How can we reconcile with people that destroyed our innocence, betrayed our trust, and abused or abandoned us?
Some Christians take the first step and forgive the people who hurt them, but they don’t seek reconciliation with the offenders. These Christians keep them at arm’s length and avoid them. This strategy does usually not work in the long run, however. At some point, everyone has to consider whether they should reconcile with people who hurt them.
If we refuse to forgive and reconcile with people who have hurt, betrayed, or abandoned us, we risk descending into bitterness and anger. These toxic emotions could taint our other relationships. If we refuse to reconcile, we may stay stuck in our hurts and emotional pain.
Reasons Why We Avoid Reconciliation
When we have been hurt, we tend to stuff it down deep instead of face it. It is not easy to admit that a friend betrayed our trust or that our mate had an affair. We may even turn to drugs, alcohol, or compulsive behaviors to stuff our pain deep down.
Fear can drive us to avoid emotionally painful situations. We do not want to open the wounds and risk them hurting us again. Fear might drive us to avoid offenders and try to suppress the pain. We may fear that the offender may not acknowledge that they have hurt us and apologize, or that offenders may shrug off an incident as a joke or a misunderstanding.
Deep down, we may not want to forgive the other person. Our minds are full of anger, righteous indignation, emotional pain, and a desire for vengeance.
Fear of Retaliation
Some emotionally and sometimes physically abusive people will react to a reconciliation attempt with hurtful words and even violence. Abusers will see any attempt at reconciliation as unwanted criticism and blame, or as an attempt to shake off their control.
This situation can be dangerous. We have the right to sever relationships that are emotionally and physically harmful to us. Being a Christian does not mean that we have to submit to abuse. Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is a dealbreaker and relationship breaker.
The Spirit of Reconciliation
Whether we approach the offenders or they come to us, a certain state of mind must prevail. Both parties must put aside righteous indignation, excuses for bad behavior, defensiveness, and a desire for revenge. Both parties must be humble, honest, and willing to admit where they were wrong.
A Biblical Example: Joseph
The story of Joseph (Genesis 37) is an incredible example of the benefits of reconciliation. There he was, the envied wunderkind in his technicolor coat, daddy’s favorite son. Joseph dreamed two dreams that suggested that his brothers would be bowing down to him one day (which came true later on).
His brothers were so jealous of Joseph that they decided to kill him. Brother Reuben encouraged them to sell Joseph into slavery instead, so they did. Poor Joseph. Not only did this young man have to work as a slave in Egypt, but he was accused of trying to sleep with his master’s wife (Genesis 39).
He was innocent but was thrown into jail anyway. The brothers’ actions harmed not only Joseph, but the brothers had to face shame and guilt for what they did. They had lied to their father and family, telling them that Joseph was dead. Poor dad was prostrate with grief.
God was with Joseph and blessed him. Eventually, Joseph’s get-out-of-jail-free card was his ability to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams. He rose to a high position that was second only to the Pharaoh. Thanks to Joseph's insight, Egypt had more than enough food to last through a long famine and a surplus that they could share with others.
Imagine Joseph’s astonishment when his brothers showed up asking for grain one day. His brothers did not even recognize him. Joseph did test them to see what kind of people they were now but then offered them a chance to reconcile.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come close to me." When they had done so, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you" (Genesis 45:4-5).
By saying this, Joseph showed that he had:
- Put the past behind him
- Totally forgiven his brothers
- Wanted to rebuild his relationship with his brothers
- Understood that God would use the situation to do good, in this case, to save the lives of his family and many others
Like Joseph, we may have to endure injustice, unfair treatment, and undeserved punishment. We have to accept the negative consequences of what offenders have done to us, and believe that God can use it for good.
Signs the Offender Is Truly Repentant
People often offend because of character flaws, weaknesses, and poor choices, such as substance abuse. Their offense may be unintentional. These offenders may actually be truly repentant.
There are several ways to know that an offender is genuinely repentant and open to reconciliation. They:
- Accept full responsibility for their actions instead of being defensive
- Are willing to be accountable for their actions
- Do not continue their harmful behavior
- Do not minimize or dismiss their hurtful behavior
- Accept the possibility that victims may not trust them and doubt their sincerity, especially if there have been repeated offenses
- Are willing to make restitution, if needed
The Benefits of Reconciliation
When we talk to the offender, we can share how their words or actions have hurt us. They then have the opportunity to explain their actions if they can, apologize, and resolve the situation. This kind of communication can speed our healing.
In the book Wounded by God's People: Discovering How God’s Love Heals Our Hearts, author and evangelist Anne Graham Lotz uses Biblical examples and her own painful experiences to dig deeper into this topic. Lotz is also the daughter of Billy Graham.
We may either be innocent of any wrongdoing or, in some situations, we may have played a part in creating the offense. The reconciliation process allows us to humbly apologize for our part, if needed. We can tell someone something such as “I forgive you” so that we can have closure, and they can move on too.
We may be able to restore a relationship that is beneficial for both us and offenders. God puts certain people into our lives for a reason. The offenders, however, need to understand that we may need some distance from them for a while to heal. We should aim to live at peace with everyone as much as possible (Romans 12:18).
Dealing With Repeat Offenders
What if people keep offending us again and again? What if they apologize, but they do not change their behavior? We must forgive them, but we have the right to set boundaries. We do not have to put up with people making nasty remarks or interfering in our personal lives. We do not have to confide our secrets to them when we know that they will blab them all over the place. We do not have to trust offenders when they have let us down time and time again.
When Reconciliation Does Not Work
I have reconciled with people who have hurt me through honest and open communication. The former offenders have enriched my life with their love and care. In some cases, however, reconciliation does not work and should not be attempted.
Sometimes, we will hit a wall of denial, defensiveness, or even a lecture for bringing up the topic. A reconciliation attempt may turn into a barrage of verbal abuse. Abusive people want to keep things the way they are and will resist change. It is difficult to have more than a superficial relationship with the person because they do not or will not understand how we feel.
Reconciliation is not possible with some people. No matter what we say or do, they persist in violating our trust, gossiping behind our backs, criticizing us, or offending us. They may try to manipulate us into accepting their bad behavior by saying, “I thought you were a Christian.” We may have to accept the fact that these offenders will probably never understand the harm that they had done and forgive them.
"It takes two to tango," as the saying goes. Forgiveness does not mean that we have to continually put up with bad behavior. We have the right to protect ourselves from those who would hurt us.
We should never give up hope, however, that people can change. We should keep observing them to see if God is at work in their lives. We can show by our actions that our door to reconciliation is always open. How open is up to us.
Reconciliation is a difficult process that takes time and effort. Two people have to be involved in the restoration of the relationship. We need to be willing to forgive, no matter the situation. If reconciliation is possible however, the new relationship can enrich our lives with the joys of love and friendship.
The Holy Bible, New International Version
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Carola Finch