Distinguishing Forgiveness and Reconciliation


By Stephen Crawford

A friend once recommended a forgiveness exercise, which has since become fairly important to me, both personally and in my work as a priest. The exercise originally comes from The Steps to Freedom in Christ by Neil Anderson, but I have often adapted it to be done by itself, whether by individuals or by groups ranging from a handful to a hundred. The Lord often does surprising and wonderful things during this exercise, while people go further in forgiving others than they knew they could.

This exercise follows a different understanding of forgiveness than the one Fr. Victor Lee Austin outlined in his column (“Forgiveness,” March 7). Austin draws on Nigel Biggar’s work, presenting forgiveness as a fuller process. It begins when a victim cultivates one-way compassion for the perpetrator, but forgiveness has not really happened until the wrongdoer sincerely repents and the victim can finally say, “I forgive you.”

This is more than the exercise I mentioned attempts — maybe too much more. On Austin’s view, it seems that many significant hurts can never really be forgiven: the failures of parents long deceased, most childhood bullies, a mugger met in a parking lot one night. Austin’s examples from parish ministry focus on Christians finding out that forgiveness is not strictly required.

Unfortunately, if Austin depicts forgiveness as something too large, the personal work recommended for wounded people is rather too slight. I have found that something deeper can happen in those who have been hurt, even when compassion is as absent as the perpetrator. That something deeper is best called forgiveness.

The common distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation is helpful. On this view, forgiveness is one-sided, not depending on the wrongdoer’s repentance, though reconciliation is a group project. The model for such forgiveness is Jesus, who does not wait for his persecutors to come hat in hand, acknowledging their wrongdoing. Instead, his will toward them is forgiveness, even while they are murdering him. We must imitate Christ in this.

Even after we choose forgiveness, it may still be wise to withhold the word of forgiveness (absolution in the terminology Austin adopts) in order to leave an uncomfortable space that spurs repentance. But even if repentance comes and forgiveness is declared, it will occasionally be unwise to resume any life together — especially if the victim’s safety would be jeopardized. Still, we hope for reconciliation.

Forgiveness is not something we necessarily feel our way into: people thinking they need to feel a certain way frequently hinders their ability to forgive. Jesus tells us to forgive from the heart, which partly means allowing the forgiveness we choose to come into contact with any painful feelings we carry. But forgiveness is a choice, one that grace makes possible — even before any apologies have come. This has mostly to do with the person wronged, who lets go of grudges and embraces the freedom that Christ is eager to give. The person chooses not to hold wrongdoers’ sins against them any longer.

Of course, forgiving is not forgetting. The memories are not erased, but neither are they held onto as ammunition. The truth that makes this possible is not our common humanity or even our moral frailty, though these truths can be landmarks that help to keep us on the path. The horizon that gives forgiveness its bearings is none other than the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

When we forgive, we let people off our hook knowing they will yet stand before Jesus, who will judge them truthfully and fairly and lovingly in a way that we cannot. This is more recusal than acquittal. We leave those who have hurt us in Jesus’ hands. Then our lives are free to center on the Lord, rather than on the awful thing that happened. He sets the course for our lives, not the painful events of the past. Then we can act for the good, not only of ourselves but of those who have harmed us, whether that means offering reproach or rapport.

The adapted prayer exercise begins with an explanation of what forgiveness is, roughly along these lines. Then people going through the process say this opening prayer:

Father, I thank you for your forgiveness, though I confess I have not always shown that same forgiveness to others. Please call to my mind everyone I need to forgive, so that by your grace I can, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Then they write down the names of people who come to mind, not second-guessing but trusting that the Lord is really guiding them (and the Lord will, often bringing to mind persons and events the participants have not thought about in years). Then they focus on one person at a time from their list, repeating this short prayer of forgiveness for each specific thing done or left undone that needs forgiving:

Lord Jesus, I choose to forgive (name the person) for (say what the person specifically did). It made me feel (share the feelings it caused).

And they conclude forgiving each person, praying:

Lord, I let go of any resentment. I leave those who have hurt me in your hands, and I ask you to show them mercy in the way you know is best. Please heal all my wounds, for I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Once I led a group of college students through this exercise, and as I talked about forgiveness the atmosphere of the gathering was weirdly intense, the anxiety in the room palpable. After some time by themselves saying these prayers, they came back together, but that intense feeling was gone from the room.

When I asked how it went, one person answered, “I feel like a weight has been lifted off of me.” I hope many more experience just that kind of relief by answering Jesus’ call to forgive. After all, his yoke is easy and his burden is light, especially since he has already done the heavy lifting.

The Rev. Stephen Crawford is rector of St. Mary’s in Franklin, Louisiana.

 Victor Austin responds:

Father Crawford writes with much priestly wisdom. In favor of his distinction of the matter into forgiveness and reconciliation is the biblical use of the former term by Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them.” But it is odd to think of the one-sidedness of this as incomplete — in Crawford’s terms, forgiveness but not reconciliation — and to take it as a model for a one-sidedness on our own, offering forgiveness to the unrepentant. After all, on the cross God was reconciling the world to himself (see 2 Cor. 5:19). We are stuck, one way or another, with an already but not yet situation, one of the traditional hard points of soteriology, the study of salvation.

Although he wants to use different terms than Nigel Biggar’s, in either case we have to see that the whole process involves two identifiable moves: the first being entirely in the hands of the one offended, the second waiting upon a repentant heart coming to be in the offender. Crawford calls the first part of that forgiveness; Biggar calls the whole process forgiveness; Crawford must draw a line between forgiveness and reconciliation. Both views have some scriptural warrant.

I had not the space in the original article to do more than gesture to it, but it is also important, when we think about forgiveness, not to think exclusively of individuals. Forgiveness is important for entrenched conflicts (think of Northern Ireland as one example). To speak of compassion for our enemies is not merely an emotional thing but rather the work of finding a way to understand matters from their point of view (however benighted we think it is).

Compassion is an achievement, not a given feeling. Etymologically, it is an “undergoing-with.” It is coming to terms in this concrete situation of wrong with our common humanity and our shared identity as sinners. I have not found any satisfactory way to divide the interior of a person — and therefore I am uncomfortable dividing feelings from the will — but there does seem to be an active process involved in working one’s way to finding compassion for the offender. That is our incumbent ethical task.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.


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