Vulnerability is never a black-and-white issue. Never. In every relationship, we are negotiating our space with each person. Should they be close? Should they be kept at a distance? Does the gospel dictate a certain distance—a certain pace of growth or healing—in response to hurtful patterns? After a conflict, have you ever said (or had someone say to you):
- “In the name of Christ, we must be reconciled.”
- “Don’t be divisive—let’s put this behind us.”
- “Does the unity of Christ mean anything to you?”
- “Don’t be dramatic. Jesus seems very clear: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother’ (Matt. 18:15).”
Do you feel the tension on both sides of these statements? The black and white is clashing with the grey. Clear-cut versus murky. If you don’t feel the tension, maybe these circumstances will highlight it a bit more. Do all of the below situations demand reconciliation, or do they demand permanent separation? Assume that each person is a Christian:
- An adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and their abuser.
- A wife and her violent husband.
- A girl with a ruined reputation, and her friends who spread stories about her.
- A ruined businessman, and his partner who swindled him out of money.
- A defeated friend, and his buddy who starts yelling whenever he doesn’t get the advice he wants.
Each of us likely has different knee-jerk reactions to each of these situations, which proves the complexity involved in reconciliation. We would each appeal to different wisdom principles—different values, different virtues—to dictate what should and shouldn’t be done in each situation. We are each drawn to one situation more than the other. We are each left with certain questions, rooted in our own personal story of hurt—either of being unforgiven and exiled, or granting forgiveness and being hurt again.
Here are four things it’s okay to say about reconciliation when you’ve been hurt. In saying them, you may find clarity.
1. “I’m not ready.”
Will restoring the relationship be self-defeating? Are you ready? Will you experience so many internal negative effects from attempted reconciliation that you will end up regretting it and resenting the person? To put it another way, is the reconciliation set up for failure, at this point in time?
Sometimes, people who have been hurt badly in the past resort to patterns of forgiving everyone, or forgiving no one—both in a desperate attempt to find safe intimacy. Even if you haven’t been hurt badly, it’s okay (actually, it’s wise) to take time to detox from the hurt of the relationship. Is the offender at all pushy in reconciliation? “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way” (Prov. 19:2). If the person who caused hurt is at all pushy, chances are they don’t understand what they did wrong: “A person’s wisdom yields patience” (Prov. 19:11). Take the time you need to ensure reconciliation is possible and sustainable, on your end alone.
2. “You’re not ready.”
Does reconciliation refortify harmful patterns in the offender? Would the decision to reconcile simply reinsert you into a feedback loop of hurt and betrayal? In the 2011 movie Warrior, MMA fighter Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is confronted by his estranged father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). Growing up, Paddy was a negligent drunk, and Joel is now a loving husband and dad. Paddy, wanting to be part of his Brendan’s family and now sober, pleads, “You are my son, Brendan. . . . I’m just asking if you can find a little bit of space in your heart to forgive me a little bit.” Brendan quips, “Yeah? All right, I forgive you . . . but I do not trust you,” silently issuing a moratorium on their relationship. Paddy is of course crushed.
What Brendan does is neither exemplary nor cruel. It’s just what it is—a legitimate option. “Fools mock at the guilt offering, but the upright enjoy acceptance” (Prov. 14:9). Fools mock the guilt offering because they don’t ever think they’ve done anything wrong. This puts their friends in a dangerous situation: “Leave the presence of a fool. . . . The folly of fools is deceiving” (Prov. 14:7–8). Have they established a pattern that demonstrates they are no longer a harm to you? “Do not walk in the way of them; hold back your foot from their paths” (Prov. 1:15). “I’m sorry” may be sufficient for forgiveness, but it can’t command trust, and it certainly cannot command intimacy. Nor should it.
3. “I need advice.”
What do communities—both involved and uninvolved—have to say? “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). Why is that true? Because you have blind spots—and you are especially blinded by your emotions when you’ve been hurt. Your community that knows you and the person involved can speak wisdom, because they know the issues involved—each of your tendencies, stories, desires, and patterns.
But it’s important to get more than one kind of community advice. If you only ask people who have a certain bent or bias, you might as well have asked no one. You’ve only refortified your blind spots—like Solomon’s son Rehoboam, who “abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him” (1 Kings 12:8). Get advice that is diverse—informed and uninformed, involved and objective, young and old, trained and untrained. Ask “Is it wise?” And if people say, “It’s your decision,” respond, “I know it’s my decision. That’s why I’m asking for advice. If it wasn’t my decision, I wouldn’t need advice—some other person would.” And when the advice is taken into account, let it affect your decision, even if it cuts against the weave of your desires.
4. “I need help.”
What exactly are you able to do, and what are you able not to do? Remember how we began: vulnerability is never black and white. Neither are the circumstances of reconciliation. Moreover, neither are the terms of reconciliation. Just because you’re reconciling doesn’t mean you have to return to the original intimacy of your relationship. It will likely take some time to relearn trust, pick up old (good) habits, and rebuild the intimacy lost in the conflict.
Maybe you need to reconcile. Maybe not. Maybe you need to do what’s necessary to “have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). Maybe you need to work at maintaining the boundaries of your relational lawn—lest you become “a brother to him who destroys” (Prov. 18:9). Either way, when the chips are down, conscript what supportive community you have in order to implement the decision you’ve made. It’s okay not to be able to reconcile on your own. You may need help, reassurance, a safe place to process, and prayer about how to initiate reconciliation. You may also need step-by-step counsel as your ease back into a relationship that may feel threatening or offensive. Sometimes isolation is more dangerous than vulnerability. Community can be a beautiful place to process these things.
Even the apostle Paul gave counsel like this: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm. . . . Beware of him yourself” (2 Tim. 4:14–15). After an entire letter on the glory of the gospel “not because of our works” (2 Tim. 1:9), Paul says, in effect: “By the way, don’t trust this guy.” The ideal Christian community is one with the skill to listen, and the skill to give advice that both protects and heals. Rarely can we do either on our own.
You’re Not Him
Reconciliation is difficult because people dole out advice like lollipops at the bank—our pride is on the line, our safety is on the line. It’s also difficult because the gospel which teaches us we’re forgiven and reconciled to God sometimes feels empowering, and at other times like a looming and difficult example. But it’s important to remember as you reconcile, that while the gospel does empower you to perform some amazing relational feats, you are not God. These are all very human things to say—not sinful; just finite.
Whatever advice people give you, be sure to remember it’s well within the bounds of gospel wisdom to say about reconciliation with someone, “I’m not ready,” “You’re not ready,” “I need advice,” and “I need help.”