As Christ followers, we are commanded to live at peace with one another. But in a world that is so often quick to anger and slow to forgive, how is this possible? In this article, Sarah Damaska addresses the art of reconciliation and shares 4 ways we can cultivate a heart of forgiveness and take steps toward restoring our relationships today.
In 1947, Corrie Ten Boom was speaking at a church in Munich, Germany. She had been arrested three years earlier for hiding Dutch Jews from the Nazis during World War II, yet God had called her to spend the years after her imprisonment speaking and writing about the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. After she finished speaking, a man came up to her whom she instantly recognized. Standing in front of her was one of the most vicious guards at Ravensbrück, where she had been held prisoner for several months. “It came back with a rush,” she wrote, “the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man.”
The man stuck out his hand, inviting her in for a handshake. He told her he had since become a Christian, and he was seeking her forgiveness.
She faltered. There she was, having just spoken to a group of people about the power of reconciliation, but when face-to-face with her tormentor, she was paralyzed.
Relying on the Lord’s Strength to Forgive
She remembered that forgiveness is an act of the will—not an emotion. “Jesus, help me!” she prayed. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
With what little strength she could muster, she lifted her hand.
“And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our jointed hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart.’
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then. But even so, I realized it was not MY love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit.”
A World of Conflict and Bitterness
I shared Corrie Ten Boom’s story of forgiveness with a group of friends the week before the world shut down in March 2020. None of us knew just how drastically life would be turned upside down. I didn’t know the news would constantly swirl around us, making it impossible to sift through what was true and what was false.
We’ve now lived in this world for longer than we ever imagined. I’m sure you, like me, have watched in horror as conflict and bitterness have been spewed all over the internet and in real life. Relationships have been severed. Misunderstandings have escalated. Fuses have gotten much shorter. People have very little margin, leaving them burnt out, irate, and resentful. We live in a world quick to anger and slow to ask forgiveness.
I have my own stories. You have yours. None of us is exempt from the anger in the world right now. But that doesn’t leave us powerless, and it doesn’t leave us hopeless. We have been given the privilege to restore relationships and change the world through forgiveness and reconciliation.
QUICK TO ANGER, SLOW TO FORGIVE
I got an email from my daughter’s classmate’s mom the other day. By the time I got to the end, tears stung my eyes. It seemed as if my daughter hadn’t been kind to her daughter during recess. I promised to address it. My daughter and I spent some time talking about what had happened and the value of apologizing and restoring the relationship. It was a positive conversation, and I was proud of the humility my daughter showed.
So imagine my surprise when the next day my daughter got in the car after school and burst into tears. Her apology had somehow escalated the whole event. For the next week, the other little girl found a way to tell several teachers what my daughter had done. And though my daughter kept trying to do the right thing, eventually the little girl told the principal and my daughter found herself in tears in his office.
Is Forgiveness Worth it?
After several days of this, I looked my daughter in the eyes and asked her a question, “Do you think asking her forgiveness was the right choice?”
It was a risky question, because the ‘right’ answer didn’t necessarily make it any better. Instead of telling you her answer, I’ll turn the question around to you: Do you think asking her forgiveness was the right choice? Your answer probably reveals a bit of personal history—and baggage—when it comes to reconciliation.
In the midst of writing this article, I had a conversation with a friend who asked what I was writing about. When I told her, her whole body slumped. “I’m not sure I want to read about that,” she said. “I’m not ready to face the work I need to do in some of my relationships.”
Do you resonate with her? With everything else going on in your world, have you swept a few things under the rug that you know need to be addressed? Have you stopped long enough to evaluate how it’s affecting you?
Reconciliation is Always Worth Pursuing
The truth is, relationships are always worth restoring. A significant part of the New Testament addresses how to get along with others:
“I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers” (1 Corinthians 6:5)?
“God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NLT).
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if His love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends” (Philippians 2:1-2, The Message Paraphrase).
THE ART OF RECONCILIATION
True reconciliation goes beyond forgiveness, but it must start with forgiveness. While forgiveness can be a private state of the heart, reconciliation involves both the one who asks for forgiveness and the one who receives forgiveness. It goes a few steps further to restore the relationship between people.
Holding on to hurt—no matter how deep—cripples us emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. And the most effective thing we can do to heal is to forgive. We don’t need studies to know there are significant psychological benefits to forgiveness, like decreasing depression and anxiety. But reconciliation goes beyond finding peace in our own personal lives. It also gives the other person an opportunity to be healed.
That doesn’t mean it’s all roses and gumdrops. Reconciliation is brutally hard work. It often involves a confrontation, coming together to address the problem, and facing it head on. If you’re like me, just thinking about this can make you sweaty. It can get messy really quickly. It takes radical obedience, courage, and trust. But this is what God asks of us: to get to the root of the issue so that He might restore what has been broken. By addressing the bitterness that is festering, it becomes possible to start over.
FOUR WAYS TO CULTIVATE FORGIVENESS
Perhaps a few of my words have you nodding your head, but it’s still a bunch of mumbo jumbo unless we put hands and feet to it. In our everyday lives, how can we restore relationships when we’ve been deeply hurt?
1. Find Meaning in Your Pain
An important part of healing is to find a sense of purpose in your suffering. Without it, you may feel hopeless and depressed. This doesn’t mean you should diminish what you’ve experienced, but as you try to find goodness in what has happened, your perspective will change. This is how we bring justice to a world quick to anger. This is how we become more loving, making it possible to pass our love onto others.
2. Extend Mercy, Even When It Isn’t Deserved
If Corrie Ten Boom hadn’t extended mercy to her prison guard, imagine how differently the end of the story would have been. We’ll never know the number of people who have read her story and have then taken steps to reconcile relationships because of her. Reconciliation gives us a larger understanding of what it means to be humble, courageous, and loving. It changes our homes, our workplaces, our churches, and our communities. Our choice to be slow to anger and quick to forgive spreads, changing the vicious cycles of hatred that circulate around us. Shedding bitterness and extending mercy frees us.
3. Developing Forgiveness Muscles Is a Process
Even if you’ve been an avid runner for years, if you decide to go on a long bike ride, chances are you’ll be sore the next day. Why? Because you’re using different muscles, and muscles need to be developed. It’s the same with forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process that takes significant prayer, humility, and patience. It’s not always going to turn out perfectly and that’s okay. Don’t give up when your expectations don’t line up with reality.
4. Be Empathetic
If we believe every person is created in the image of God, we also have to believe there is a plan and purpose for everyone on earth. Developing a sense of empathy for the person who makes you angry may be the first step you take toward reconciliation. If you examine some of the details in the life of the person who has brought you harm, you can often get a clearer picture of what’s really happening. Perhaps the issue you’re dealing with goes much deeper. Perhaps you’re part of something much bigger. By developing empathy, the Holy Spirit may be able to work in and through your relationship to bring deep healing that can change the trajectory of your lives.
A.W. Tozer once said, “As God is exalted to the right place in our lives, a thousand problems are solved all at once.” I can’t help but wonder how our lives, our families, our communities, and our churches would change if we had the audacity to ask Jesus to help us both forgive and be forgiven.
Living reconciled means trusting God will not waste the grief we have endured. It means He will take the atrocities and bring beauty to our brokenness, redeeming the messy, horrific sadness we have faced. What should be destroyed, He rebuilds. The work is hard, but when we lift our hands and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit, there is reconciliation.
NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE
Chances are you may have heard of Corrie Ten Boom, but you didn’t experience the atrocities of World War II. Perhaps you read stories like hers and then look at the unforgiveness in your own life and have a hard time even comparing them. But my friend, if Corrie Ten Boom can look her prison guard in the eye and forgive him, then so can you. There is nothing too big, too impossible, or too deep to withstand the power of Christ to restore relationships.
Left to ourselves, we’ll shut others out and think we can just move on. But there’s so much more to the story God has for our lives. May the ripple effect of our stories go on for generations, spurring others on to live in peace and freedom.
How do Sarah’s words encourage you to take a step toward reconciliation? What stories have you experienced that have given you hope that forgiveness and reconciliation is possible? Share them in the comments!
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