When we confess our sins and repent, we are immediately reconciled to God (Rom 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:17-29, I Jn 1:9). Within our interpersonal relationships, however, reconciliation may not happen, may be limited in scope, or may be fully completed. Why this range of outcomes?
In a nutshell, we are not God. We are vulnerable human beings. We do not feel safe with each other, so we protect ourselves by relationally holding back and withdrawing or by moving toward one another with defensive criticism and even contempt. Wrongdoers fear never being released from the cloud of suspicion: “Will I always be reminded of what I did?” Injured parties fear being wounded again: “Can I trust that I won’t be hurt in the same way if I renew our relationship?”
Many of us never try to get beyond these fears because separating (e.g., finding a new church) is easier than the hard work of relationship rebuilding. Reconciliation’s best start is with a repentant wrongdoer and a forgiving injured party. As wrongdoers faithfully demonstrate changed behavior over time, and as injured parties credit the behavioral changes they see and soften toward the former wrongdoer, a new relationship begins to grow. The old has passed away, and the new is becoming.
This new relationship is based on a deeper understanding of trustworthiness, justice, and respect for how fragile our human connections can be and how easy it is to damage the ties that bind us together.
The following five principles are based on the reconciliation bridge model developed by Everett Worthington, Jr. in Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope.
- Decide to reconcile. Even though reconciliation between believers is the biblical bias, the reality is that reconciliation is not a possibility in every relationship. Sometimes the injury is too unjust or has been repeated too frequently to risk reconciliation. The “wrongdoer” may remain unrepentant and so it is not safe to reconcile. Sometimes legalities are involved that complicate a reconciliation process. Or reconciliation is not possible because one person has moved far away or died. When reconciliation is an option, “reconciliation partners” make a thoughtful decision to rebuild their relationship. Is there someone in your life that you have forgiven, but with whom you need to be reconciled?
- Reconciliation requires a common story of what went wrong. Each person has constructed a narrative that describes what went wrong and who is responsible for what actions. Some “truth” exists in the accounts of the injured party and the wrongdoer. It is essential that the reconciliation partners listen to one another’s account of what happened before, during, and after the hurtful event. The goal is to gain an understanding of the other’s experience and perspective. During these challenging conversations, the line between “injured party” and “wrongdoer” often softens as each person takes responsibility for his/her part, and empathy for one another emerges. Are you willing to listen with empathy to your reconciliation partner’s story? Are you willing to take responsibility for your own contribution to the relationship distress?
- Rebuilding trust is the heart of reconciliation. Small hurts are part of human relationships. Many times we just absorb them with forbearance because trustworthiness is not violated. For deep hurts, rebuilding trust is the work of reconciliation. Wrongdoers must dedicate themselves to demonstrating changed behavior over time. Injured parties must be willing to credit each behavioral change that is aimed at rebuilding trustworthiness. Wrongdoers will make mistakes. When that happens, injured parties need space to regain their balance. Injured parties will hesitate to extend trust and in response, wrongdoers can reassure injured parties that as offenders they are committed to behavioral change. Are you ready to engage the “fits and starts” of the reconciliation process?
- Reconciled relationships require nurturing and protection. A reconciled relationship looks different than the one that came before. “The old one” has passed away and a “new one” is being created by the reconciliation partners. Reconciliation includes grieving what has been lost at the same time that the reconciliation partners are rebuilding. Patience, perseverance, and endurance are important spiritual practices that will support any reconciliation process. What other spiritual practices can support reconciliation efforts?
- Reconciliation partners need support from others. Reconciliation partners need others to come alongside them. This support can take the form of spiritual direction, prayer partners, mentoring, coaching, or professional counseling. Reconciliation supporters are not “side takers.” Instead, they are brothers and sisters in Christ who will help carry the burden of reconciling by providing honest feedback. Who can come alongside you during your journey of reconciliation?