When I was small, forgiveness was an uncomplicated thing. Someone would wrong me and they would apologize, and I would say, “I forgive you,” and then we would be completely reconciled and move on. That was all of forgiveness right there.
I brought this simplistic understanding of forgiveness into my adult life. If I forgave someone, it meant that we were completely reconciled. I no longer had any bitter feelings towards them, and they were welcome back into my life in exactly the way they were before. I did alright with this understanding for quite some time, because it works pretty well for healthy relationships. For example, when my husband and I hurt each other, we apologize, ask for forgiveness, grant it, and reconciliation is quick because we have a foundation of love and trust.
But then I encountered hurt on another level in a very damaging relationship. I was interacting with a person who consistently belittled me and bullied me. I told this person how I felt (a huge accomplishment for me, because I tend towards passive-aggressiveness). The person apologized, I forgave them, and tried to treat them like nothing had ever happened. They continued to treat me exactly as they had before, maybe even worse. I said something again, they apologized again, I forgave them again. This happened over and over and over.
I was praying this whole time that God would change this person’s behavior. “Please, just make them be nice to me!” I prayed, even more as all of this was having a toll on my mental health, which is little bit precarious at the best of times. I was becoming anxious. I was walking on eggshells around this person, trying to prevent them from treating me badly, which turned out to be impossible.
Then a wise person (my husband) told me that I could distance myself from this person. Initially, I was appalled by this advice. That would be so mean! Also, they had apologized, and I had forgiven them, so therefore we were reconciled! I needed to act like everything was good! Also, was Andy even a Christian? Didn’t he even know that he was supposed to sacrificially love people?
But he was totally right. I was praying that God would change this person, which is not a bad thing to do, but I didn’t realize that I could make changes myself, like move away from people who consistently treated me like dirt. That is not unloving at all. It’s definitely more loving to myself, and it’s also more loving to that person.
It’s more loving because creating distance helped me to actually love them. The longer I forced myself to stay in that relationship, the more embittered I became against that person for not changing into the person I needed them to be. Even though I thought I was sacrificing for that person, it was really all about me spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to get them to be nice to me. I finally took responsibility for my own health and happiness by moving away, and by doing that I respected their freedom to live however they wanted.
Through that experience I learned that forgiveness is more complicated than I originally supposed. Forgiveness means that you will not hold that wrong against a person. You will not demand compensation for past wrongs. It is costly, and it hurts. It sets up the possibility of total reconciliation.
But forgiveness for past wrongs does not guarantee a future relationship set up exactly like the past relationship. Forgiveness does not equal total reconciliation. When we are dealing with people who have sinned against us, we should long for true reconciliation. But we also need to realize that sometimes, in this world of sin and woe, reconciliation is not always possible, or it might be possible later but not now.
Reconciliation might not be possible because you can cancel the debt against someone (forgive them) but YOU CANNOT FORCE THEM TO RECONCILE WITH YOU. True, actual reconciliation requires that both parties are actively working for the good of the other person and the good of the relationship. You can forgive people, but you cannot force them to make that effort. And if they won’t, you don’t have to go on pretending that this is a good, healthy, reconciled relationship.
That was my problem with the person in the situation above. I thought that since I had forgiven them, we had to be completely reconciled. But it turned out that the person did not truly want to be reconciled to me. They wanted to have a relationship with me in which “reconciliation” meant they were still allowed to bully me. But that’s obviously not reconciliation at all. Christian love and forgiveness does not require us to live in the grip of lies, to say “peace” when there is no peace.
There are those wonderful situations where sins are forgiven and reconciliation happens all at the same time. Enjoy them! But know that forgiveness and reconciliation do not always go hand in hand, and while that is sad, it’s just another of the sadnesses of living in a fallen world. Hope for reconciliation, but don’t damage yourself or others by trying to force a one-way reconciliation.
We understand the already-but-not-yet quality of forgiveness better in terms of sickness. We pray for earthly healing, but we know that diseases will not be healed ultimately until Christ comes back. When we forgive, sometimes the relationships will not be reconciled ultimately until Christ comes back. When you demand total reconciliation now, you're immanentizing the eschaton. Better to wait for the actual eschaton. Then all things will be truly reconciled to God and to each other, and what a glorious day that will be!