After Christian Ghosting: The Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation

After Christian Ghosting: The Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation August 3, 2017


Being “ghosted” by close friends has been one of the most painful experiences on my Christian journey. For me, the experience is one where life feels like all is normal and secure, and then– poof… your circle of friends are gone.

Christian ghosting is something that feels like enduring several divorces all at once– divorces that you didn’t see coming. The devastating impact of being ghosted by your Christian social circle is something that’s quite difficult to exaggerate.

I honestly wish that “Christian ghosting” was something that only a few of us knew about and had experienced, but the other day when I wrote my first post on the topic, I quickly realized this was an experience that so very many of us share in common. Often I’d feel good and accomplished when a quarter-million people read just one of my posts in the span of a few weeks, but this time, it made my heart sink– because the reality that my experience was a common experience, stung inside the deepest parts of me.

So, I figured this was a topic that perhaps we should explore more. First up, is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, after you’ve been ghosted.

No matter what topic one is talking about, the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation is one that I feel evangelicals and progressive Christians fail to handle very well. Both sides, at times, have a propensity to blend these two concepts together in ways that are less than helpful. Evangelicals often come across with an attitude towards forgiveness that sounds like, “You have to forgive. Forget about it. Move on. Stop harboring bitterness. Treat them normally like it didn’t even happen.” On the flip side, progressives often blend the two concepts together and have a way of sounding like, “How *dare* you tell someone to forgive people who hurt them so badly!?”

The reality is, both sides get it wrong– and it’s because they’re blending two different concepts that are not the same. This is why, as I reflected on the pain of being ghosted by close Christian friends, I wrote, “there is forgiveness, but there will never be reconciliation.”

For those of us who have a continued commitment to following Jesus, it’s true that forgiveness is a command, not an option. Jesus actually painted this in pretty strong terms, saying that if we forgive, we will receive forgiveness, but that if we refuse to forgive, we’ll experience the very same thing we refuse to give others (Matthew 6:15, Mark 11:26). Thus, no matter how painful the wound or how unjustified people were when inflicting it, I know that for me– one committed to following Jesus– I have to forgive.

And so, I do. I pray, “Father, forgive them” as often as I can.

However, I can forgive while also saying, “no” to reconciliation– because they are not the same. We are never commanded to reconcile with people who are unrepentant, people who will likely continue a pattern of harming us, and who take no responsibility for their actions or express a sincere desire and commitment to change. We can obey the command to forgive them, without placing ourselves in a position to re-play old patterns of behavior that are painful and destructive.

For example, after being abandoned by friends in a way that was not only deeply painful for myself, but the rest of my family, why in the world would I go back and join their church and put myself or anyone else in the position to experience the same thing all over again? Nothing about that is smart, wise, or biblical. Reconciliation is something that’s never automatic– and the only way a path can be found to reconciliation is when the offender is first deeply repentant.

But yes, I can forgive. In fact, to faithfully follow Jesus, I have to.

When we look at the flavor of the word “forgive” in biblical Greek, we don’t see a word that reminds us of reconciliation– in fact, we actually find the opposite. The actual word for forgive means to “release” and to “send away.” This understanding of forgiveness actually makes it much easier to forgive– and it helps me see why forgiveness is not really for them at all, but a gift God wants me to give myself.

To forgive those who inflicted the pain of Christian ghosting, I don’t reconcile at all– I send away. I let go. I move on.

To forgive, I say: “Okay God, I’m moving on. I’m no longer going to wake up every day holding onto this pain as if it’s a prized possession. I release this life event to you, and trust you to handle it.”

I forgive because Jesus commands me to. I forgive, because it frees my heart and emotional energy to move on with life and invest that energy into other things.

I forgive not out of some obligation to them, but out of love for myself.

But I refuse to reconcile, because reconciliation involves the one who wounded to first be repentant, and requires them to willingly and fully enter into a process of change, so that a relationship with them would be safe again. We can’t do that part for people no matter how much we may want to, only they can.

Until or unless that unlikely process happens, we can love ourselves by sending the situation away (forgiving) and also using the God-given wisdom that says, “It’s okay to not put yourself right back in a situation where they could do that to you all over again.”

So, for those of us who have been deeply wounded by Christian friends who have ghosted us– I pray you’ll forgive.

Not for them– but for you.

unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. 

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  • Donald Moeser

    We seem to have a lot of victims on this blog.

  • Donald Moeser

    Being on this site for almost a year, it seems to focus on how badly a certain group of Christians are to the rest of the Body of Christ. In this quagmire of the State of the Church, there’s a lot more priorities.

  • Herm

    I have learned to forgive any who have pained or destroyed me or mine, knowingly or not, while never seeking to reconcile. To reconcile is not a very progressive term, for it means to go back to revisit a time past.

    When I see someone who offended and/or shunned me, or mine, I do not ignore them in kind. If they cross to the other side of the street, upon seeing me, I wave wildly with a broad smile concealing the scars that I bear, it’s my cross to bear not theirs. If we pass in the grocery store I say, “hi, how are things” fully aware that in their shame they may choose to ignore. If a friendship should develop from the openings I offer, it will be a new friendship building from the first step toward one another, but never a renewed frienship. I never want to go back to the “good old days” knowing where that reconciled friendship ended last time.

    A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

    “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

    Isaiah 40:6-8 (NIV2011)

    Ben, as the seeds of Man, even the most sincere of atheists know that there are two inescapable promises for life in the field of earth. We each will grow to the peak of our bloom only to surely wither and fall. The consummate connoisseur of all life chooses through all seasons to savor the present moment of pleasant fragrance, with no revisiting of the fragrances past, while ever so anxious to enjoy the promised fragrances to come.

    As seeds of God, we have the promise of an eternal season of increasing blossoms, paced as we each can bear, without the weeds that try to choke us out. We have God’s word on it in the Spirit of truth.

    Please, savor the moments of bloom in the fields of Man while accepting, in sincere thanks, the opportunity to wither with pleasant aromatic scents all around you. The fields of Man are continually reseeded with new opportunities for beauty appreciated and nurtured as our graced field of dreams. What withers and falls need never be reconciled on earth.

    The unsavory past, cannot be revisited, and must always be forgiven in the example of our God who so loves even this world, still, to move on to this newly discovered moment of senses freshly cleansed.

    Thank you for being one to boldly nurture the harvest for all who choose to bloom as flowers forever!

    Love you and yours!!!

  • //… reconciliation involves the one who wounded to first be repentant, and requires them to willingly and fully enter into a process of change, so that a relationship with them would be safe again. We can’t do that part for people no matter how much we may want to, only they can.//
    Yeah there are people in my life right now… who are in denial about how they wound and how they have wounded. And to be honest I’m in denial about same!! I just assume I have the same blind spots as anyone else. *sigh* it has been (isn’t it almost always?) a mutual ghosting. As I recall the past there have been people that it’s taken decades to get around to reconciliation. There are some, mostly in my family, that it will never come around because they’re dead. It’s appropriate to let the dead bury their dead I think. I have come to believe that God never leaves us nor forsake us even before we ever know him.

    2nd Corinthians 5.17 through 19
    …17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!
    18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
    19 that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s trespasses against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation.…

    The door is always open for reconciliation with him I think. Relationships can be part of an addiction. Addictions are control situations. They keep truth and true intimacy out. They keep people at an arm’s distance so little secret deals and manipulations can go on undisturbed. They maintain the status quo at somebody else’s expense. If one is called to heal and recover one has to let these go. turning them over to God means one has to trust God’s timing. I think patience, tolerance, and love are at the heart of the ministry of reconciliation. Tolerance does not mean permissiveness or permission to keep hurting others I think. One has to stop or be stopped from hurting others or oneself! At the deepest core of any human being is a relationship that cannot be gainsaid in my humble opinion.

  • I love this!
    //As seeds of God, we have the promise of an eternal season of increasing blossoms, paced as we each can bear, without the weeds that try to choke us out. We have God’s word on it in the Spirit of truth.//
    How I long for that Kingdom to come!! I have glimpses of it sometimes. have you ever read the great Divorce by CS Lewis? I always come back to that book as a way to see forward and backwards at the same time!! He wrote it during the Blitz.
    Here is a quote from the book;

  • I think it’s possible to be addicted & solely identify with being a victim. I think it can be construed as defense and coping mechanism to be such. There are reasons and wisdom for addictions and behavior that is counter-intuitive. in my humble opinion in order to rightly come to terms, find the right diagnosis and the remedying solution one needs to intentionally join a community of recovery. What is The payoff for remaining in one’s own victimhood? When one discovers one has manufactured a racket that works for one one is loath to Let It Go!! I think one cannot heal if one has not received the right diagnosis and Denial is not a solution it’s part of the diagnosis. Unhealed Victims make others their victims and hostages. Is it possible that you might be a victim? If so why so? If not why not?

  • Jerry Lynch

    Most of my friends think of me as either a nihilist or idealist when it comes to faith, and sometimes on the same view I hold. Such as on forgiveness.

    Wherever I look to forgive, I first look at myself: why has this harmed me? When deeply betrayed as you and your family were with “ghosting” by people you considered close or friends, there appears no need to look at yourself: a prima facie case of wrongdoing by them. Yet I believe that anytime I feel harmed, I have a part in it, and expectation is usually the culprit (the word “should” or its negative the first clue). The problem I have at this juncture of my comments is that to proceed further may sound judgmental or be hurtful. A quandary. I think I will leave it here for you to follow where I was going. But one last comment: forgiveness is nothing more than self-realization.

  • Herm

    Honestly Charles, the Kingdom begins now. We grow stronger from struggles while we atrophy from ease. It is something to look forward to, although, as a most heavenly first step to the rest of our eternal life together when all weeds no longer have influence, awareness and are forgotten, to be no longer grieved.

  • Herm

    Your caution is welcomed, thank you. Since being in the Spirit of God I have never accused another without first considering my errors, which can be painful. I learn to do better next time even if most, or even all, of the error was the responsibility of the other.

    If I can only love my good neighbor up to the degree I love myself, so it is I can only honestly help my enemy up to the degree I am willing to help myself. I cannot be held responsible to change others. I am always held responsible to change myself when I’m aware where I can for the good of all.

    Thank you Jerry, for your observations, and especially your empathetic discipline to stop short of judgmental and hurtful!.

  • Scott Harrison

    Thank you for this. It pretty much sums up – for me – the societal phenomenon in my country, South Africa, where those who have been scarred and damaged by apartheid and it’s racist/white supremacist past are casually expected to forgive (and forget) and reconcile with their former oppressors. But there’s the point exactly: if there isn’t a genuine acknowledgement of harm done, remorse, repentance and an authentic atonement on the part of the perpetrator of cruelty (or by those who did little or nothing to resist the evils of that system) – then why should the victim seek to reconcile? I am not justifying unforgiveness or revenge – indeed the victim might be persuaded by the Christian message of love to forgive in order to avoid a perpetual poisoning of their own hearts; but can he who has done harm insist upon forgiveness? And if there is no justice, no righting of wrongs, no humility on the part of the perpetrator, then reconciliation becomes a hollow and obscene shadow, a mockery of the redeeming work of Christ and the church. Perhaps it is a blunder on my part to extrapolate from interpersonal trespasses and sins into the broader societal issues, yet it strikes me this seems to have a real bearing on the healing/failure to heal which characterizes South Africa’s troubled postcolonial anguish.

  • Scott Harrison

    Sure, there can be a sort of “victim chic” which is manipulative and inauthentic. But that should not distract us from the very real damage many members of the church experience through bigotry, intolerance, stupidity and cruelty (and, in the case of not a few errant priests, utter evil). A little Church history and some recent newspapers will surely persuade you of the scope of the problem!

  • Yes!! I have fleeting moments now of the Shalom of God.

  • //the victim might be persuaded by the Christian message of love to forgive in order to avoid a perpetual poisoning of their own hearts;//
    Yes it is definitely unwise and dangerous to trust people who haven’t changed. What is one to do!!? Have you ever read Man’s Search for meaning by Viktor Frankl? Life is asking us a question. How shall we answer it? Getting bitter with fantasies of Revenge. No.

  • “…reconciliation involves the one who wounded to first be repentant, and requires them to willingly and fully enter into a process of change, so that a relationship with them would be safe again.”

    Thank you for stating it so clearly! I attempted reconciliation once with someone who had been part of the abuse I experienced in my ex-church. We met, and by some miracle he did actually accept that his actions had been abusive. His words were, “I spend half my time counselling people who have been abused by the church. I never thought I would be the one guilty of abuse!”

    We parted from that meeting warmly, but as far as I was concerned, that was only the first step in the process towards restoring trust and rebuilding relationship between us. I didn’t realise it at that time, but he left thinking it was a done deal.

    When I wrote to him a few days later to ask what he thought the next steps in the process were, he had a meltdown and not only said he had “never owned and never will own” my “accusations of bullying and abuse”, but he accused me of “breaking the power of our reconciliation” by expecting him to enter the process of change you have written about here.

    I have certainly forgiven this man, but without change we cannot be reconciled. I just wish more christians understood the truth you have articulated here. Reconciliation is so much more than simply saying, “I’m sorry.”

  • Tim

    I personally can’t think of a higher priority than the church actually being the church.

  • Healing is a process – this is true when you have a cut, clean it, disinfect it with Neosporin, and cover it with a band-aid. You can say a prayer over it – but odds are if you snap your fingers – it won’t heal just because you don’t want to remain in a state of woundedness or woundedhood – it takes time. Sure, some people with broken arms or legs “milk it” for what it’s worth and take advantage of others who are willing to help them. Others still aren’t wounded and pretend to be just to part you with your money. But spiritual wounds aren’t different – and just because some are the sort to take advantage, it doesn’t de-legitimatize the others who are in the process of healing who would benefit from some support or consideration on your part. Jesus said that we should celebrate with those who celebrate and mourn with those who mourn – not ridicule the wounded.

  • One needs discernment to know the difference I think.

  • William Chairo

    Some have responded by mentioning that we need first to examine oneself to see if we may be a perpetrator rather than a victim. One wonders how many people have a negative response when our names are mentioned. “First deal with the possible plank in our eye before removing the small splinter in our brothers eye” So many times we portray ourselves as victims, but rarely reflect on those things in which we are the instigators.

  • Coffee Summerall

    I think this is deeper than “ghosting.”

    Your former friends’ behavior matches the technical definition of bigotry. Bigotry isn’t simply having a different opinion, it’s a combination of TWO factors (both of which must exist at the same time):

    1. Bigots cannot or will not identify what facts would change their mind on an issue, AND

    2. They actively or passively silence others.

    You were an “insider” — a trusted church leader — and you gave them the teachings of Jesus. You believed your exegesis was accurate and would meet their requirements for interpreting the authoritative Word of God. Were they open to having their minds changed? Even if the answer is no, they aren’t bigots automatically due to that (although I do think they will have a hard time explaining it to Jesus on the last day).

    The second step — of silencing you by shunning — is the final step in being a bigot.

    I don’t think you need bigots in your life. Yes, follow Jesus’ teaching and forgive them and do right by them, but I don’t see any reason to trust bigots or become close friends with them.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Thank you for your comments. I was not going to accuse Mr. Corey of anything; I was simply going to relate how I would respond to ghosting, having had similar experiences through my seven decades of life. Ghosting, betrayal, is for me a prompt for compassion and for quiet self-assessment. I see no reason for forgiveness; it has no place. I am not looking to be a cyborg when I say that if I can be harmed, my feelings hurt, it is diagnostic of some fetter; an unresolved issue or worldly attachment. Such freedom can be found in Christ, but it is a process.

  • Juli Haupt

    Hi Benjamin
    Thank you so much for your article! You are so right in stating that way too many Christians have experienced ghosting! It is incredibly sad that it seems to be the number one way Christians deal with disagreements or deal with people they may not agree with politically or in other areas. I am so sorry this happened to you and your family! I am also sorry you experienced failed adoptions! My husband and I understand failed adoptions. We have been there. For me it felt like we had lost a still born child! So much grief! I am not sure where you live but if you would like some support in this area we would love to talk to you and help you and your wife walk through your pain. If you would like to dialogue further please feel free to contact me.

  • gimpi1

    That’s a reasonable response. Forgiving someone for wronging you is hard but necessary for moving on. Allowing them back in your life if they don’t understand that they’ve wronged you just opens you up for more pain. It’s rational to expect someone who’s hurt you to acknowledge what they’ve done.

    I’ve heard it said that hanging onto your anger over being hurt is like holding onto a hot coal – you burn yourself, not the person who hurt you. That’s true. However, letting someone who wronged you back in your life without being sure they understand what they did is tossing that coal on a stack of newspapers and letting the fire spread.

  • jennifer_ellen

    This is such a helpful distinction! I have thought about what you describe as “reconciliation” more as *restoration*. For me, reconciliation is the possibility of some kind of relationship, if limited and very different from the original relationship. A place in the middle, maybe.

  • Robert

    I heard a very famous and highly respected preacher and pastor once say…
    “Love people…Trust God..”
    John 2:24 says it all….
    People will always fail you. That doesn’t mean you shun them and become a hermit. But, one must come to grips with the reality that we…as members of the human race… are of earth. Just because one becomes what one calls “a Christian” doesn’t mean one becomes infallible.
    Get over it…..move on.
    And….as Maya Angelou once said..
    “When someone shows you who they are….believe them.”

  • JenellYB

    In considering matters of forgiveness and reconciliation, most here are focused fully on forgiving those that have mistreated and hurt us, when they are not repentant or even willing to acknowledge they have done anything wrong to us. I suggest we might need to back it up a bit, to consider how they felt justified in doing what they did. If they think we have done something so bad it warrants shunning us, they aren’t even near any reason to admit and repent of what they have done to us.

    In scripture there is a process through which the church is to deal with an errant member, one one that has fallen into sin worthy of exclusion. The obvious starting point is to determine if there is sufficient cause to suspect the member of wrong doing to begin with. The nest step would be for elders to confront the person to get his/her side of the matter. Then a process of showing them their error, rebuking and correcting, and hope they repent and seek forgiveness for their wrong.

    Now, some that are expressing painful experiences with “ghosting” or shunning may have gone through that kind of consideration with their church or group of friends. I may be wrong, but I suspect that for a good number of people hurt by this, it was never really made clear to them what it was the others decided was such an error or wrong action as to resort to this extreme action.
    Did anyone ever actually discuss it with them? In Ben article on Ghosting, he listed quite a few things that might have led to his being rejected, and as I read that list, I got the idea he never really knew for sure which, if any of those, it was.

    Par of the frustration of such an experience of being ghosted or shunned for many that have suffered it is never knowing what it was really about. They might come up with things like Ben did, a list, of what they thought it might be, but never really knew for sure. Never knew, because no one would talk to them about it! They may have gotten snappish responses, of such as “you know good and well what it is about!” or “There’s nothing to talk about.” As in, case closed. Some people, and church people are bad at, assuming someone else has talked to the person. Or mistaking “dropping hints” and “giving him/her every chance to confess and repent.” Maybe working a ‘hypothetical anecdote’ into a sermon or SS lesson, that addresses what the person is guilty of, and feeling they’ve given the person the chance to come clean.

    Sometimes, it may be something the person hasn’t done at all, or that others have misunderstood.

    I’ve been there several times, and suffered further hurt through my efforts to find out what was wrong, maybe try to “fix it.” And eventually giving up and finally leaving. And in several cases, discovered long after, often years, even decades later, that whatever it was they had thought I’d done that was so terrible, were things I’d never done at al, and would never have guessed anyone did think them of me.

  • Lori

    This is absolutely right! I had to work through the difference between these with a family member, and it has been so freeing to realize that there is a difference, and that “love one another” does not require me to actively be present in the life of someone who hurts me without any awareness or repentance for that.

  • I love this!!
    //As seeds of God, we have the promise of an eternal season of increasing blossoms, paced as we each can bear, without the weeds that try to choke us out. We have God’s word on it in the Spirit of truth.//
    This is poetry!! It reminds me of Walt Whitman.
    Psalm 16: 10, 11
    0For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. 11You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

    Here is something that Richard Rohr said that I like.
    You cannot get there, you can only be there.

    I have decided to follow Jesus!!

  • Herm

    Thank you Charles! I am no expert in rhyme or meter as is a true artist, though I certainly do appreciate that this, from what has come so effortlessly from my heart and mind, would bring up the image of Walt Whitman, remembered and savored. Thank you, also, for the gift of Kaoma!

  • dksbook

    I have to say that being prophetic inside the Church is much more painful and dangerous than being prophetic in the “World”. Jesus’ advice to forgive is an extension of his advice to “shake the dust from our sandals” when our biblically-based messages are rejected.

  • dksbook

    I think it’s a result of the Church trying to take over the State.

  • Donald Moeser

    I was thinking of real victims..

  • Ug, I can see it now – scores of Christians teaching others that forgiveness doesn’t lead to reconciliation, but to “sending away.” Thousands of people wondering what the heck happened when their Christian friends told them one day, “I forgive you” and they inexplicably never heard from them again.
    I wish Christians would just get real about forgiveness and reconciliation. We’re so hung up on thinking we “HAVE” to forgive that we are utterly unable to admit when we haven’t.
    When God forgave us our sins, it led to reconciliation with Him. It’s OK not to forgive everyone. Why can’t we just admit, “No, I’m not going to forgive that person.” INstead, we insist that we have forgiven but we’re not planning any reconciliation – that’s utterly chinsy, fake forgiveness. Forgiveness that is all about our own inner peace and not about reconciliation is a sort of navel gazing cheap thing that we might as well dispense with.
    ITS OK not to forgive. But if you’re going to call something forgiveness, it should lead to attempts at reconciliation.