“How long do I need to keep forgiving?” someone recently asked me. Because I realized the real question was about reconciliation, I didn’t respond with the standard seventy times seven answer. I suppose we don’t really ever stop forgiving, but knowing when to end futile attempts at reconciliation can be important, even life-saving.
I used to be a champion reconciler. What that really means is that I went through the motions of apology and apology acceptance as if they meant something. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. I figured that if someone apologized to me, I had to forgive them right away. And vice versa. After all, this was the game that my ex-husband, who suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, taught me all too well.
“I said I was sorry,” he would say and then he would go on to explain that God commanded me to forgive. He would be charming and I would forgive readily, eager to put the latest traumatic episode behind me. And then his behavior would improve for a day, a week, maybe a month at the outset. But then we would end up at the same impasse where he had taken things too far.
And then there was my side of the sorry equation. Being terrified of his angry outbursts, I went to extraordinary lengths to hide anything that might upset him. So I became deceptive. He would root through my purse looking for receipts for forbidden purchases (like diet coke when I was at work). Or he would search my emails and mail. Inevitably he would find something and he demanded apologies from me. And I complied.
For me, reconciliation meant injustice, denial, and just plain fear. So I really understood this question. My quest to understand what was happening to me eventually lead me to really understand the nature of both forgiveness and reconciliation. I wasn’t really forgiving, nor was any real reconciliation accomplished.
I’m not sure I have accomplished forgiveness. Any time I think I have, I find that a new issue crops up that I have to release to God. But I am one hundred percent sure that reconciliation is impossible in this case. Why? Because reconciliation of any kind takes two willing participants. Remember, God may have reconciled us to Himself through Jesus. This does not in any way mean that we have reconciled ourselves to Him. If just the one side was necessary, no one would have to fear hell.
However, here is my own personal list of reasons that I eventually compiled when I came to the recognition that true reconciliation was not only impossible, it was the wrong thing to do.
Reconciliation is impossible with someone you fear.
Maybe terror is a better word here. But reconciliation is the restoration of trust. If you forgive and reenter a relationship with a person that you live in fear of, you are merely continuing the cycle of abuse. A healthy relationship is one in which neither party dreads the other. If you live in constant trepidation, walking on eggshells, then you have not really reconciled. You have merely compromised your own safety.
Reconciliation is impossible with an unrepentant person.
In my case, narcissism destroyed what conscience my ex ever had. The Holy Spirit led me out of that marriage. God leads us individually into decisions about what to do about unrepentant spouses, whether the issue be addiction, mental illness, adultery, or abuse. No matter how anxious to reconcile one party might be, if the other refuses to stop the destructive behavior, true reconciliation is impossible. They might still live together as man and wife, but they are not reconciled.
Reconciliation is impossible through any means of manipulation.
Guilt will not restore a relationship. Nagging, begging, and outbursts of anger will not restore a relationship. In fact, no one is capable of forcing another into genuine reconciliation. Love requires freedom and in the resolving of a troubled relationship, both sides must be free to come and go from the table of peace as they choose. Anything else is a pretense.
Reconciliation is impossible without truth.
The problem with lying of any kind is that it is a mask. If you cannot see the true self of the other person, your relationship doesn’t exist. That sounds extreme, but I stand by it. If one partner has whole areas hidden from his or her mate, then the relationship is just a storefront held up by a lot of denial. I will put it this way. Every lie told to another is a step away from that person. It doesn’t take a lot of steps to disappear.
Reconciliation is impossible without self-awareness.
Self-awareness is understanding the effect you have on others. If you do not truly understand the ways in which you affect your spouse, friends, or family, you aren’t truly bringing everything to the table of reconciliation. This goes both ways. After all, it is seeking to understand as well as seeking to be understood that is the meat and potatoes of true reconciliation. Much of the time, we just want the conflict to end. Ending a conflict for the mere sake of ending a conflict is just a postponement of more struggles.
I feared at first that this article might be too negative. After all, we like to fling the Bible verse, “With God, all things are possible” at circumstances we don’t like. But while God is sovereign over all impossibilities, there is one thing He will not do. You see, He is the author of reconciliation. And even given that He paid the ultimate price for that redemption, He will not force it upon us.
I had to learn to follow His example. I stopped playing the fake forgiveness game and let Him speak truth into my heart. And sometimes reconciliation happens in my life. And often, it does not. Loving our enemies can turn them into friends, but we must be prepared for the reality that it may not. After all, even God has His haters.
If you aren’t sure if reconciliation is possible or not, try asking the Holy Spirit if He requires you to be in a relationship with that person. Seek out His will first before assuming that you have to live in fear or with abuse. God honors and values people above institutions like marriage. We get that backward sometimes. Pursue Him and surrender yourself, and He will guide you in all matters, including relationships that are irreconcilable, whether for the moment or forever.