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Forgiveness vs reconciliation

I came across this this morning. You may be aware that South Carolina’s governor had been playing the bad boy and was found out. His wife just came out with a public statement, and despite the pain and anger she must be going through, it is refreshingly morally clear.

She’s definitely not a doormat. And she doesn’t seem to be the “I’ll stand by my man because it’s good career calculus” type (I’ll refrain from citing an example…).

Its abundantly clear that she first of all has a God perspective. And she has a handle on a very significant distinction that so many don’t get: forgiveness is not reconciliation.

Forgiveness in mandatory, because we are neither competent nor called to judge the secrets of men’s hearts in this life. But reconciliation is conditioned on repentance and the willingness to work at rebuilding trust, upon which sincere relationship is built.

God rightly demands that we forgive others if we want to remain in His good graces. Otherwise, we set ourselves up as God, judging others. But He also warns us against casting pearls before swine. In other words, be free of judgment and bitterness, but be careful whom you trust. God cares about His temple, which is us, and He wants it protected from  defilement.

The only way to accomplish this is to separate forgiveness from reconciliation. Those who fail to do so run a dual risk. They can either withhold forgiveness because they fear the inappropriate reconciliation they think it will necessarily lead to, or they go ahead with the forgiveness and reconciliation. In the first case they harbor unforgiveness, and in the second they become unequally yoked in an abusive relationship. Either of these lead to spiritual disaster.

But if we forgive from the heart and then judge reconciliation as a separate issue, we keep our hearts free from both bad internal and external influences. And that is the very “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” kind of wisdom the Lord has enjoined us to practice.

Ms. Sanford sounds like a Proverbs 31 woman to me, with godly integrity. Kudos. Here’s her statement:

Jenny Sanford speaks out

Columbia, S.C. – July 2, 2009- The last week has been very painful for me, my family and for the people of South Carolina. However, throughout this terrible ordeal, the incredible outpouring of kindness, support, and prayer I’ve received from countless friends and folks I have never even met has been truly uplifting. I appreciate that more than I can say. Please know that my sons and I are doing fine, given the circumstances. We are surrounded by friends and family, and we will make it through this. I believe it is how we respond to the challenges we face in life, and what we learn from them, that is most telling about who we truly are.

There is no question that Mark’s behavior is inexcusable. Actions have consequences and he will be dealing with those consequences for a long while. Trust has been broken and will need to be rebuilt. Mark will need to earn back that trust, first and foremost with his family, and also with the people of South Carolina.

The real issue now is one of forgiveness. I am willing to forgive Mark for his actions. We have been deeply disappointed in and even angry at Mark. The Bible says, “In your anger do not sin.” (Psalm 4:4) In this situation, this speaks to the essence of forgiveness and the critical need to channel one’s energy into positive steps that uphold the dignity of marriage and the family, and lead to reconciliation over time. My forgiveness is essential for us both to move on with our lives, with peace, in whatever direction that may take us.

Desmond Tutu said “forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.” Forgiveness opens the door for Mark to begin to work privately, humbly and respectfully toward reconciliation with me. However, to achieve true reconciliation will take time, involve repentance, and will not be easy.

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  1. Wanderer
    July 3, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Jenny is the victim. She is the only one who has the right to forgive Sanford. If her forgiveness is from her own heart, she is great. If she forgives because she is a Christian or she is afraid of God. Her forgiveness has been conditioned and she is acting like a hypocrite. Nobody even God can impose anyone to forgive unwillingly. God, of course, wants people to forgive but he does not or cannot punish those who don’t, and God never said he would. Otherwise, God is also hypocrite i.e. this God is no true God. So forgiveness is not mandatory, it is voluntarily and unconditionally. If we couldn’t forgive voluntarily and unconditionally, it would be better to use our best judgment to deal with the circumstance. Our judgment under any circumstance is 100%right because we are human, not God. If we are not God, don’t act like God, we are not Jesus, don’t act like Jesus. I think people are judging Sanford because of his hypocrisy. Again, Jenny is the only one who decides whether to leave the door open.

  2. Paul B.
    July 3, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Thank you for your comment. I’m not sure you understand what being a Christian is. It’s not a label, it means God resides in your heart as Lord. It means we do the things He commands, and we do them from the heart.

    There is no coercion, because His ways are gentle and true and lovely. But His ways are also authoritative, and He has said:

    “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” – Mar 11:25 ESV

    Be blessed,

    • Wanderer
      July 3, 2009 at 12:51 pm

      God is not a separate entity from our mind or heart, but when we hear and then understand his words by logical analysis, our mind and heart unconsciously separate from the true meaning of his words and at least half of it has lost. Remember, our daily thinking and understanding based on dualism. Otherwise, there would be no thinking or understanding. Therefore, we need to be careful when trying to understand God’s words because if his words can be intelligible by human brain, his words are dissected like human’s words and God is no longer God. That was why I said if we are no God don’t act like God. Using God’s words to tell other people to follow is also an act. Besides, we are not Jenny, we cannot say what Jenny is doing is the right or wrong. She could be a good model of being patience, but whether she herself knows her forgiveness is genuine or pure, she may not even know.

  3. July 7, 2009 at 2:19 pm


  4. LuceMichael
    August 23, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Good post.
    When I read Jenny Sanford’s statement, I was genuinely moved…and impressed. Yes, I believe that *there* is a woman of faith, and a Proverbs woman.

    • August 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm

      Thanks. I think she finally packed her bags, and very frankly I don’t blame her.

      Be blessed,

  5. Alex
    January 27, 2011 at 10:15 am

    hey I loved your article! and I agree that Jenny’s speech was moving and shows she has a very clear Christ-like perspective on her situation… I have a question. I was raised in a Christian home, with a father who was a pastor and missionary church planter. A man God unquestionably used to bring many to him. However, I believe he has a very twisted picture of forgiveness: like you had stated, some believe that forgiveness is contigent on the repentence of the offender. Like you I believe that it is to be given unconditionally as Christ showed us, regardless of whether the offender is repentant. Now my brother seems to think the same as my father. Some years ago, we went through a very painful situation that has caused a huge rift between us. I believe he wronged me greatly, and he believed the same about me. I have forgiven him unconditionally, and have sought reconciliation, as he is, after all, my brother. He, however, has said that though he forgives me, he cannot reconcile with me unless I repent. I cannot “repent”, though I long to give him what he wants, because I did not wrong him as he thinks I did. I have asked his forgiveness for the pain I have caused him, but it would be a lie to repent of something I didn’t do. So he has completely cut me off, despite numerous attempts on my part for reconciliation. Now, no abuse occurred between us, and I believe that in our case, forgiveness unconditionally, translates to mean that I hold nothing “over his head” : I am completely open to at least a civil relationship with him, for the sake of my daughter, if nothing else. I hold nothing against him. He has made it clear that he still holds it against me, and to everyone but himself it is clear after all these years, that he is bitter (mostly because he refuses to have anything to do with my daughter, who was not abused but was greatly wronged in all of this). Many of my friends, including my pastor, have said that it would not be the loving thing to do to tell him what he wants to hear for the sake of reconciliation, because we are to love, but in truth. And they have felt that I should “cut him loose” because my numerous attempts have been rejected. My question is, how can he say he’s forgiven me, but refuse to reconcile even though I’m his sister and there was no abuse and I am open to it? Wouldn’t withholding reconciliation in this case, be a result of unforgiveness? I just want to “agree to disagree” : to this day, even though he clearly has wronged me, I’ve never demanded an apology or made any stipulations of the like to him. Why can’t he do the same? Isn’t his “forgiveness” conditional? Or am I missing the point? My mother was extremeley abusive towards me. I have forgiven her, even though I understand that she wlll never “repent” because of her severe mental illness. I have accepted that we will never be close, but because of the work of Christ in me, He loves her through me. That is how I love her. That is how I can send flowers on Mother’s day and occasional emails to the woman who tried to drown me and beat me, etc. etc. Because of all Christ did for me, I can love her and forgive her. Now in this case, I have forgiven her and can reconcile but within limits of course. Is it really ours to withhold all reconciliation (even within a limited relationship like the one with my mother that by God’s grace I just described) from those who seek it, from those whom we have forgiven? In the case with my brother, is it true that, as he has claimed, one can forgive in a Christ like manner, but withhold all reconciliation contingent upon the other party’s repentence?

    • January 27, 2011 at 11:00 am

      Hi Alex,
      I’m glad you got something from the post, and thanks for your question. However this turns out I wish everyone involved peace and spiritual freedom.

      I don’t think we can say (I certainly can’t) exactly what your brother’s motivations are. There could be a stronghold that prevents him from seeing his way through to reconciliation. He believes there’s an unrepented offense, so he’s convinced that the right thing to do is not to reconcile. If he’s right about the offense, then he’s right about the reconciliation. Conversely, if he’s wrong about the offense, then he’s got the reconciliation thing wrong too.

      I agree with your pastor and others that it would be wrong to lie in order to gain peace. As you said, we are to speak the truth in love. Recall that James (3) says that the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable. In other words, we should pursue peace with everything we’ve got, with one qualification: truth comes first. We should never violate truth in order to make a false peace.

      It seems to me that you’ve got a good handle on all this stuff. You’re nuancing your relationship with your mother in a way that shows a lot of maturity. But you wish there were a way to make the family come together. I commend you for where you’re coming from. I’ve had family issues like this, and in the past I’ve vacillated from one extreme to the other in trying to deal with it. I learned over time that I need to stand on truth, but do so in forgiveness and love. How that shakes out – how much we can be involved with others – is going to be different in each case. However it is, God wants us free and able to serve Him in the newness of life (Gal 5.1; et al).

      Based on all that, I would say the best thing to do is pray your way forward into wherever peace leads you, being careful not to violate truth. Maybe in prayer the strongholds that are dividing the family will be torn down. Sometimes we have to wait (actively: intercessory prayer, faithfulness in other matters, etc) for things to happen in the spirit before the door opens in the natural. And that can take time.

      Ask the Lord for wisdom on this. Meditate on James 3 going into chapter 4, and chapter 1. My advice would be not to try to make anything happen before its time. Wait on God. He will be faithful, and the time you spent waiting in His service will by no means be wasted. (Is 64.4) By separating forgiveness and reconciliation, you will be able to forgive from the heart as we have been commanded, and thereby protect yourself spiritually, even if reconciliation can’t be effected at this time.

      Also consider how Joseph waited for the right moment to reconcile with his brothers. There’s a lot of wisdom hidden in the Word, and very often patience is a major component of it!

      HTH. God bless.

  6. April 17, 2011 at 2:15 am

    When you forgive someone, They say you don’t have to reconcile or have any contact with that person. Does that just apply to offenders who never learn their lesson. or is it okay to stay away from the person who wronged you even if you know that they’ve changed for the better. I ask this because how can we be expected to spend time with certain people because even if they did change you don’t want to be reminded of the pain they caused you. Especially consider the ones who have been abused. even if there offender has changed they definitely don’t want anything to do with their ex-offender the memory is just too painful.

    • April 17, 2011 at 7:22 am

      Hi Sara,
      When the heart has been hurt our natural tendency is to protect that area so that we don’t have to re-experience the pain. But the process of forgiveness, whether it ends in reconciliation with the offender or not, is a process of confronting the pain and turning it over to the Lord. That’s where wonderful healing, release and empowerment can take place. But if we bury our hurt it will turn malignant and eventually control us.

      Jesus said that we must forgive “from the heart” – that is, our forgiveness must be sincere. He also said that we are to love our enemies. If the offender truly repents and is willing to work toward reconciliation, it may well be best to reconcile. If holding back is due to a lack of willingness to obey Christ, then that would harm our relationship with Him. God wants us healed from our pain. Sometimes our healing involves moving on in a different direction. But other times there will be a healing of relationship.

      But remember, trust in earned, and the only kind of reconciliation we should be interested in is true and real. We’re looking for something that will be fruitful in God. Whether, and to what degree, we reconcile is up to the Holy Spirit’s leading. As Paul says in 1Th 5: make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine.

      Hope you are well,

  7. S
    July 31, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    So if we are not open to reconciliation, even if the person has truly changed for the better, no matter what he or she did, minor or major, does that mean we have not truly forgiven or what?

    • July 31, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      Trust is earned. You are under no obligation to reconcile unless the other person begins to earn your trust. Give yourself time to correctly assess the situation. Recall that Joseph didn’t reconcile with his brothers immediately. He tested them first.

  1. December 11, 2009 at 6:34 pm

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