Intimate relationships are a part of life. If you desire an intimate relationship, you may cling to the hope that you will soon meet “the one” for you. If you are in an intimate relationship, all may seem right with your world. But if you have been wounded by someone who is emotionally close to you, you may wonder whether that relationship will survive the assault—especially when another’s rejection, betrayal, disloyalty or addictive behaviors have hurt you severely, repeatedly and unjustly. You may very well echo the words of Psalm 55:
If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were raising himself against me,
I could hide from him.
But it is you, a [person] like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
as we walked with the throng at the house of God. (vv. 12-14)
When your relationship is fractured, you may fear that it is beyond repair. Whether that relationship is with a longtime friend, business colleague or other family member, you may wonder about the feasibility of reconciliation. When the betrayer is your spouse, the wound seems even more deadly.
Many wish they could erase what has happened. Victims may want to trust wrongdoers again and, just like the loving father of the prodigal (see Lk 15:20-24), they watch for signs that the ones from whom they are estranged have come to their senses and are returning home. Sorrowful transgressors, longing to undo the damage they have done, may throw themselves on the mercy of the injured party like the prodigal son threw himself on his father’s mercy (see Lk 15:11-20).
Unfortunately far too many of us experience just the opposite. Extensive betrayal threatens to destroy our relationship. Repair seems out of the question. Parting is not filled with sweet sorrow. It is fraught with problems, unanticipated consequences and great emotional turmoil. Injured parties, who see perpetrators through the lens of white-hot anger, may hold a grudge and, like Esau, long for revenge (see Gen 27:36-41).
Transgressors may want to escape or evade the fallout and, like Jacob, abandon the wounded relationship for years (see Gen 27:42-45). Distance, suspicion and estrangement replace intimacy, acceptance and belonging. The thought of restoration is appalling, and the idea of termination is appealing. In other words, reconciliation seems like a pipe dream. Can people in severely damaged relationships reconcile? More specifically, can couples in severely damaged marriages reconcile? Consider Tom and Sandy’s situation.
TOM AND SANDY’S STORY
Tom and Sandy were high-school sweethearts. They married before they graduated from high school, when Sandy became pregnant. During the next three years, Sandy and Tom added two more children to their family.
Sandy says, “We had all of our children by the time I was twenty-three. . . . Tom got really busy with his job. He was working, providing for the family. And I was busy taking care of the home. I always felt like the man went out and brought home the paycheck, and the wife stayed home and kept the home front. . . . Those first few years were bliss for me.”
Of those years, Tom says, “I was married, but I didn’t really feel the impact. . . . I kept doing my thing.”
Sandy was aware that Tom drank, but she didn’t become alarmed by it until he began drinking heavily. Things deteriorated. After a time, Sandy says, “I went to the bars; I grabbed him up by his shirt collar and dragged him out.”
Tom says, “I never did stop loving Sandy and the kids. That was never, never a question, but I always felt that I was missing out on something.”
As time passed, Tom became an expert alcoholic. He drank all night and worked all day. Sandy discovered that she could control Tom through her biting, sarcastic language. Their lives were rapidly spiraling out of control. Eventually Sandy convinced Tom to enter treatment. He stopped drinking, about which he says, “I did that for five years, and in the back of my little mind I knew that after five years I’d drink again.”
And he did. After five years of sobriety, Tom told Sandy that he was going to start drinking again. Sandy was actually relieved because now she would have an explanation for Tom’s recent depressed behavior. Their former pattern reasserted itself, and family life quickly descended into chaos.
Added to this mix was the fact that their daughters were now teenagers. Tom and his oldest daughter had a particularly combative relationship. If Tom and his daughter weren’t fighting, Sandy was browbeating him. He learned that he could avoid all this if he drank enough to send himself into a minor alcoholic stupor. He would pass out on the couch, and there would be “peace” in the home.
Things continued to deteriorate. A few more years passed, and Sandy finally reached the end of her rope. After a particularly nasty episode, she told Tom, “You need to choose the alcohol or your family.”
Tom replied, “Well, I’ll be out in an hour.”
He packed his bags and left.
WHAT DOES RECONCILIATION LOOK LIKE?
Sadly, Sandy and Tom’s story is not exceptional. I think it’s safe to say that all of us know of at least one couple whose relationship has ended because of some painful moral transgression. Abandonment and neglect, addiction, adultery, abuse (physical, emotional, sexual and even spiritual), various types of betrayals, financial irresponsibility, deceitfulness, disrespect—the list goes on. I suspect that many of us know more than just one couple. In some cases you may not be surprised to learn that a spouse has moved out, while in other situations you are shocked. Sandy and Tom, for instance, seemed like the “perfect family” at church. Home was another story entirely. Their situation begs us to ask the questions that shape this book: Can couples reconcile when their marriage has been severely damaged by moral wrongdoing? What roles do forgiveness and repentance play? Do other elements contribute to marital reconciliation in addition to forgiveness and repentance? Do reconciled marriages look alike, or are their contours unique, given the various contexts in which couples find themselves?
Before we dive into these questions, let’s begin by defining the principal term of this book: reconciliation. Describing reconciliation is not as straightforward as it appears. Often elements of forgiveness are stirred in with the reconciliation batter so that “to forgive” becomes synonymous with “to reconcile,” and somehow accountability and change (repentance) are omitted from the recipe altogether. This would be the case if Tom said he was sorry and came back home but nothing changed. Sandy appears to forgive Tom. Tom appears to repent. The couple seems to have reconciled because they are living together again. But if they pick up where they left off (Tom drinking and Sandy berating), is this what reconciliation is all about?
What picture comes to your mind when you think about reconciliation? I think images of reconciliation are as varied as the troubles that tear people apart. Maybe you think about the two feuding families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and how the death of their children ended the hostility between them. Perhaps you know a story of reconciliation that occurred on someone’s deathbed. You may even consider the wonder of your own reconciliation with God through the cross of Jesus Christ.
These few examples reveal that reconciliation can mean different things under different circumstances. Let’s look at this more closely. Sometimes reconciliation is like a cease-fire in which warring parties stop their barrage of negative exchanges. Did your parents ever tell you to tell someone you were sorry? In this case a more powerful external authority imposes reconciliation on the contentious relationship. Or did a serious ideological argument threaten a friendship? To preserve your connection without abandoning your ideals, you may have decided to settle your differences by agreeing to disagree. In these examples, the external fighting ends but the internal tension remains. These unresolved issues may smolder for years under an apparently banked fire, ready to ignite when the conditions are right.
At other times reconciliation implies that you have achieved some degree of friendliness with the person from whom you are estranged. Here we add a positive element to reconciliation. We not only call a cease-fire (end negative exchanges) but also create a treaty (begin positive exchanges). Divorced parents embody this kind of reconciliation when they cooperate around the tasks of parenting their children. In effect they create a space for a special kind of connection. They do not intend to remarry, because many differences between them continue to exist. However, they settle enough of their differences so that they can work together for the sake of their children.
Reconciliation also can imply that you have balanced a relationship account. Deathbed confessions and statements of forgiveness are intended to close the books on some unresolved interpersonal episode and may bring comfort and release to the bereaved. Of course, you don’t have to wait until you are dying to reconcile a relationship debt! Replacing a broken item or returning a favor may help to balance overdue accounts. Unfortunately, restocking material goods does not relieve the sense of personal violation that often accompanies such a loss.
Trust is not easily restored. Yet these strategies make up much of what we call reconciliation in our day-to-day life, and they do help us to preserve our relationships. However, they preserve only the form of a relationship; they do not change its heart. In other words, they do not bring about the kind of relationship renewal that a couple like Sandy and Tom needs in order to have a healthy relationship.
Sadly, Tom and Sandy—and those around them—may be content to settle for “cheap reconciliation.” Here beliefs about one another and ways of interacting do not radically change. Wrongdoers do not hold themselves fully accountable, nor do they commit themselves to consistent changed behavior over time. Injured parties extend a form of forgiveness but may harbor grudges that persist for years. The problems that threatened to undo the couple are still present either overtly (repeated infractions occur) or covertly (fear or threat of repeated harm is present). “Catastrophe” has been averted, and the status quo has been maintained. However, the status quo is not acceptable when emotional betrayal, addictions, or physical and sexual violence damage close relationships. Our picture of reconciliation must therefore go beyond mere preservation.
Recently scholars have begun to write about reconciliation. Family therapist Froma Walsh observes that reconciliation requires “a readiness on the part of each person to take the others seriously, to acknowledge violations to the relationship, and to experience the pain associated with the acknowledgment. Reconciliation is more than righting wrongs; it brings us to a deeper place of trust and commitment” (1998, p. 284).
Forgiveness researcher Everett L. Worthington Jr. defines reconciliation as “restoring trust in a relationship in which trust has been damaged” (2001, p. 157). He and his colleague Dewitt Drinkard (2000) have experimented with a psychoeducational program to promote reconciliation in couples. Walsh, Worthington and Drinkard are obviously pointing to more than relationship preservation . They have set their sights on relationship transformation.
With this in mind, I define reconciliation as the active commitment to the restoration of love and trustworthiness by both injured party and transgressor so that their relationship may be transformed. Let’s look at the four parts of this definition a bit closer.
First, transformation is the ultimate goal of reconciliation. This is more than the cessation of negativity, the introduction of goodwill or the balancing of emotional ledgers, although these may be part of the larger process. Often they are as far as the relationship goes. Full reconciliation, however, involves a metamorphosis of injured party, transgressor and their relationship (Holeman, 2000, 2003; Pargament & Rye, 1998). This is especially important in severely damaged relationships like that of Sandy and Tom.
Transformation is not a return to the way things used to be. Instead it involves courageous reengagement between victim and wrongdoer to reshape their relationship and to restore truth, trust and love. It would be helpful at this point to differentiate transformative reconciliation from other types of relationship repair strategies. Transforming reconciliation may include aspects of conflict management, but it is not merely conflict management. Conflict management suggests that there is a solid moral basis on which to build but this base is threatened by the escalating tension between various parties. Moral violations have not entered the picture—at least not yet.
Reconciliation that transforms is also different from forbearance, accommodation or acceptance. When you extend forbearance to another, you resist avoidance, refrain from revenge and continue to treat the wrongdoer kindly (McCullough, Fincham & Tsang, 2003). If you engage in accommodation strategies, you not only inhibit the impulse to react negatively in return, you also act in a constructive manner (Rusbult, Bissonnette, Arriaga & Cox, 1998). If you adopt acceptance, you embrace annoying mannerisms or behaviors as what is given about your mate, and you release your desire for your mate to change (Jacobson & Christensen, 1996).
These strategies may adequately mend many garden-variety relationship offenses, and they may be successfully employed to calm interpersonal rough waters when differences in personality exist. By suggesting that relationship transformation is the ultimate goal of reconciliation, I am not discounting the unfolding nature of reconciling; conflict management, forbearance, accommodation or acceptance may be needed as couples seek relationship transformation. Neither am I prescribing what reconciled relationships will look like when all is said and done. I am saying, however, that transformed relationships look and feel differently from their “pre-reconciled” state. When dissolution seems the most likely response to a moral offense, reconciliation requires vital change.
Second, reconciliation that transforms demands the undivided attention of both parties in the close relationship. While one partner can offer forbearance, accommodation or acceptance and thereby avoid divorce, it takes two to attain transformation. In marriages, relationship transformation is not a solo performance. This is one aspect that distinguishes reconciliation from forgiving and repenting. When injured parties forgive transgressors, they replace negative emotions such as bitterness, anger and fear with positive emotions such as compassion, empathy and love. Injured parties can forgive independent of any change in the wrongdoer (Worthington, 2001). When offenders repent, they confess and commit to changed behavior over time. Transgressors can repent even if those they offended reject them. Both victim and victimizer must participate to reconcile.
Third, the restoration of love and trustworthiness is the focus of transforming reconciliation. These are the intangible but very real things that were destroyed by the offending action. And because they are intangible, they are more difficult to repair than a broken lamp or a diminished bank account. Love and trustworthiness are rebuilt over time, just like forgiveness (McCullough et al., 2003; Worthington et al., 2000).
For a couple like Sandy and Tom, it would not be difficult to conceive of them working on reconciliation for about two years before they feel they can breathe easy. This brings us to the fourth aspect of this definition: active commitment. Transforming reconciliation is hard work. Only those with the active commitment to stick with it will survive the early months of doubt, pain, fear and disappointment.
ELIZABETH AND ALAN’S STORY, PART ONE
“Hey, girl, can you tell me where Jim lives?” Not the most auspicious opening line, but it was enough. Alan and a buddy were on their way home from a college golf tournament. They had stopped at a gas station to track down a friend, and Elizabeth happened to be the first person they saw. A year later, Alan and Elizabeth began dating. He was a sophomore in college, and she was a high-school senior.
After four chaotic years of dating, Alan thought about ending their relationship. Then Elizabeth told him she was pregnant. The young couple married, but Alan’s drinking and his desire for his premarital bachelor lifestyle of golfing troubled their early marital relationship. He sobered up (literally and figuratively) when he didn’t make the cut for the Professional Golfers’ Association. While Alan moved from one low-level job to another, Elizabeth’s income wasn’t enough to keep them out of debt.
Alan was despondent. One day he just screamed out, “God, this can’t be what you intended for my life. Either take me back or show me the way.” And God did.
A whirlwind of movement and change characterized the next few years. On the surface their marriage seemed to improve, but a hidden threat had entered the picture. Of this time, Elizabeth says, “I felt endangered because a man had come into my life that I was attracted to and became interested in having an affair with. . . . I knew that if I wasn’t careful, something was going to happen. That’s when I went to church. I said, ‘Going to church will protect me.’”
Alan and Elizabeth joined a church where they became baptized and committed followers of Jesus Christ. They grew in their faith. Alan decided that he wanted to become a pastor, and he began seminary. In the meantime Elizabeth began a three-year, on-and-off affair. Of the affair, she says, “It was easy for me to say, ‘God’s going to forgive me.’ But I now realize that just cheapens God’s grace. To look at me, everyone would have said, ‘She’s the perfect example of what a Christian woman/mother/wife should be.’ . . . So though it appeared that I was really running headlong toward God with every step I took, I was hightailing it out of there.”
Alan had some misgivings about Elizabeth’s relationship with her coworker, but because he trusted her, he disregarded his internal warning system. Yet he grew more suspicious. One day Alan listened to Elizabeth’s voice mail. What he heard confirmed his doubts: Elizabeth was having an affair. When she came home from work, Alan confronted her. She denied it until he repeated the content of the voice mail. Alan says, “I yelled and cussed and screamed and called her a whore. . . . I was just in a state of shock and anger. I remember that I took one of the kitchen chairs and slammed it down. It broke. The spindle broke on it. She said, ‘That was my grandma’s chair.’ I said, ‘Screw Grandma’s chair. What about my life and my heart?’”
Recalling this confrontation, Elizabeth says, “He was furious. . . . I was suicidal. If there had been anything stronger than Tylenol in my house, I probably wouldn’t be alive today, because I would have taken it and just faded away because of the pain it was causing him and was going to cause him, and us, and me.”
Elizabeth implored him to give her a second chance. Alan halfheartedly agreed, but they wondered if they would make it.
IS RECONCILIATION AN IMPOSSIBLE JOURNEY?
What does it take to restore a damaged relationship, especially a wounded marriage? Common sense tells us that willingness to reconcile rests on such things as who did what to whom, when, for how long and how often. When transgressors’ offenses are minor and happen infrequently or when wrongdoers apologize and change, relationship restoration is likely. For example, when someone you care about is late, forgetful or short tempered, you can often overlook or ignore what happened. You may decide that you can tolerate the other’s actions.
However, when offenses are serious and occur frequently, and transgressors show little remorse or make no effort to permanently change their behavior, reconciliation seems improbable. In fact, maintaining a destructive relationship may be at best unwise and at worst dangerous, particularly in cases of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. While you may long to restore the fractured relationship, returning to the way things were does not challenge the sinful actions of the transgressor in ways that demand change in his or her behaviors and attitudes and that establish relationship safety, accountability and trustworthiness. In the vignettes you have read, both Sandy and Alan faced this exact situation.
The behavior of their spouses required confrontation, not coddling. Sadly, many who desire reconciliation will not achieve it. Good reasons exist that explain why some couples encounter relational “Road Closed” signs, and closed roads can stop us in our tracks. Let me explain. When I was a teenager, decades before anyone had heard of cell phones, my mother and I regularly shared holiday meals with family friends. One particular Easter, a surprising but not unprecedented snow fell as we worshiped our risen Lord. We emerged from church to find at least six inches of snow on the roads and not a snowplow in sight. Our Easter dinner awaited us.
My mother and I got into the car and began our trip from church to our friend’s home, which normally took no more than five minutes. Our friend’s neighborhood was built into the side of a mountain, and the only way to get there was to go up a steep hill. We went on our merry way, confident that our car would not let us down. One hour later, within one block of the crest of the hill and almost within sight of our destination, my mother gave up. Too much snow lay on the ground. Too much time had passed. Too much energy had been expended. My mother just wanted to go home. Somehow she managed to turn the car around and began our journey home. That trip, which normally took fifteen minutes, lasted another two hours.
How does this story clarify my picture of closed roads? We need to differentiate between closed roads and roadblocks or detours. Closed roads can bring our journey to an end; alternate routes to our destination do not exist. To take another route means to accept a different destination. For some, dissolution of a marriage may be the wisest course of action, especially when abuse or repeated and unrepentant betrayals factor into the picture (Lamb, 2002). For others, the decision is taken out of their hands because their partner does not desire reconciliation. One reconciler recognized this fact when she said, “Both of us really wanted to reconcile, and I believe that’s the key to rebuilding anything—both of you have to have a very strong desire. And that’s not always the case.”Worthington (2001) has developed a model of reconciliation based on the image of building a bridge over the great divide that transgressions create between two people. The first plank on the bridge is “decide to reconcile.” Worthington notes that there are a number of reasons people may decide not to reconcile. For example, they have “clicked off” to one another and are not interested in “clicking on.” Maybe they like being apart more than they liked being together, or the work of reconciliation is too daunting and one or both lack the energy to try. The costs of reconciling can also outweigh the benefits.
Worthington points out several aspects of reconciliation that contribute to whether or not you encounter a closed road. First, he states that reconciliation entails risk. We may long for a risk-free relationship, but none exists. When people consider whether or not to reenter a wounded relationship, risk factors are painted in neon letters and should not be ignored. Second, Worthington observes that reconciliation is not always desirable. He writes, “It may be unhealthy or unsafe to try to reconcile” (2001, p. 163). This is particularly true if you have been subject to abuse or domination of any kind in your relationship. No one should return to an abusive relationship until the abuser has had help and has demonstrated changed behavior over time. Clearly reconciliation is impossible if the wrongdoer is unrepentant, shows no sincere sorrow and has no intention of changing. Injured parties need to recognize that they may want someone to change but they cannot will the offender to want to change (Friedman, 1985).
Third, reconciliation may not be possible. One of the two people might be unavailable (that is, in jail, deceased, very ill and so on) or may have changed his or her life in such a way that reconciliation cannot happen (such as remarried or relocated).
Fourth, reconciliation may not be prudent. An offer of reconciliation may come after too much pain has been dumped into the relationship. The work of reconciliation may exceed the strength and stamina that either the transgressor or the wounded party possesses, or not enough healing has happened for the couple to enter into the process of reconciling.
SO CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?
As a seminary professor and a marriage and family therapist, I know all too well how Christians struggle with the tension between the biblical teaching about reconciliation and the everyday reality of their lives. Because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we have been reconciled to God. This is the vertical dimension of reconciliation. But biblical reconciliation also has a horizontal dimension. Not only are we reconciled to God, we are also to be reconciled with one another. This sounds great in theory. Research suggests that religious people perceive themselves to be forgiving people (McCullough & Worthington, 1999)—that is, until we have been deeply and unjustly hurt by someone in particular. Then our theology and our experience collide. We love being forgiven by God; we question the sanity of forgiving and being reconciled with one another.
Through the cross of Christ, God—the divine injured party—endured great pain for the sake of our relationship with him. When we, as human injured parties, contemplate enduring similar pain, we often argue, “It’s not fair! I’ve already been hurt once; now you want me to suffer more pain to save this relationship?” This is where we left Alan and Elizabeth. We will continue their story in chapter two.
Social scientists have amassed an impressive body of research that sheds light on why marriages dissolve (see, for example, Gottman, 1994; Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 1994) so that counselors today know a lot about what factors contribute to divorce. For example, John Gottman (1994) and his colleagues at the University of Washington have studied thousands of couples in their “marriage lab.” They can predict with surprising accuracy which couples are most likely to experience marriagethreatening trouble. Gottman notes that when four specific interaction patterns are present, a couple may eventually head toward the slippery slope of divorce:
• Criticism: “attacking someone’s personality or character—rather than a specific behavior—usually with blame” (p. 73). Criticisms are blaming, generalized judgments (for example, “you always” or “you never”), as opposed to complaints that are statements of displeasure or anger about specific behaviors.
• Contempt: “the intention to insult and psychologically abuse [the other person]” (p. 79). Contempt includes insults, name calling, hostile humor, mockery and contemptuous body language (for example, a sneer).
• Defensiveness: statements that deflect blame. Defensive statements can also include denying responsibility, making excuses, whining and cross-complaining.
• Stonewalling: psychologically or physically checking out of the relationship (for example, giving someone the “silent treatment” or “cold shoulder”).
Gottman’s work focused on predictors of marital dissolution. This is invaluable information for pastors and counselors. We know what danger signs to look for and can devise remediation measures. I pursued this study because I was interested in a different set of questions. Because I believe that God equips us to do what he calls us to do, I wanted to investigate how real people repair real relationships when they seem irreparable. What motivates reconciliation in severely wounded close relationships? How do couples do it? What do these restored relationships look like? To answer these questions, I asked friends, students and professional colleagues if they knew of anyone who had successfully recovered from a severely damaged relationship. My hope was to collect as many stories as I could from as many different kinds of relationships (siblings, coworkers, friends, spouses, adult children-parents) as I could. I was willing to talk with “whosoever” would share their stories with me, provided both participants were over eighteen years old, they almost lost their relationship because of a wrongdoing, and their relationship was still ongoing.
These inquiries led me to twelve couples from across the United States and Canada who accepted my invitation to talk in depth with me about their marriage.1 I did not select these couples because of the specific nature of the problem they faced but because they were willing to share their stories with me. Of these twelve couples, only two of the major offenses were committed by wives, and eight of the stories centered on infidelity. Obviously this is not a random sample of marital problems! While I would have wished to find more equal representation of sinning by both genders, and a broader spectrum of offenses, I do believe that the lessons from the lives of these twelve brave couples transcend most types of offenses that married couples might experience.
You may be reading this book as a person who wants to reconcile another type of relationship (such as with a friend, coworker or sibling) and may be wondering if there is anything in here for you. The chapters that follow can help you too, even if these examples are exclusively marital ones. Whether differences exist between how married couples reconcile and how other types of relationships reconcile is a question for future research. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read on and listen to the stories more for the processes in which these couples engaged than for the exact nature of the offenses from which they recovered.
I interviewed each mate separately for an hour and a half to hear the story of what went wrong, and then the three of us met for another ninety-minute conversation as we discussed how they went about the repair process. In several cases I traveled to their home and spent time with them beyond the formal interviews, so I was able to get a sense of their current marital well-being firsthand. These courageous couples gave me permission to audiotape our conversations for further analysis. (I have changed their names and adjusted information to protect their identities.)
I analyzed our discussions and searched for common threads that these couples wove into the fabric of their story. The themes that emerged and the stories themselves form the heart of this book.2 These couples desire two things. First, they want their stories to offer hope that radical relationship transformation can and does happen. They do not view reconciliation through rose-colored glasses. As they began to rebuild their marriages, at least half of the couples had doubted their ability to achieve and maintain significant changes in their relationship, and all of them struggled through many dark days of emotional pain and suffering along the way. They offer their stories as a description of what God can do with damaged hearts, not as a prescription for what another couple should do. Second, they want to help counselors and pastors work more effectively with people whose relationships are at the brink of disaster. They offer examples of ways in which clergy, counselors and even friends and family can help or hinder reconciliation.
While personal testimonies can inspire, a firmer foundation is needed to delve into the mysteries of reconciliation. When investigating uncharted territory, explorers use two known points (such as stars) to determine their whereabouts. This process is called triangulation. For many, reconciliation is indeed uncharted territory, and we therefore need two fixed points to help us to find our location. Biblical/theological studies and psychological discoveries will serve as my two orienting points. The biblical narrative describes how God’s people struggled to reconcile with each other, just as we do today, and presents reconciliation as a major theme of Christ’s earthly mission, which is carried on by God’s redeemed and reconciled people. Theological discussions embed reconciliation in the context of the Trinity where the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the model for and the call to reconciliation. Finally, current psychological discussions about forgiving, repenting and reconciling will describe the “how to” for biblical and theological “can and ought to.” Let’s take a brief look at these orienting points.
THE GOD OF TRANSFORMATION AND RECONCILIATION
God has been in the transformation business since the beginning of time. Through his word, he transformed a formless, empty darkness into the earth. Through his breath, he transformed the dust of the ground into humanity. Through his promise, he transformed Abram and Sarai into Israel, his chosen people. Through his Son, he transformed his chosen people into the ecclesia—the church.
God has been in the reconciliation business for an equally long period of time. Scripture reveals a loving and merciful God who seeks and desires reconciliation with a people who have become hostile toward him and estranged from him. Whenever God’s people betray their covenant relationship with him, he provides a way for them to return and to restore their intimacy with him. For example, Adam and Eve’s sin devastated their perfect union and intimacy with God and with one another. Yet God continued to seek them out and provided clothing and a new home for them instead of instantaneous damnation. Although their act of betrayal closed the door to pure communion with their Creator, God transformed this breach into the portal through which Christ would enter the world.
Time and time again God’s chosen people rejected the one true God, who delivered them out of Egypt, and they pledged their loyalty to the foreign gods of the land in which they lived. Eventually their disloyalty cost them their homeland and sent them into exile, despite God’s repeated pleas to return to him. Yet even in their exile, God continued to speak to them words of hope, restoration and reconciliation through the voice of God’s prophets, instead of abandoning them forever.
The triune God paints the picture of transforming reconciliation most boldly through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You may even consider reconciliation as a theme of Jesus’ life and ministry. Christ comes so that we can be reconciled to God and to one another. His life embodies forgiveness as the pathway to reconciliation. From the story of Adam and Eve, throughout the history of the children of Israel, within the narratives of the New Testament and up until our lives today, this pattern repeats.
Four New Testament passages speak specifically about the reconciling work of the cross of Christ. The cross provides for the reconciliation of the cosmos to God (Col 1:19-23), humanity to God (Rom 5:10-11), groups of people (for example, Jews and Gentiles) to God and to one another (Eph 2:11-22), and members of the body of Christ with one another (Eph 2:11-22; 2 Cor 5:18—6:2). Divine reconciliation destroys the hostility that separates God’s people from God and from one another by grappling with the root cause of that enmity: our sin.
Note that God did not create the hostility that separates us from him. We did, through our deliberate disloyalty and betrayal of our covenant relationship with God. Our hearts of stone need transformation; God’s heart of everlasting love does not. Scripture teaches that the cross of Christ reveals not God’s wrath but his unfathomable, eternal and unquenchable love for us (Green & Baker, 2000; Shults & Sandage, 2003). Christ died so that we, who are God’s enemies, can now become God’s children. His love motivates, sustains and provides the way for this reconciliation.
When we are reconciled to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are transformed into members of God’s reconciled and redeemed people. This isn’t a reconciliation that preserves the status quo. It is a reconciliation that intends to transform hearts of stone into hearts overflowing with Christ’s love.
Through the cross of Christ, personal transformation and interpersonal reconciliation should go hand in hand. Church historian Martin Marty observes, “In the New Testament . . . forgiveness always leads to reconciliation, and reconciliation results from mutual experiences of forgiveness. They cannot be separated” (1998, p. 11). That is, Scripture links our reconciliation with God to our reconciliation with one another. For example, Paul describes how the cross of Christ destroys the walls of hostility that separate groups of people (see Eph 2:11-22).
We see this specifically in Paul’s challenge to Philemon to contemplate the implications of his new life in Christ, that is, to be reconciled with Onesimus, his former slave. According to 2 Corinthians 5, we are reconciled to God through the cross of Christ and we are given the ministry of reconciliation with one another. Please note that in 2 Corinthians, Paul, a brother in Christ, appeals to the church in Corinth to be reconciled to him and to one another. This reconciliation happens within the household of faith.
It will not take you long to recognize a wide gap between the ideal and the real, between the interpersonal transformation that should take place in the lives of people who are forgiven and reconciled to God and the transgressions that do take place between the same. The parable of the unforgiving servant highlights this dilemma (see Mt 18:23-35). In this parable the king graciously forgives his servant of a debt so large that the servant had no hope of ever repaying it. Upon receiving this unprecedented gift, you might imagine that the servant would be overflowing with gratitude and generosity. Instead we discover that the forgiven servant angrily demands payment of a much lesser debt that a coworker owes him. In other words, we love being forgiven by God and reconciled to God, but we are reluctant, if not resistant, to extending the same gracious gift to someone who we believe “owes us.” This presents us with a conundrum. If you concur with me that the biblical bias is reconciliation, then you see that we are in a real predicament when we hurt each other in ways that make biblical reconciliation seem untenable. Psychological discoveries may help us to put feet to this biblical “can and ought to.”
As we enter the twenty-first century, social scientists have turned their attention to a study of those things that enhance our personal and interpersonal lives. This emphasis on positive psychology has launched discussions on things like hope, humility, altruism, gratitude and love. Explorations about seeking forgiveness, extending forgiveness and reconciling would fall under this large umbrella. Groundbreaking investigations have helped us to learn about how people extend forgiveness (see, for example, Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; McCullough, Pargament & Thoresen, 2000; Worthington, 1998b). We now know that several things help people to forgive. First, empathy facilitates forgiving. It helps us to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. We can view the hurtful exchange from our perspective and from the perspective of the other.
Second, humility reminds us that we too have hurt others and are not morally superior to the one who wounded us. Third, reframing allows us to look at the other through a wider lens. Our transgressor is no longer the epitome of pure evil but a human being with strengths and weaknesses, like us. Researchers are just beginning to look into the dynamics of seeking forgiveness. Psychologist Steve Sandage and his colleagues (2000) have observed that people are more prone to ask for forgiveness as they mature morally. Awareness of the impact of one’s actions on another enhances the likelihood of repentance, whereas narcissism (that is, being absorbed with one’s own importance) decreases the likelihood. We also know that our moral emotions, especially shame and guilt, play a role in relationship repair (Tangney & Fischer, 1995). We experience shame as an extraordinarily painful negative evaluation of our self in response to an interpersonal situation. We are ashamed of who we are, and we believe that our damaged self is broken beyond repair. In addition, we cannot imagine any way to return to right relationships with those who pointed out our shameful condition. We feel exposed and believe that others think badly about us (whether or not they really do think this way). We feel small and powerless.
Shame motivates us in one of two directions. We want to avoid, hide and escape, or we want to blame others or strike out angrily. Neither of these strategies promotes repentance or engenders forgiveness. On the other hand, we experience guilt as less painful than shame. We feel guilt about particular behaviors without drawing conclusions about our selfworth. In guilt, we feel tension, remorse and regret about what we have done. We can imagine any number of ways to undo the damage, and we have hope that we can also repair the breach in our relationship through these acts of atonement. Guilt motivates us to confess, apologize and make amends. These actions help to call forth forgiveness in the heart of the wounded individual.
The formal scientific study of reconciliation is in an embryonic state. Earlier in this chapter I discussed how other scholars have defined reconciliation, and I offered the definition that shapes this book: reconciliation is the active commitment to the restoration of love and trustworthiness by both injured party and transgressor so that their relationship may be transformed. This interview-based exploration is an early admission into this arena. As the field of reconciliation studies grows and develops, we will know even more about how to do what Scripture says we ought to and can do.
THE JOURNEY AHEAD
One summer I visited a friend in Colorado and another friend in Washington. My Colorado trip included a visit to the snowfields of the Rocky Mountains, while my Washington excursion took me to the glacier at Mount Rainier. My Colorado friend, Clyde, told me about his disastrous first experience with wilderness trekking. Prior to moving to Colorado, Clyde had often flown to Denver for business. On one of his trips, he had a long wait between the end of his meetings and his flight home, so a friend invited him to go wilderness trekking. They headed into the Rocky Mountains decked in sneakers, shorts and T-shirts. They had neither hats nor sunscreen, food nor water. The sun was out. The hike was long.
Resolute and determined men that they are, they hiked on. They were well off the beaten path when the weather changed. Icy rain replaced the blistering sun. At one point, Clyde slipped into a small stream. Wet shoes and socks do not dry quickly in cold temperatures. The pair were tired, hungry, sunburned and cold. Fortunately their story has a happy ending. Unfortunately Clyde said that he suffered the worst case of sunburn he has ever experienced. He learned a valuable lesson that day: wilderness trekking requires preparation. But what kind?
That’s where my trip to Mount Rainier comes in. Having heard my friend’s story, I paid careful attention to a list posted in the lodge from which amateur hikers were most likely to embark. This list specified the things that you should pack for a safe experience. The list of “essential items” included hat, sunscreen, change of clothing, matches in a watertight container, portable shelter, flashlight, walking stick, shovel, food and water. You will observe that my friend did not have any of these things with him when he set off into the backwoods of the Rocky Mountains. No wonder he got into so much difficulty!
As I pondered the list, I realized how much it had in common with reconciliation. If you are going for a stroll just outside the lodge (as I was), a bottle of water, a cap and some sunscreen will do the trick. But if you are planning on climbing a glacier, you need the essential items listed and more. The effort required to repair wounds and restore relationships covers an equally broad range. Small hurts (“I forgot your birthday”) require less energy than large ones (“I betrayed your confidence and I emptied our joint bank account”), and the kinds of hurts that threaten to destroy a relationship require the most energy of all. But what does the essential items list for reconcilers look like?
Based on my study of the interviews with couples, I have developed a list of “essential items” for repairing damaged relationships in general and marital relationships in particular. Part one of this book discusses the commitments required for reconciliation. These include commitment to Christ (chapter two), commitment to reconciliation (chapter three) and commitment to a reconciliation-friendly community (chapter four). Part two describes actions or tasks that facilitate reconciliation.
These actions include emotionally growing up (chapter five), repenting (chapter six), forgiving (chapter seven), and restoring truth and trustworthiness (chapter eight). The final chapter (chapter nine) illustrates how a new story emerges as couples discover that their work has paid off. Let me make it clear that I do not consider these eight “easy steps” to reconciliation. Wounded relationships are too unpredictable and the repair process is too messy for something so cut-and-dried. Nevertheless, I do believe that reconciliation takes particular types of commitments and that certain tasks or actions can help couples move toward reconciliation.
Some may not need everything on the list in order to successfully rebuild their relationship, and others may discover things that should be added to the list. I have organized the items in a way that makes sense to me. Each chapter can be read independently, and I invite you to start with the chapter(s) that seems most germane to your situation.
Biblical, theological and psychological information is woven into each chapter. My desire is that you will see how psychological research discoveries about forgiving, repenting and reconciling are consistent with God’s truth. Throughout each chapter there are suggestions for personal reflection and action that may help you on your own journey on reconciliation road. If you’re ready, let’s begin.