Why Forgiveness Is Not the Same as Reconciliation


The summons to forgive is an intrinsic part of the Christian life. But recently it occurred to me that there is an important difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. If we don't account for this difference, then the practice of forgiving "seventy times seven times" becomes onerous rather than life-giving, and at worst it can even lead someone to dangerously ignore the need for healthy boundaries. The fundamental difference between forgiveness and reconciliation is that it takes one to forgive, but two to reconcile. Forgiveness is releasing an offender from condemnation, but it does not require opening the door to relationship with that person. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is the process by which trust is restored and a relationship is repaired.


At its core, forgiveness is a matter of the heart. I can forgive someone who has wounded me regardless of whether they express remorse for their actions. Forgiveness does not even require me to communicate my forgiveness to the offender (this is sometimes impossible anyway, as when the offender is no longer living).

So what does forgiveness look like? It involves three basic steps.

  1. Acknowledging the harm. Forgiveness does not dismiss the harm done as though it were unimportant. Much less does it make excuses for the offender. Forgiveness begins by recognizing the wrongness of another's actions and the very real damage that has been inflicted. In order to forgive, we must first acknowledge, “It happened, it hurt, and it mattered.”
  2. Releasing the other from debt. The root of injustice is that I was denied something that was legitimately owed to me. I deserved to be treated with respect, but I received an insult. I was owed fair payment, but I got cheated. When we forgive another, we release them from our demand to receive what we deserved in the past. This does not rule out pursuing restitution, such as through legal means. What we are concerned with here is forgiveness from the heart. It is overcoming that place inside of us that asserts, "I cannot be okay until I receive what I was owed."
  3. Speaking blessing over the other. It is all too understandable that when we experience harm at someone else's hand, we often find ourselves desiring that they suffer as we have. But forgiving means willing good for the offender, willing that they would step into greater prosperity, thriving, and wholeness in their lives. Speaking blessing over them includes our thoughts toward them, but the shift in our thoughts often begins by simply choosing to speak words of blessing with our mouths.

I typically encourage people to formulate their forgiveness as a prayer. That prayer can look something like this:

In Jesus's name, I choose to forgive ________ (name the person here) for ________ (name the action and the impact it had on you). I release them from any debt they owe me, and I look to you, Father, to supply my heart's needs in this area. God, I pray blessings over ________ (name) and I pray that you would prosper them and lead them into the abundant life that Jesus has made available to all by his cross, death, and resurrection.

Two further points to make on forgiveness: First, forgiveness is a true gateway to spiritual and emotional freedom. The forgiveness itself is a decision, but the freedom that comes through forgiving sometimes requires a process. If my emotions do not yet line up with my decision to forgive that doesn't mean I haven't truly forgiven, but the ongoing emotions may be an occasion for me to reaffirm my decision to forgive.

Second, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiving someone does not mean I have to give them access to me (physically, mentally, emotionally). Access is granted through trust, and trust is restored through the process of reconciliation. Forgiveness is something we give freely, but trust must be earned.


Reconciliation is the restoration of relationship, which includes the restoration of trust. Below are the steps to reconciliation recommended by Nothing Hidden Ministries. These are steps that need to be taken by the one who has caused the harm in order to rebuild trust. Nothing Hidden Ministries teaches:

It is difficult to take ownership over the fact that you hurt someone, especially if it was unintentional. However, in order to truly reconcile, it must involve:

1. Acknowledging how you hurt the other person without any excuse or justification. 2. Accurately understanding how the hurt affected the other person. 3. Letting the other person know how it made you feel knowing you put them through that pain. 4. Communicating a genuine desire to change this behavior in the future as best as you can. 5. Asking the other person for forgiveness for the pain you have put them through.

As you can see, this process leads us right into the opportunity for forgiveness to be expressed. When these steps to reconciliation meet with forgiveness expressed, that's when true reconciliation has taken place. The relationship is repaired and can move forward on solid ground with trust restored.

In this clip, Barry Byrne of Nothing Hidden Ministries recaps these five steps and tells the story of a time when they were instrumental in bringing healing to his relationship with his son.


The Catechism lists various names for what we perhaps most commonly call Confession. It is the sacrament of "conversion," "Penance," "confession," "forgiveness," and "Reconciliation." In recent history, the term "Sacrament of Reconciliation" has perhaps received the greater emphasis in the writings and teachings of the Church. If we take a look at it through the lens of the human dynamics of forgiveness and reconciliation we've been discussing, I believe we can catch a new glimpse into the beauty of this Sacrament.

When we come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there is a very real sense in which we can say we are pre-forgiven by God. What we have been calling "forgiveness" on a human level only requires the participation of one person, the offended. Forgiveness is a working-through-the-offense on the part of the offended. So it is with God: He fully acknowledges the weight of our sin, He no longer holds that debt over us but looks to Jesus to atone for it, and His will is fundamentally "for us, not against us."

But being forgiven by God (again, using this parallel to human relationships) is not the same as being reconciled to God. Being reconciled does require our participation, and this is part of the role of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Those who are familiar with the Sacrament will immediately recognize similarities between the rite and the five steps to reconciliation above. Through these steps, we come into a position of being capable of receiving the forgiveness that is already firmly seated in the heart of God, and that forgiveness is then expressed and transmitted through the instrumentality of the priest.


Perhaps there are some readers who have a general awareness that this God we worship is a forgiving God, but who have never considered how the process of reconciliation with God might differ from the mere fact of His forgiving nature. To these readers I would simply repeat the words of St. Paul – who of all people was keenly aware of how radically available God's forgiveness truly is – in his impassioned plea to the Corinthians: "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!" (2 Corinthians 5:20)