At dusk my wife Joy, our daughter Meredith, our dog Gracie, and I were strolling through our hurricane-damaged neighborhood. Shattered trees, broken branches, and all manner of debris lined either side of the street. People had been hard at work beginning to restore their homes and their yards to some semblance of pre-Laura normal.

Scanning the scene I had a moment of clarity: “I always knew that my mother loved me, no matter what. But I had to keep trying to prove myself to my father, because I never succeeded.”

If you’re one of my regular readers, you might be thinking, “Well, no kidding!” My articles frequently recount stories about my mom. And I’ve described my father’s emotional and physical abusiveness in A Resurrection Shaped Life.

Maybe it was seeing heap after heap of things so broken that they could only be discarded that crystallized my thinking. One of my chief spiritual challenges has been to forgive where genuine reconciliation wasn’t likely to happen.

Unless you snooze your way through the Gospels, you can’t help but notice that Jesus teaches his followers to forgive and to seek reconciliation.

Forgiveness is a one-way street. You and I can forgive no matter what. It’s not always easy to do. For that matter, forgiving another person for a serious injury can be a lifelong process.

But Jesus teaches us to forgive whether or not the other person is sorry for what they did. He told us to turn the other cheek. To love your enemy.

It’s for our own good, really. As Anne Lamott likes to say, refusing to forgive is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. It kills you from the inside and does not the first bit of harm to the one you want to get back at.

What Anne says is true enough. But in addition to that, we shape the world every time we act. When we forgive, we cast our vote for a world where broken things get mended. When we retaliate, we’ve chosen to make a more fractured, less habitable planet for everybody, ourselves included.

Forgiveness opens the way to reconciliation, to the restoration of a fractured relationship. But unlike forgiveness, reconciliation is a two-way street. Here’s how I have put it elsewhere:

“Reconciliation is always reciprocal. The injured person’s forgiveness is met with genuine remorse and amended behavior. While the relationship will probably not return to what it was like before it was broken, a new kind of relationship can gradually emerge.” (A Resurrection Shaped Life, p. 69)

The challenge I faced with my father was to forgive him even though I never heard him apologize and sensed no fundamental change in his character. Honestly, I can’t claim perfection on this, but I’ve made some progress.

I say that I’ve made progress on the basis of Jesus’ teaching about unmended relationships. In Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus outlines a process for holding a sinner accountable and seeking reconciliation. It seems to have been originally a teaching about congregations as a whole, but it applies to personal relationships as well.

First you talk to the one who injured you. If that person just won’t listen, you invite others in your shared circle of friends to join in the process.

Finally, if the offending person simply refuses to admit wrongdoing and change their ways, you have to admit that reconciliation is not going to happen anytime soon. At that point, you relate to the person “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)

Some have read this text as permission to shun others or to excommunicate them. But since Jesus explicitly befriended Gentiles and tax collectors, I draw a different conclusion.

Drawing again on what I wrote elsewhere, “When we forgive an unrepentant person, forgiveness takes the form of reinforced boundaries and keeping a safe distance.” (A Resurrection Shaped Life, p. 68) The relationship may be strained and cause serious heartache, but forgiveness leaves open the possibility of reconciliation in the future. You never simply discard another person.

My father died in 2006. We were still estranged. But I have not lost hope in a future reconciliation. After all, reconciliation is ultimately God’s work. The work of infinite love. A love that mends all things. Even if it takes eternity.

23 Comments

  1. “When we forgive, we cast our vote for a world where broken things get mended.” One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read outside of the Bible itself. I really appreciate the insight and wisdom shared in this post Jake, thank you.

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  2. “Forgiveness – easier to achieve than Reconciliation”
    An instance of this, Jake, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Terrorist, whose Mosque shootings in Christchurch, found him in Court recently, facing the families of those killed by him, was only visibly moved when a Muslim woman said she forgave him! This act of forgiveness might yet become an opening for his eventual expression of penitence (and absolution?) But at what a cost for that woman who lost her son at the hands of his killer? Jesu, Mercy! Mary, Pray! for us sinners.

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  3. Thank you for this insightful blog that vibrates the human soul, Jake. Upon reflection, I was immediately transported to an event in my life, 54 years ago. I posted the following on my LovesIntention and personal Facebook page:

    Nearly 26 years old, self employed and living at the San Diego YMCA, I had recently purchased a Honda 250 motorcycle. On the afternoon of April 16, 1976 I approached a traffic light controlled intersection when suddenly a driver in a pickup truck made a left turn immediately in front of me. I only remember thinking, “this is it, I’m going to die”. Instinctively, in an evasive maneuver, I laid the motorcycle down to my left, sliding on the pavement. Within seconds, my right upper body made impact with the pickup truck’s rear bumper. No life threatening injuries, but life altering right arm flaccid paralysis. Permanent. The offending pickup truck driver and I never met, and I don’t think I expected him to visit me in the hospital. It didn’t occur to me that he might express an apology for “failing to yield”, which the police cited him for. Until today, 54 years later, the thought to forgive him never emerged from my consciousness. Maybe wiser, maybe more compassionate, maybe forward thinking to eternity, but today my heart’s spirit releases his wrong on earth, and wishes him well.

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  4. When there is no reconciliation before death, my hope is that once the non-repentant person is enveloped in God’s eternal, glorious love, s/he realizes the mistakes made during his/her life and sends unconditional love to those who were harmed. I hope you can see your father transformed, and that you can receive unconditional love from him.

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    1. We share that hope, Madeline! For me this is a long-held theological and philosophical principle. I admit that it remains a deeply held belief and yet, in this case, not an emotional experience. I don’t say this in bitterness or in disappointment. On the contrary, it really is a source of hope and peace. I will gratefully take what the Spirit has given me and, with God’s help, be open to more if it should be given. Always good to hear your thoughtful reflections!

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  5. We have an ongoing family issue that I carried around as my fault because my relative told me it was. I tried many times to “fix it.” At a peaceful retreat at Camp Hardtner one year, I was able to stuff all my guilt in a rock, walk to the end of the pier, and toss it into the pond. I pray for reconciliation one day, but I’m comfortable now. Thank you for your words.
    (Writing this quickly before our internet service goes away. Hurricane Laura has made me feel very isolated. BUT this too shall pass!)

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  6. I had a mother who stopped bonding with me at six weeks of age. I learned after she died, that she had blamed me for my father’s death when I was six weeks old. He had fallen asleep coming home from work. He had cared for me and was sleep deprived. She married when I was one. Her behaviors towards me were mirrored by him and my three siblings. I remember the day I forgave her I had this hope that my forgiveness was so powerful and she would love me. That hope was never realized. After she died I had a hope my dad would want a relationship with me. I regularly called him, but he never called me. I suggested to him that he would call me next. He called me 19 years later. I took him to doctor appointments one day. That evening, I asked him if he was amazed that I didn’t hate his guts. He told me that he was surprised. I told him that I had forgiven him a long time ago. I asked him if he died that night, “where would he go?” He admitted that he wanted to go to heaven. He always mocked me for believing. Anyway, I led him to the Lord. He lived one more month. God healed my heart. God resurrected a new man in him. I witnessed a new creation in my dad. If I hadn’t forgiven him, I would never had such a time and might not have made it to the Gates of Heaven.

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