We’ve all wronged or hurt someone, and we’ve all been wronged or hurt. As Christians, we talk a lot about forgiveness. But, forgiveness isn’t the same as reconciliation. For Christians, forgiveness should be automatic. Reconciliation, on the other hand, may take some time. Reconciliation is a process; one that often begins with the words, “I’m sorry.” The truth is, most of the time, sorry isn’t enough.
“It takes one person to forgive, it takes two people to be reunited.”
~Lewis B. Smedes
Events this week have given me reason to think and pray about two things – forgiveness and reconciliation. And, more specifically, I’ve thought about those instances when sorry isn’t enough. Let me explain…
As you know, our monthly movie night was scheduled Friday, April 25th. And, as some of you know, we had to cancel our movie night because, earlier that day, seven DVDs were stolen – including the movie that was to be shown.
On Tuesday I went to the police station and filed the report. Now, the street value of the movies is next to nothing – a buck or two a piece. But, the cost to the church is extremely high. To show the movies in a public venue legally, we are required to buy a license. The movies we show don’t fall under a “master license.” Each movie requires its own separate license. On average, each movie and license costs approximately $125.00. That puts our loss for the seven DVDs at $875.00! To put this in perspective, that’s enough to pay our electric bill for 5 months. Or, since we provide food and shelter to the homeless, given our current monthly expenditure for food, the cost of replacing those seven DVDs could buy almost 6 months worth of food. This seemingly inconsequential theft had a very definite and consequential impact to our very limited church budget.
Our local paper prints a public notice of all police reports filed. Low and behold, a woman called to ask me questions about the DVDs and the theft. It turns out she owns a local pawn shop and she saw the notice in the paper. She, indeed, was in possession of all seven DVDs. What had our thieves gotten for their trouble? $7.00! It turns out this couple had been in her store before, she knows them, and was able to provide a description and even their names! Unfortunately, that information left me extremely disheartened – it’s a homeless couple who comes here for food and shelter on regular basis. In fact, they were here when I discovered the theft. But, because of the situation at the time, the fact that I knew them and had had numerous conversations with them in which they freely discussed their faith, and I had no reason not to trust them, I hadn’t seriously considered them suspect.
The pawn shop owner’s husband returned the movies Friday evening. I tried, but he refused to let me compensate them for their $7.00 loss. He said they wanted to return the movies because it was the right thing to do, and wouldn’t accept anything but our gratitude in return.
This situation prompted a lot of thought, and prayer, on my part. So many questions came into my mind. Once again our ability to forgive has been put to the test. But, beyond forgiveness, I began to question if reconciliation is possible. And, if so, what that should look like? What’s the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? Does forgiveness automatically mean that this couple should be welcomed back as if nothing ever happened? Could we tell them they’re not welcome here and still live up to our Christian values?
Now, we’ve talked a lot about forgiveness before – about how it’s a duty of Christians to forgive. In fact, some of you are probably saying, “Oh no, not again.” Take heart – yes, I want to talk today about forgiveness but, more importantly, I want to talk about reconciliation. I want to examine what we do when sorry isn’t enough.
Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation
Although forgiveness is, or at least should be, automatic – reconciliation is not.
Forgiveness is the means by which we release all negative aspects of the situation – anger, retaliation, vengeance, etc. Forgiveness requires nothing from the offending party – it is solely the responsibility of the injured party. Reconciliation, on the other hand, requires action from both the injured and the offender.
Let’s take a look at Paul’s words in Romans 12:17-21: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Paul clearly shows that forgiveness itself is one-sided – not returning evil for evil, doing what’s right in the eyes of everyone (remember the old saying – two wrongs don’t make a right), don’t be vengeful. But, Paul also says to live peaceably with everyone – as much as it depends on you. In other words, Paul recognizes there may be instances beyond your control that make a relationship with someone else impossible. For reconciliation to occur – both parties must do their part.
Reconciliation is a process through which, it is hoped, broken relationships can be restored. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation can take time, and often places requirements on the offender – they have to do their part.
For small infractions, simply acknowledging the wrong and saying “I’m sorry” is sufficient. For more major offenses, however, saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough to rebuild or restore a broken relationship. Reconciliation requires a restoration of trust. We must be able to trust that the offending person is truly sorry, i.e. repentant. We must be able to trust he or she is sincere. We must be able to trust that the offense won’t be repeated. The offender must be able to trust that the injured party is sincere in his or her desire for reconciliation – that it won’t be constantly “thrown in their face.”
One of the first things that needs to happen is for the offender to admit his or her wrong and repent – which often comes in the form of “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry” should never be a requirement of forgiveness – because forgiveness should have no requirements. However, for the process of reconciliation to begin, the offender must acknowledge the wrong that has been committed, and demonstrate remorse.
There also needs to be a change in behavior and/or attitude. Saying “I’m sorry” without changing the offending behavior or attitude is superficial and meaningless.
What are some indications that a person is truly sorry? They accept responsibility. They don’t deny or downplay the hurt they’ve caused. They understand that rebuilding trust can take time, and they aren’t resentful that doubts as to their sincerity can arise. They don’t get defensive.
Now, even when the person is repentant, we may be hesitant to reconcile. In cases with safety concerns, such as violence or crimes against children, reconciliation may not be possible at all. Whenever possible, though, we must be open to the possibility of reconciliation. Jesus speaks to this in Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
If we’re hesitant, however, there are some things we can work through to help us (inspired by Pastor Steve Cornell):
Examine your motives. If placing guidelines or parameters around reconciliation, make sure they are not retaliatory or vengeful in nature.
- Maintain a humble attitude. Don’t take a holier-than-thou or superior stance. If we have vengeful attitudes, or if we set ourselves up as somehow superior, we are being motivated by pride and not a true desire for reconciliation.
- Pray for the offender. When we hold those who have offended us in prayer, our whole attitude toward them changes. We remember that they, too, are children of God and we create a desire to extend love rather than vengeance. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27-28: “…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
- Admit whatever role we might have played in the situation. If we’ve responded in an unloving, unkind, unforgiving, or self-righteous manner, we may have inadvertently contributed to the breakdown of the relationship. This doesn’t excuse the offending person’s actions or behavior, but recognizing ways in which we might have contributed to the breakdown can help to speed the reconciliation process.
- Be honest. If we need time to rebuild trust, or if there are specific actions or behaviors we feel are necessary, we must be honest with the one who hurt us. we must be careful, however, that this isn’t just a way of being manipulative and punishing.
- If there are actions or behaviors that are required for reconciliation, be clear about them. But, again, be careful not to place guidelines around the reconciliation that are manipulative or vindictive in nature.
- Make sure we are coming from a place of love and compassion, not a place of anger or resentment. Remember Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29-5:2: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
- Pray and look for ways that God can use this situation for good. Perhaps it opens opportunities for us to help and serve others; or to help others grown in the faith and relationship with God. Remember Paul’s words to the Romans in Chapter 8, verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”
- Finally, be realistic. Depending on the situation and the level of change in attitude or behavior required, the process take time and work. Even if we need to proceed cautiously, we must also realize that placing unreasonable demands on the offender, or expecting unrealistic guarantees will do little to foster a rebuilding of the relationship.
Back to our own situation and the couple that stole from us. Can we forgive them? Yes. But, that doesn’t mean we excuse their actions – that they don’t have to be held accountable. Will I notify the police that the DVDs have been returned? Yes – because it’s the right thing to do. Will I provide their names and description? Yes – because it’s the right thing to do. Will we welcome them back into the church? Ah…now we get down to the real question. If we say “yes” without any thought or hesitation, without placing some sort of guidelines around their coming back, we would simply be acting blindly – and we would not be helping them to grow in their relationship with God. If our answer is “no” – we must examine why. Are we simply acting out of anger, vengeance, and retaliation? If so, this wouldn’t help them to grow in their relationship with God, either. Nor would we be living our faith. So, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say “yes” – with conditions – Sorry Isn’t Enough. They must admit to the theft. They must demonstrate true repentance, not just say the words “I’m sorry.” One way they can do this is to come before you all, admit their wrong-doing, and express their sorrow for betraying our trust. They must acknowledge, without resentment, the fact that it may take some time to rebuild our trust. They must be willing to face whatever legal consequences that may arise from their actions. And they must apologize and make restitution to the pawn shop.
Forgiveness is one-sided. As Christians, we freely offer forgiveness and, in so doing, we free ourselves from the hurt, anger, and vengeance. Reconciliation, on the other hand, requires both parties. And, in many, many cases, Sorry Isn’t Enough.
We, the offended, must be genuinely willing to rebuild or restore the relationship; and the offenders must be willing to take responsibility for their actions, as well as take the steps necessary to rebuild our trust – Sorry Isn’t Enough.
That being said – 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” Upon reflection and writing this message, in some ways, I have to say I’m thankful this situation has occurred. Remembering Romans 8:28, that God can use all things for good, this situation has provided us with the opportunity to more fully examine forgiveness and reconciliation. It has allowed us to examine our own motives. It has allowed us the opportunity to examine what Scripture has to say, and, how we can apply it in our lives. And, it is through this process we strengthen our own relationship with God; we more fully live as followers of Christ; and we more deeply allow for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- Romans 12:17-21
- Matthew 5:23-24
- Luke 6:27-28
- Ephesians 4:29-5:2
- Romans 8:28
- 1 Thessalonians 5:18
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