The English poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Indeed, forgiveness is an indispensable part of living a healthy emotional and spiritual life. So important, in fact, that when Jesus was teaching his followers how to pray, he instructed them to ask God to forgive them in the same way they forgive others.
Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus said to ask for God’s forgiveness in the same way that you give it. He actually went on to say that if you refuse to forgive others, you will not be forgiven yourself. What on earth does this mean? And is it ever okay NOT to reconcile with someone?
Though I am no theologian, I believe Jesus was teaching that forgiveness is actually more about YOU as the forgiver and what the act of letting go of resentment does for you than about how it affects the person who wronged you. Unforgiveness is like a cork that stops up the flow of love, grace, and peace inside of you. Holding too tightly to our woundedness inhibits shalom, a word used by the Hebrews that means wholeness, completeness, welfare and tranquility. When we don’t forgive, it does little to affect the ones who hurt us, but it keeps us hostage to our own anger and bitterness. We end up living trapped in a self-made cage. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by our own forgiveness being tied up in how we forgive others. We only punish ourselves when we refuse to forgive.
With this in mind, then, forgiving “seventy times seven” becomes less about repeatedly excusing someone else’s habitually bad behavior and more about not letting the experience of being wronged turn us bitter. Sometimes it takes several trips back to the well of grace in order to keep from ingesting the hatred that can come from having been wronged. As one of my favorite people once said, “To forgive is like setting someone free, then finding out that person was you.”
So what does this mean for our relationships? Does forgiveness always mean that we act as though the offense never happened? Is there ever a time when it is not healthy to forgive?
Remember that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Forgiveness is about you and your heart. It is about removing the cork that keeps love, grace, and peace from flowing into and out of you. You are the only one that has to take any action to forgive. As such, it is possible to forgive someone who does not ask for it, or someone who hurt you and has since passed away. It is always healthy to forgive.
But forgiveness often involves setting boundaries, not just keeping the relationship in the unhealthy place it’s always been. Sometimes forgiveness includes recognizing that someone either can’t or won’t join you on the path to healing. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation requires action from both parties, which is not always forthcoming. Reconciliation also requires a genuine concern for each other’s welfare, which is not always present. Because of this, it is sometimes necessary to enforce some limits, or even end some relationships altogether.
Think of it this way; reconciliation requires forgiveness, but forgiveness does not necessarily lead to—or require—reconciliation.
You might have heard the Scripture, “If it is possible, as far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” Seeking peace with those who have hurt us (as well as those whom we have hurt) is one important marker of a healthy life. Reconciliation is transformational. It goes beyond forgiveness and provides a depth of relationship that can only come from working through hurts together. Reconciling with someone after a wound has occurred ideally leaves the relationship stronger than it was before the offense. Just as a broken bone heals to be stronger than before, people that can genuinely weather the storms of hurt together end up with a healthier and richer relationship than when they started.
All of this, however, presupposes the fact that relational peace is not always possible, and that it doesn’t always depend upon you. Look again at how the verse was written. “If it is possible, as far as it depends upon you…”. That is no accident.
Reconciliation takes two. Some of that work is out of your hands. Peacemaking requires us to learn what is ours to do, and also what we should expect from others. Both are necessary if we are to experience true peace instead of some kind of counterfeit.
So may you be a peacemaker that is quick to forgive. May your heart be open and light. May you seek reconciliation with those around you. May you have the wisdom to know what boundaries are necessary, and if it is possible, as far as it depends upon you, may you live at peace with everyone.
By Matt Thames, M.A., LPC