Please, let’s not confuse forgiveness and reconciliation

I’ve mentioned the Pastor’s occupational hazard – more often than not, when I mention my vocation, people either get uncomfortable and change the subject, or launch into a diatribe about the ways in which Christianity is all wet. (I usually end up agreeing with them because I think the common public conception of Christianity is all wet.) Anyway a woman I met must have heard that Christians are supposed to forgive, so she told me a story: “Completely by accident I found my husband of 16 years in bed with my very best friend and when I did he acted like it was no big deal. You think I should forgive that? – just go back to the way things were?” To which I said (though I was really a whole lot more pastoral than this), “Yes to the first, No to the second.” The problem with the all wet version of Christianity, is that it fails to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Let’s assume for the moment that the wife in this story is a saint. Of course she is not a saint, but whatever she may or may not have done doesn’t justify the actions of her husband and friend. What they did tapped into every fear and insecurity she had, left her alone and alienated, and disrupted a whole circle of relationships with friends and family. So there she was sitting alone by the pool asking me what I do for a living.

Why did her husband and friend do it? I can only imagine. Since he didn’t think it was any big deal, maybe he’d offer some sort of Darwinian idiocy about testosterone and the need to propagate. If we delved deeper maybe we would find some insecurity lurking within his damaged psyche – perhaps girls in the fifth grade laughed at him when playing doctor. Of course none of that would justify the behavior. But it’s worth noting that it would also be true.

Recognizing that human imperfections give rise to bad behavior is one step toward forgiveness. The next step is recognizing your own imperfections. Don’t get me wrong; I am NOT saying the wife here needs to realize her culpability in the affair and say, “Oh, it’s really my fault, I forgive you.” But I am saying that as she recognizes her own imperfections, she will be in a much better position to see her husband’s idiocy in context and she will then be in a position to forgive him – forgive him, not reconcile with him! (In some ways we are forgiving a universe created with imperfections – but that is a deeper issue.) There is freedom and possibility in the move to forgiveness.

So, let’s assume she’s forgiven him. Should she then reconcile with her husband and friend? Don’t be ridiculous; the guy hasn’t taken any responsibility; there is no reason to think he wouldn’t do it again. Reconciliation takes two. He’s not on board yet. However, one can imagine a different scenario, with a different husband and friend, where after forgiveness, reconciliation might become possible.

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About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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