Forgiveness and Reconciliation: What’s the Difference?

Most of my work as a psychotherapist consists of helping individuals and couples work through very difficult relationship challenges. Nearly everyday, I have a person sitting across from me in tears expressing frustration, hurt and anger. They often say something like: He said I am sorry, but it’s at least the 10th time! I don’t know what to do. I am told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive, and the Lord knows I’ve tried. But each time I forgive him, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes, and I just get angrier. What should I do? Sometimes we hesitate to forgive because we think it must automatically include reconciliation, but in reality these are two separate processes, and one does not always lead to the other.


One person can forgive; it takes two to reconcile

The reality is, each of us have the power to forgive anything but that doesn’t mean that a person is willing to forgive anything or that the act of forgiveness will be easy. And sometimes a wrong is so horrible that it can take the rest of one’s life to forgive completely. But the possibility is there. 

The capacity to forgive does not depend on anyone else’s behavior or permission. The person who is being forgiven can continue to be cruel, thoughtless, and relentlessly set against the person who is trying to forgive. But he or she cannot force me to offer or withhold forgiveness. From my perspective, forgiveness is a spiritual act, which means that, ultimately, I rely on God’s grace to accomplish it. In fact, my own faults and weaknesses will get in the way of my ability to forgive, especially in some situations. But whatever I’m lacking, God can supply. At times my need for God’s assistance is acute, but when I choose to forgive, my effort does not rely on any other person.

Reconciliation is a multiple-person process. When one person reconciles with another person, both of them must first ask and/or offer forgiveness. But it has to go further than that. Both people have to choose to do whatever it takes to restore the relationship. One person might be completely willing, but if the other person is not willing, reconciliation isn’t possible. 

This means that I can forgive someone for damaging our friendship, but maybe I don’t feel safe enough to resume the friendship. Reconciliation might happen later, but for now I will forgive and leave it at that. Maybe I’ve already forgiven the person who has hurt me and I’m ready and able to reconcile, but the other person no longer desires the relationship. Or, it’s possible the other person can forgive me but not want to reconcile; or the other person forgives me but I don’t want to reconcile. 

It’s worth recognizing here that some damage occurs in relationships that are out of balance to begin with, such as the friendship in which one person is needy and the other one always comes to the rescue. In these cases, reconciliation—if it should happen at all—will require a complete reconstruction and that only after one or both people have dealt with their individual issues. Reconciliation can be long and painful and messy, but it can also be well worth all the strife if the relationship is truly restored. Sometimes restored relationships are stronger than they were before they fell apart.

Forgiveness is an interior discipline; reconciliation is an outward process

Forgiveness is a private and ongoing discipline of mind, heart, and soul. Actually, forgiveness is one aspect of an overall posture toward others and life itself.

If I am judgmental and vindictive in general, forgiveness will be an awkward and difficult change of direction for me. If I hope to forgive specific wrongs others commit against me, then I should be practicing everyday to look at others with openness and compassion, to be slow to place blame and to resist seeking revenge. And I can even practice forgiveness without anyone else knowing what is happening inside me. 

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I may be super hurt at something another person said, and I know that before I confront that person in any way, I need to choose forgiveness. I might silently work on forgiveness—in my prayer, meditation, talks with a counselor —for days or weeks without talking directly to the person whose words hurt me. In some cases, I might go through that private process, realize that the wrong wasn’t as blatant or as intentional as I first thought, and then get over it completely without the other person ever knowing about my struggle.

Reconciliation, on the other hand, is not private because it must include at least one other person. When I’m working on reconciliation, of course I do my own interior work, but I must also cooperate with the larger work that involves others’ personal difficulties and needs. I may feel a burning desire to have a discussion immediately and try to restore the relationship, but the other person has a lot going on—dealing with her teenager, pressures at work, or health problems—and she simply cannot enter such a heavy conversation yet. My loved one may want to reconcile now and move back home, but I know that until she has received professional help for her substance abuse or mental-health problems, such a move would be a mistake and likely result not in reconciliation but a bigger mess. 

Reconciliation is as complicated as the people involved, and it can require more time and patience than forgiveness because of all the moving pieces. Another big factor in reconciliation is the inclusion—or, intrusion—of other friends and family members. Additional people can provide strength, encouragement, and wisdom. They can also provide more opportunities for argument, miscommunication, and flawed strategies.

At the end of the day, it’s been my experience, that in order to heal and move forward in our life that forgiveness is not negotiable. If we harbor anger and resentment toward another, we invite a cancer to live within us and eat us from the inside out. To live in peace and harmony with those around us, and to enjoy rest in our soul, we need to forgive. Once we do that, we can figure out the rest.

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