In the secular psychological literature on forgiving there is a distinction drawn between forgiving and reconciliation. Researchers point out that we can let go of angry and vengeful feelings and actions, but not be ready to trust the offender enough to relate openly with him/her again. It may actually not be safe or possible to do so. Perpetrators may not be worthy of trust ever again. This makes the process of forgiving complex and arduous. I do not want to convey an overly simplistic approach. So we who forgive, must repeat our pardon as long as necessary. No limits. But we do not have to behave as if the violation never happened. Forgiving can be done alone. Reconciliation is about both the victim and the perpetrator.
From a Christian perspective, the work of forgiveness begins with a personal encounter with our forgiving God, as I mentioned in an earlier post. We can only hope to forgive when we have intimately known that we are forgiven for our errors. For many people, this step is rushed or avoided. That will steal any power to forgive we might have. We need help from beyond ourselves to be true forgivers.
Our nature is to assess cause or blame. Our first questions are often: what happened? Who did this? How could she? Jesus seems completely disinterested in this pursuit, but remains intent upon restoring relationships (asking God to forgive, excuse and restore relationship with those who kill him as they drive in the nails). This can make the distinction between forgiving and reconciliation more blurry than the psychological literature suggests. For Christians, forgiving is Jesus’ instruction to us. It’s part of living the abundant, good life. So how do we know if we’ve forgiven someone when the bitter feelings return when we see them across the room or on the street?
I want to suggest that we first put aside trying to evaluate our ability to forgive and reconcile and instead allow ourselves to focus on the present moment through prayer and being mindful of the Spirit with us and within us. When anger or hurt rise up, it means we are invited again to name our pain with the Spirit right there to comfort us. Forgiving and discerning when we can or cannot reconcile requires attending intentionally to the hurt we are suffering rather than ignoring or repressing it. Naming the pain with Jesus is always our option, even our calling. We can’t forgive if we can’t allow ourselves to recall the hurt.*
*See Everett L. Worthington, (2003), Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity for a more complete discussion.