Anatomy of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Recently I had a discussion with a colleague on forgiveness, reconciliation and guilt. And I realised that we often hide a lot of presumptions about forgiving people and reconciling with them and we inevitably read these presumptions into the scripture. Perhaps, this issue can first be explored from the Scripture.

One place to start is to think about what the Scripture says about God forgiving us and what it entails. To me, the mercy of God towards our sins is manifested on the Cross of Jesus Christ and explained through His gospel. Paul summed it up very clearly and succinctly in his epistle to the Romans:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faithfrom first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” - Romans 1:17
 It was later written further in the epistle:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile,23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. - Romans 3:21-26
One thing we learned is that through the Cross of Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God is being made known to us. What does the righteousness of God mean? To put it simply, we can define it as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself. This is a status before God and not internal moral transformation—God’s activity of “making right” is a purely forensic activity, an acquitting, and not an “infusing” of righteousness or a “making right” in a moral sense. To use the imagery of the law court, from which righteousness language is derived, we can picture God’s righteousness as the act or decision by which the judge declares innocent a defendant: an activity of the judge, but an activity that is a declaration of status—an act that results in, and indeed includes within it, a gift. In this sense, the noun “righteousness” in this phrase can be understood to be the substantival equivalent of the verb “justify.”

What this really means is this: God forgive us through the cross firstly by acquitting us of our sins. We are first and foremost judged not guilty by the judge himself. However, it began to dawn upon me that being acquitted is not equated to reconciliation and the restoration of our relationship with the judge but merely set the stage for reconciliation. Justification (the word has the same root word in Greek as righteousness) is the point but reconciliation is a process that takes place after the justification. For some, the process of reconciliation can take place fast but some may find that the process will take a long time. Also, we note that justification and being declared righteous is an objective state, and it has nothing to do with how we feel about ourselves. From this, we can take it that our tendency to feel guilty and unforgiven by God when we accept His sacrifice on the cross is more an internal issue rather than an objective issue since at that point, God objectively has received us and justified us.

How can we then make sense of this in our own situations of forgiveness and reconciliation? To be sure, God wants us to forgive. This is what Jesus, according to Matthew, has to say:
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. - Matthew 6:14-15
It is imperative that we need to forgive other people, not so that we may be forgiven by God but more because if we do not forgive other people, it is a show that we have yet experienced the reality of God's forgiveness for ourselves. The Scripture is very clear that experiencing the forgiveness of God entails the result of us forgiving other people. Paul said it the same in Ephesians:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. - Ephesians 4:32
This is in the context of living as God's people in the church and we know that this is how we should live our lives.

But maybe the next question is whether reconciliation takes place immediately after that. My answer is a yes and no. The process of reconciliation takes place immediately forgiveness but it does not mean that relationship gets restored immediately back to the same level as before, depending on the circumstances and situations. With this, I shall recount an incident that happened last year.

You see, there is a friend of mine, if indeed I can call him a 'friend'. This friend is worshiping in the same church as me and we sometimes meet up to share life together. So the incident happened one fine day when he told me that he will be committing suicide because of some discouragement he experienced. He sounded so sure as he told me that he will meet up with some people, get things settled before he commits the act. This got me worried and I decided that I wanted to jolt him out of it. Perhaps my tone was a bit harsh back then and it irked him and he told me to go away. Bear in mind all these conversations happened over Facebook chat and since I was in the midst of work that time, I decided to close the conversation window. Little did I know, he continued to pester me, despite telling me to go away (which makes things weird, it's like you being told to go away and you walk away while the person keeps chasing after you to go away). So I decided to block him on Facebook, with the intention of unblocking him after he cools down.

Things of course started getting stranger. He then sms, whatsapped, emailed and went through whatever channels to make a few points to me: that I had an aversion to people who are hurt (which is not true) and that I had not learned anything from my pastoral counselling class (which is not true since I have never taken a pastoral counselling class from my theological education before). To me, it was maligning at its best. The other key message, which I recently identified as emotional blackmail, is that the way that I acted was a result of my theological education - not being 'loving' and 'empathetic'. Of course if I am the only one who assert that he is wrong, then you probably cannot take it at face value. I talked to several people after that, explaining that I was going from the position of discipline and rebuke, which these people readily acknowledged that someone will have to do this job. And this friend would later say that there is something wrong in my spiritual life and that God has affirmed his ministry (which has nothing to do with our conflict or whatever so I didn't know why he brought that out) and that I need to learn how to receive grace in my life etc.

And from my point of view, I learned a few things pertaining to this friendship. Firstly, my theological education is being used by this friend to blackmail me into showing him the kind of behaviour that he would expect from other people in his life as well. My theological education was used as a tool to bind my hands such that if I don't show 'empathy', I have betrayed my training. Secondly, my own personal history which I have shared with this friend has been used by him to make certain judgement such as the fact that I have aversion towards people who hurt (which is not true, I have aversion to people who emotionally abuse people). Thirdly, my own theological education became a blank check for him to insert anything he likes to hold me against, like saying that I have attended a pastoral counselling class and that I have learned nothing from that (that being said, the latter is true cos the former is not).

But I was ready to forgive him and forgive him I did. But I also knew that because of what I realised about the relationship, the process of reconciliation will take time. I decided to draw the boundary between him and me so that there is space for recovery. So relationship went back to being cordial but I chose not to stay close to him at that point in time.

But he eventually chose to confront me over this, and when I explained to him, albeit in a very cold way, he chose not to accept my explanation and whined again over how unforgiving I am and that he will pray for me etc. Subsequent conversations with other people have confirmed with me that I was not the only one he acted that way towards.

What can I do then? The friend subsequently unfriended me on Facebook and decided to do things his way from that point onwards. I heard from other people who are in touch with him that his own emotional state may not be that good and mature but this is not for me to judge. The only thing I can say that there is definitely forgiveness but the process of reconciliation, as I realised, is not immediate. This is the reason why Henry Cloud, after writing the book on Boundaries, wrote another book "Beyond Boundaries", which explored the process of drawing boundaries in the midst of damaged relationship. And I fully understood that this was the process I needed to go through.

And I also realised that the process of reconciliation and the act of forgiveness are concurrent but not synonymous with one another. Dissecting the two, one realises that reconciliation takes time and sometimes, the timetable may not be what you expect.

Addendum: I realised that I did not do justice to my own story as I forgot to include some details that led to certain decisions. Firstly, the relationship perhaps would not have gone downhill to the extent that I have to draw certain boundaries had not been the fact that this friend decided to approach my fiancee and asked her to talk to me regarding my 'issues' and then even worse, arranging to meet her up in the evening after the day of the incident to talk to her when I was supposed to send her home after dinner. Perhaps it may be jealousy but I could not take this lying down at that point in time since I believed that as a man, you talk to the other party directly instead of creating emotional collateral damage by involving third parties who should not have been involved to that extent in the first place. Furthermore, she was prone to getting tired in the evening and to hold her back in such a meeting came upon to me as selfish. To be more crude, I interpreted the event that time as an emotional sexual harassment. This single act almost guaranteed that I would no longer involve this friend in my life if he is going to do such a thing to someone who is more dear to me than him. And to some extent at that point in time, I was seeing him as a woman rather than a man, only to be reminded by God that he is as created by Him as me. 

Secondly, I need to admit that this incident was not entirely his fault per se as there were things that could have been better managed. For example, my tone could have been more understanding. My earlier narration focused much on his part of the story but the purpose is more to show what I needed to forgive him for the illustration of the main point I was trying to make in this post. 

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