Forgiveness Confusion: Not Reconciliation
FORGIVENESS IS NOT THE SAME AS RECONCILIATION. People often sit up curiously at this reframe. “Wait, what?” Yes, reconciliation can grow out of forgiveness. But it may not! I suggest that separating the two can help us drop some unhelpful baggage about the meaning and relevance of forgiveness.
The essential experience of forgiveness is release into the Spirit of our hurts and woundedness. Reconciliation is the restoration of healthy relationship between individuals, groups, peoples, or nations.
We can forgive those who harm us in small or catastrophic ways, without ever reconnecting with them in relationship. Reconciliation isn’t possible if people are gone from our lives—when they’ve died or moved away. Reconciliation isn’t healthy if the hurt is likely to continue—with patterns of abuse, toxic colleagues at work, when drugs or alcohol warp reality, or in unyielding systems of injustice, and many other situations you can add.
For our own mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom, we can separate forgiveness from the complicated and often lengthy process of renegotiating healthy relationships. Reconciliation is worthwhile. Careful discernment and good support help. However, the essential motion of forgiveness happens within us in relation to the Spirit or Source of all Love. It can be quick and clear, like dropping one end of a tug-o-war.
Lack of forgiveness can gnaw at our innards in resentment, bitterness, and shame. Lack of forgiveness harms us with mental-emotional rehashing, or plans to even the score. Forgiveness-as-release untangles what binds us inwardly to our past, or ties us as victims to what has harmed us. A Lutheran pastor I admire compares forgiveness to “bolt cutters” in a “freedom fighting campaign.”
This forgiveness doesn’t depend on anyone but you and your awareness of the Divine as the source of all mercy, healing, and justice. It’s one way to grow a sturdy spiritual life. We let go, release, with trust that the Spirit will guide us into right action in response. That may be to reconcile with the one who harmed us, or to actively address wider patterns of harm like racism, colonialism, sexism or other systemic soul diseases of our time.
I hope you see I’m not talking about passive “niceness” or being a doormat. Forgiveness doesn’t let someone off the hook for wrongdoing, or tell us to forget and move on. This forgiveness doesn’t fix all the problems around us, but it can liberate and energize us to act with more compassion for ourselves and others.
A Personal Example
Once long ago, I was part of a group of women who met twice a month to share and listen to each others’ stories with open hearts and without need to fix or change each other. What some faith communities might call “faith sharing,” we named “spiritual nurture.” Their influence was profound. In their company, I rediscovered the richness of our faith heritage. I developed creative gifts, and followed Spirit’s leading into a year of volunteer service in Honduras.
But after some years together, I was having a tough time: my father, two grandparents, and a favorite aunt died within a short time; I also grieved that I could not physically bear children. I wasn’t much fun to be around. I got pushy about how we could be doing things.
There was a horrible blow up. The group conspired, confronted me, called me neurotic, bossy, and told me that my “spiritual authority” was dragging them down. I left the gathering stunned and sobbing, intending to never return to the group and probably not to that faith community either. I was horrified, embarrassed, and humiliated.
I didn’t flee.
With a shredded heart, God seemed to prompt a different kind of way forward. When I was ready, I reached out to a wise spiritual elder in a distant state. We processed, exploring whether it might be “toxic” or harmful to stay in the community. We wondered about leaving, and what it would be like for me to carry this hurt forward across the years. I didn’t want to. How could I let it go?
She suggested I meet with the most outspoken of the people who confronted me in the presence of a third prayerful presence agreeable to both of us. When I felt safe and steady enough, we did. We heard each other in the Spirit, beneath or behind the words. I told her how I had felt, owning my emotions and apologizing for my pushiness. She apologized for her “volcanic” outburst. I felt seen and respected. I could release my pain and anger. I could forgive. I don’t think I used that word at the time, but I was able to remember the hurt without the emotional charge or reliving it. Forgiveness happened. The blowup no longer burdened me.
Eventually, I returned to the small group and continued with our regular meetings. I learned about laughing at myself and collaborative leadership. I surprised myself, and surprised them. I report with joy that reconciliation and true transformation were possible through the work of the Holy and my willingness to stay at the table when things were rougher than I wanted.
But this is important: It wasn’t that I trusted the group the same way again. I never did, and I did not have to. It was more that I began to trust the Spirit with my suffering and mistakes, and with the hurting that happened between us. It would have been much easier to disappear; but that would not have been faithfulness for me. I had to try forgiveness, and it opened into surprising reconciliation.
That wise distant elder went on to co-author a lovely, practical essay on Matthew 18 as a blueprint for forgiveness and reconciliation in community. It’s an honor to have followed in her footsteps to author another Pendle Hill Pamphlet on forgiveness this year: Forgiveness: Freed to Love (available in print or as an ebook).
In a larger context, reconciliation can be a form of restorative justice. Restorative justice may or may not happen with public apologies for heinous wrongs by individuals or groups. Public apologies have become trendy, and others articulate the complications of wider reconciliation far better than I. I’m learning alongside activists and researchers, including in a recent episode of an NPR investigative podcast, Throughline, on “The Way Back.” With specific public examples and the latest in psychological and sociological research, they’re asking “How can we make public apologies work again?”
My hope is that when we can separate forgiveness from reconciliation in our own minds and experience, we may be more free to contribute toward healthy shifts in wider social issues: racism, poverty, colonialism, sexism, and even the climate crisis. I want to join the Spirit’s influence in action for the common good, and forgiveness is a sweet motion of Grace wherever it happens.
- Forgiveness On Retreat: If you’d like to explore this powerful tool in your own spiritual life, please consider an experiential retreat, July 31-August 3, 2023 in Union, WA (on Hood Canal near Tacoma, Washington): Forgiveness Retreat Details
- Got a question? In preparation, I’m reflecting in my blog on aspects of forgiveness introduced in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet. If you’ve got a topic you’d like me to explore, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.