Beyond Forgiveness to Reconciliation
The standard is higher for Christians, much higher.
For Jesus, there was no negotiating about the priority of love.
Once a clever lawyer asked Jesus about the greatest commandment in the law. “Jesus replied: ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ ” (Matt. 22:37-40).
In other words, Jesus was emphasizing that everything else in Scripture must be filtered through the lens of love for God and, just as important, love for our neighbors.
The apostle John wrote, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
This principle of love is foundational to all relationships because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Relationships between parents and children, spouses, and members of the church family are all subject to this principle of love.
The sad reality is that in our humanness we often fall far short of this biblical imperative. Self gets in the way and too frequently unhealthy conflicts between people result in broken relationships. In this fallen world we hurt one another. In most cases the hurt is unintentional, but it’s still painful. As a
result, a strain or distance can occur in relationships. Often relationships are broken, altogether in an attempt to keep from being hurt again.
Nearly 30 years ago, when I first became a Seventh-day Adventist, I had a narrow view of God’s love. I was raised in a family in which being right was more important than being loving. I loved God the best way I knew, but I didn’t understand that my relationship with God was fear-based. My internal belief system said, “If you don’t do everything right, and keep all the commandments, you’ll be judged and condemned.”
The problem with my fear-based religion was that in my self-righteousness I put myself as judge and jury above others. I looked down on others and condemned them because they weren’t doing everything I considered right. Because I was so judgmental, I missed seeing people; and I saw their differences as faults.
I left the organized church for a short time, priding myself that I wasn’t leaving the “true church” but what I considered “Babylon,” or the false church. I thought of myself as part of the “true” remnant. I asked to have my name removed from the church books. In this process, I hurt my wife, my children, and my church family, to say nothing of how I hurt my precious Lord.
Through a series of events the Lord introduced me to a correct understanding of grace and righteousness by faith. My heart was broken. I went back to my church family, confessed the error of my previous thinking, and was welcomed back into its fellowship with open arms. I was the recipient of the grace and forgiveness I so badly needed.
In this process one dear sister stands out. We had moved to California to serve at Weimar Institute. The Lord had already done a lot of work on me, but I was still quite rigid in my thinking because these patterns were so deeply ingrained in my thinking, emotions, and living. Despite who I still was at the time, this sister didn’t judge me, reject me, or distance herself from me. She simply loved my family and me.
At first I couldn’t understand. I judged her as a flaming liberal. But that didn’t deter her love for me. She kept her heart open to me, even when mine was closed to her. I began to understand God’s love through this sister to whom I am eternally grateful. I had never experienced such a thing, and my heart was melted.
Perfect in Love
Jesus shared this perspective with His followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. . . . If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48).
In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus connects perfection with love. The command to be perfect is the command to love maturely and selflessly. Unfortunately, instead of this type of love, we often relate to others as functional enemies. Instead of blessing them, we curse them; instead of doing good to them, we show hatred by the way we treat them. If we pray for them at all, it’s so that they will be molded into an image of our making.
Forgiveness is an essential element of true Christian love. Humanly speaking, when we’re hurt by another person or group, we can choose whether or not to forgive. Forgiveness essentially involves acknowledging the hurt, grieving the loss, and experiencing comfort from “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3), and from others in a trusted community. Humility in forgiveness acknowledges that I’m no better than those who hurt me, because I’m capable of inflicting the same pain on others. (If you are uncertain of this truth, simply ask God to show you how you are like those who hurt you.)
Forgiveness is a call to heart searching, to see the hurting and sinful ways in my own heart (Ps. 139:23, 24). When someone hurts us, that person owes us a debt (Matt. 18:23-35). The decision to forgive is a choice to no longer require satisfaction of that debt, but to stamp it “paid in full.” This implies that I surrender the right to bring it up again and rub it in the person’s face. Like the Father, I must cast it into the sea of forgetfulness.
Forgiveness doesn’t gloss over differences or pretend they don’t exist, but it opens my heart to others in love. Prayer for those who hurt me opens my heart to them even more. As the apostle Peter wrote: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8, 9).
Moving Toward Reconciliation
Through this process we are now positioned for the possibility of reconciliation. Humanly speaking, the last thing we want to do is reconcile with those who hurt us. We want to stay away from them, cut them off, wish they didn’t exist.
I’m thankful God didn’t treat me that way. We were restored to relationship with God through the work of Christ. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18, 19).
Are we willing to no longer count our brothers’ and sisters’ sins against them, but rather to be ministers of reconciliation, just as Jesus was with us? This is the result of regeneration, of being a new person in Christ (verse 17).
If God made peace with everyone by the death of Jesus on the cross, aren’t we compelled to do the same thing with each of our brothers and sisters, no matter how much we disagree about an issue?
In practical terms, this means being willing to have conversation with those who hurt me, or who may see things differently than me. It means that I may have to listen carefully without judgment so that I can hear the heart of others to understand how important an issue is to them.
Reconciliation might mean a willingness to apologize for a real or perceived hurt we have caused others. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:19, 20).
If God made peace with everyone by the death of Jesus on the cross, aren’t we compelled to do the same thing with each of our brothers and sisters, no matter how much we disagree about an issue? Is being “right” about an issue more important than maintaining a loving relationship?
Love That Compels Us
She was dying; the family had been called. My friend and his wife drove to Texas to be with his brother and failing sister-in-law whom he had prayed with and for many times during the course of her illness. When they arrived, my friend prayed with her one last time. As she faintly recognized his voice, she physically responded but was unable to speak.
All the family was around her bed as the Sabbath drew to a close. Everyone knew the end was near. Her favorite songs were hymns. One of her sons put his iPhone next to her ear and played “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”While the song played, her body noticeably relaxed, and with a few short breaths she breathed her last.
My friend went out to the patio to support his grieving brother. They were followed by nieces and nephews openly sobbing, expressing their grief at the loss of their beloved grandmother. He soon realized that everyone had left the room except the women—his wife, daughter, and his brother’s two daughters-in-law. Before her death, the dying woman asked her eldest son that she be dressed before leaving her bed. The women ministered to her by washing and anointing her entire body with a fragrant lotion in a sacred ceremony reminiscent of the anointing of the body of Jesus. When they finished, they dressed the woman in one of her finest suits, as she had requested. The culmination of this sacred, private moment was to be a celebration. Everyone was deeply moved.
Perhaps the greatest fruit of this touching ceremony, however, was the reconciliation between family members who had long been separated by relational stress. Some hadn’t spoken in many years. Now, at the death of this godly woman, years of bitterness melted away, and they held each other close. Later at the funeral the woman’s three brothers, who hadn’t spoken to each other for many years, stood with their arms around each other beside the casket. Before she died she asked that they put away the differences that had separated them for so long. Their love for her overcame their bitterness, and they granted her request by reconciling.
What will it take for us to be reconciled to one another? Is the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ enough? Will we crucify Him afresh, determined to hold on to our bitterness and hatred? What else can we do to bring our hearts into harmony with His character of love?
David Sedlacek is a professor of family ministry and discipleship at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.