...a Theological and Practical Must
"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were FAR OFF have been BROUGHT NEAR by the blood of Christ. For He HIMSELF is our PEACE, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself ONE NEW MAN in place of the two, so making peace, and might RECONCILE US BOTH to God in one body through the CROSS, thereby killing the hostility." (Ephesians 2:13-16)
I read one of the worst sentences of my life the other day: "Forgiveness is mandatory; reconciliation is optional." It comes from a pop-psychology self-help book that claims (and fails) to be Christian. Never in all my theological studies have I ever found where forgiveness and reconciliation can be separated.
Let's think about reconciliation for a minute. To be reconciled means the debt has been paid (by Christ). No more is owed. No bitterness is retained. The hostility is killed. This is what Jesus did between God and man: He reconciled us to God the Father through His sacrifice on our behalf. This reconciliation was made possible by atonement for our sins: an atonement greater than we could ever manage on our own.
As a result, God sees no sin in us. He sees only the purity that was earned for us by His Son. We owe Him nothing. Our debt is paid in full,
and we are welcome in His Kingdom as His children.
As I've said before, some reject this free gift, but regardless of that fact, it is the objective existence of this free gift that we acknowledge when we forgive one another. Reconciliation with one another exists equally as objectively: the debt has been paid. Period. (This does not negate the necessity of repentance, nor our obligation to bring our brother's sin to his attention and give him the opportunity to repent, but more on that later). So then, if I'm the victim of a crooked insurance salesman, and he repents and I forgive him, do I have to buy more insurance from him? If a friend betrays me, and she repents and I forgive her, do I have to trust her with my secrets again? If my brother steals from me, and he repents and I forgive him, do I have to give him access to my money? If a man murdered my loved one, and he repents and I by the grace of God manage to forgive him, do I have to let him go free?
Well, in short, yes. It may take years to get to the point where we can do such things, if we ever get there at all, but if the hostility is truly killed, if the matter is truly forgiven, then the situation is put behind us. Nothing is left to be repaid: nothing is owed, nothing is left to be punished. The person we have become reconciled with in Christ has nothing to prove to us, and we—like God does with us—ought to go on as though nothing has happened.
But nothing is that simple. We are human after all, and we try our best not to be idiots. We have sayings for situations like this: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," or "Once bitten, twice shy." Even if we honestly want to let the hostility go, it's tempting to treat the person who wronged us differently than we did before. We know human nature is inherently sinful, and that we're all prone to commit the same sins over and over again. The risk is just too great. But fear of getting hurt simply is not a good enough reason to hold any amount of debt over a person's head who has been forgiven in Christ.
Remember, Christianity is inherently unreasonable by our standards of "reason." What God would ever die for people who hate Him?
However, abstaining from recreating the same situation with a person who has wronged us is sometimes necessary OUT OF LOVE for our that person, our neighbor, not out of hostility or fear for one's self or a lingering sense of mistrust. God and our neighbor are our top priorities respectively. If our goal is to protect ourselves or our assets from further harm, we've missed the Christianity boat entirely. Take the case of the fraudulent insurance salesman. It may be an honest fact that the person I attempted to buy insurance from doesn't have the resources to best serve my family's needs. Purchasing them again isn't going to benefit either party. I'm under no obligation to purchase services that don't work, especially if it harms my family. I am obligated to be a good steward of what God has given me, and so I'm at liberty to make an informed decision: not out of spite, but out of love (1 Peter 4).
There are times when we have to admit that the temptation for our brother to sin is too great to risk giving him the same opportunities we did before. Sometimes people do this for themselves, like when a recovering alcoholic chooses to abstain from any and all alcohol and cut off old friendships. Sometimes it's our responsibility to do this for them. If your brother has stolen from you and your parents and your sister and a few of his friends, it would be kinder for his sake to not allow him access to your property out of love for him, not because you derive satisfaction from of the look on his face when he sees you've change your locks.
The same might go for a friend who's had difficulty keeping thoughts shared in confidence to herself. For her sake, it may be best to not tempt her into gossip with things you want to keep secret. Not because you're no longer friends (by Christ's example, who calls us all His friends, we do not rate our friends according to how much they can do for us) but because you are friends (John 15:12-17). It's hard enough to become reconciled with a friend who's blabbed your secrets all over creation. Imagine trying to become reconciled with a man who's murdered your son or daughter, adult or child. While I cannot even begin to fathom that kind of pain, I would venture that every breath of air that murderer is allowed to take in, every word they are allowed to speak, every smile they are allowed to see while my baby is with God and not with me would be a knife in my heart. All anyone might be able to achieve through fervent prayer and sanctification in this case would be an honest desire to want to forgive. And that's okay. God is merciful.
But the principle doesn't change with the severity of the sin.
Well then, shouldn't we let the murderers all go free as soon as they say they're sorry? Certainly not! By becoming or remaining citizens of the United States, or any country, we've signed an unwritten agreement promising to follow the laws of the land whether we like them or not (insofar as the laws do not compel us to sin against God, in which case we are obligated to "obey God rather than man" and suffer the consequences—see Acts 5—like refusing to turn in our Jewish neighbor to the reigning Nazi regime of 1930s Germany, or more contemporarily refusing to issue gay couples marriage licenses). When a person is incarcerated as a result of committing a crime, they are not being held for breaking God's law, but the laws of the state, which the state has every right to punish as it sees fit (Romans 13). Remember Jesus' command to "render unto Caesar..." (Matthew 22:21).
At the same time, no one is atoning for breaking God's law while he fulfills his duty to the state. No amount of time in prison can make up for the wrong that has been done in God's eyes, or often in our own. Perhaps the death penalty comes close. At least then the perpetrator will meet Jesus on our own time, but a death so peaceful can scarcely come close to reconciling such an act. The only thing that can is the death of the Son of God. That alone can reconcile a murderer to his victims. That alone has, and that is what must be accepted for reconciliation on our level to take place.
It takes time. Lots and lots and lots of time to forgive. If you just can't do it, if you cannot see your way to accepting the fact that Christ has reconciled us all to the Father and to one another, please please please, talk to your pastor.
Reconciliation—with God and with one another—is the church's business.
"From now on, therefore, we regard NO ONE according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded CHRIST according to the flesh, we regard Him thus NO LONGER. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who THROUGH CHRIST reconciled us to Himself and gave us the MINISTRY of RECONCILIATION; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of RECONCILIATION. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you ON BEHALF of CHRIST, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."