")

Willing Suffering:

But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps. (1 Peter 2:20-21 NKJV)

There really are some circumstances when suffering is preferable to quitting a situation or quitting a person. God's will and guidance are necessary for discernment.

Peace With Others & Peace Within:

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. (Romans 12:17-18 NKJV)

Reconciliation doesn't always happen after we offer forgiveness. As much as depends on us, we must offer peace—and then be at peace.

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What questions do you have about Christianity or the Bible? You're invited to leave them in the comments below (anonymous questions welcome), or email buildingHisbody [plus] @ gmail.com.

© 2011 Anne Lang Bundy, all rights reserved.
Image source: "Reconciliation in Sri Lanka"


  1. This is the single best post I'v ever read on the subject. Thank you for sharing your wisdom Anne!

  2. Anne - So many of my clients are afraid to offer forgiveness because they think it is synonymous with reconciliation, and they fear, often realistically so, that if they reconcile they will be reinjured.

    Now I can condense my thoughts into a single statement after reading this post: Forgiveness is not synonymous with reconciliation but with peace. Thanks.

  3. Was thinking of a family relationship this morning and then an old friendship and that exact verse came to mind--the one about as far as it is up to me live at peace with them.

    I hope I'm doing that. I'm sure God will keep showing me.
    ~ Wendy

  4. A very telling post. Its in my nature to not only forgive quickly, but to reconcile quickly. I hate the division. Unfortunatley, I expect others to have the same attitude.

  5. Very well put, it clears the murkiness and confusion that often results with these two issues. The verses are perfect! Lori

  6. Tana ~

    I'm glad this was so helpful. The power lies behind most of the content coming straight from God's Word.

  7. Rusty ~

    I appreciate what you're saying about forgiveness being synonymous with peace rather than reconciliation.


    Taking Scripture as an entirety, forgiveness is the arrow, reconciliation is the target. In counseling, isn't peace itself an elusive target? I think we must be shooting not for peace but for reconciliation with our forgiveness. Peace comes not from forgiveness itself, but from the heart in harmony with God's will.

    To take the (imperfect) metaphor a step further, we should take careful aim at reconciliation rather than at peace with our forgiveness. If the forgiveness "arrow" finds its mark but and bounces off a hardened target, we still have peace that we have been true with our effort.

    Today's post simply lays out biblical foundations. The plan for next week is to look at how biblical principles play out with offenders who are genuinely repentant and those who are not. Forgiveness is one way. Reconciliation must be reciprocal.

  8. Wendy ~

    You were in my prayers this morning even before you left this comment. : ) Be sure to read the reply I left for Rusty.

  9. David ~

    You have just named one of my biggest struggles. I loathe conflict. When it occurs between me and someone else, I am quick to search out from God how to make peace, and then go do it immediately. I understand that others may need more time to reach the same point, and may not ever reach it at all. In the meantime, I try to "be at peace" with them--and doing that in the absence of reconciliation can be agonizing.

    That expectation you speak of? It is never good to delay repentance or reconciliation. One never knows how long the opportunity to do so will last.

  10. Lori ~

    God's Word all by itself provides plenty of wisdom. Please see my reply to Rusty's comment, and I hope you'll be back here next week.

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  12. Anne - Forgiveness is definitely a prerequisite for reconciliation. Reconciled relationships stand on the shoulders of forgiveness. And, reconciliation is certainly the the ultimate aim.

    However, forgiveness is not limited to being a means to an end, it is also an end. Forgiveness is for a follower always bilateral and never unilateral ... We forgive because we have been forgiven by Him.

    When we do not forgive, we cheapen Grace and we minimize the Cross. When we forgive we participate in the completion of a beautiful feedback loop. I'm am forgiven because I forgive, I forgive because I am forgiven, all in Jesus name.

  13. (more thoughts)

    I've seen the most brutalized and violated individuals forgive their attackers, and peace be the result. Sometimes these individuals cannot be reconciled because the abuser refuses to recognize what they have done or is still a danger to the person offering forgiveness.

    Think of the stories in scripture, where even at the point of death, people offer forgiveness to those harming them, alas they will never be reconciled.

  14. Rusty ~

    I certainly agree with your point that forgiveness is bilateral, to the extent that my forgiveness of my neighbor is also a return to God of the forgiveness He has shown me. (Even the person who is unreconciled to God through the cross and blood of Jesus knows the grace and mercy that God shows to saved and unsaved alike – Matthew 5:44-45.) But even God's forgiveness is a means to the end of reconciliation. Though His forgiveness is already a perfect and complete action on His part, He invites us to complete the "loop" and perfect His forgiveness when we accept it are reconciled to Him.

    Likewise, a victim experiences peace when forgiveness is extended to an offender, even if the forgiveness is not accepted. Reconcile means "bring together." That can mean "restore friendly relations," or it can be no more than "reconcile [oneself] to accepting a disagreeable thing." The reconciliation relationship does not necessitate ongoing contact.

    No one should ever feel that their forgiveness is inadequate because it is not perfected by reconciliation. It is critical that no victim feel forgiveness must lead to reconciliation. But the willingness to be reconciled, however God may direct it, is the ultimate test of forgiveness which brings peace.