Five Steps to Reconciliation

By Neil Earle

Peacemakers 1988: Reagan and Gorbachev needed strong patience to make it work.

Personal disputes and national and international disputes make up too much the fabric of our lives. What do we do when we find ourselves caught up in intense bitter conflict?

Everett Worthington of the Psychology Department at Virginia Commonwealth University is a counselor to counselors. He is so versed in his subject that he can discern even between forgiveness and reconciliation.

For Worthington, forgiveness is one-on-one. It depends upon “me” forgiving “you.” It precedes reconciliation. Reconciliation can involve more than one party. “Forgiveness is an emotional replacement that superimposes empathy and love on top of emotional contaminants so that they can be resolved,” he asserts. “Reconciliation is the restoration of trust in a relationship where trust has been damaged.”

Christians engaged in reconciliation work for themselves and others can appreciate Dr. Worthington’s expert approach to this subject. His practical insights revolve around what he calls the Six Planks in the Bridge to Reconciliation. Here they are:

1. TIMING. A key question that has to be asked is whether both sides are ready to sit down and talk. You can’t build a bridge in mid-air, he wisely adds.

We don’t have to look no farther than the biblical account of Joseph and his brothers to realize that awareness of the cruel hurts inflicted upon young Joseph took years to be recognized by his brothers. It took time for events and a guiding hand to bore through the hardened consciences of his older siblings – and only then under skilful mediation (Genesis 42:21). Joseph knew that. This is why he took a period of time before he revealed his identity to them (42:7) Seven times it said Joseph wept. Only then did he emotionally and unabashedly show that he had forgiven his family.

Joseph waited for God’s timing. It had to be right before he stepped forward and said, “I am Joseph” (45:4). In the often sensitive and thorny matter of reconciling, timing is everything.

Peacemakers 1945: General Douglas MacArthur was determined not to humillate the defeated Japanese.

2. A SOFT ANSWER. Begin softly, says Worthington. This is where wise pacing comes in. Allow your reconciliation partner to save face. Don’t begin with a laundry list of accusations. “It doesn’t seem like you to say that,” is one neutral non-hostile approach.

God himself used this method when approaching two stressed out servants of his – Jonah and Elijah. “What are you doing here Elijah?” was his mild opener with the exhausted prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:9). To the irate Jonah God posed a neutral question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4).

Note – nothing condemning here. The Bible says “a soft tongue breaks the bone” and here God applies his own advice. But how quickly we forget that when we have some people “dead to rights.” We often demand our pound of flesh. But a bristling attitude blinds us to the churning humanity of our dialogue partner and often provokes only a counter-reaction.

Even in the harsh world of power politics this principle applies. On September 2, 1945, as the defeated Japanese delegates stood on the deck of the USS Missouri to surrender after World War Two, they felt like whipped schoolboys expecting humiliation. But General Douglas MacArthur chose to open negotiations with the thought that it would be wrong “to meet in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred.” That changed things. America and Japan have been at peace for 73 years.

3. R-E-A-C-H OUT. REACH is Dr. Worthington’s acronym for five important steps to take once the dialogue is truly under way. These can be spelled out:

Recall the hurt, but tactfully. Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant ill but God meant well” (Genesis 50:20). This was giving them a chance to see the bigger picture. It’s called perspective and a wider perspective usually changes things.

Empathize with the offender. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of another person. It is so rare today, especially on our often toxic “talk” shows. Yet the Indians of the Great Lakes had a beautiful saying: “Help me not to speak evil of my brother till I have walked a day in his moccasins.” This approach can soften both hearts and a soft heart is essential prerequisite for true reconciliation.

Altruistic forgiveness. No strings attached – no grand gestures needed, nothing asked in return. This is key. To reach this stage shows we have come to the point where we have absorbed the hurt from the offense, smothered it inside our psyche and – with God’s help – replaced it with pity and forgiveness. Jesus exemplified this more than anyone else when he said to those who were driving nails through his hands, “Father forgive them, they not what they do” (Matthew 23:34). Those are the highest reaches of the forgiveness-to-reconciliation paradigm but we must try to keep that example in front of us when we enter the harsh and tense disputes of life.

Patriarch Joseph was sold by his brothers but later applied principles of lasting reconciliation.

Commit to forgive – yes, commit, because it will be tempting to slip back into negative attitudes especially when the hurt has been long-standing. Joseph’s brothers expected the worst when their father died so Joseph had to earnestly reassure them that vengeances was OUT (Genesis 50:21).

Hold fast during times of doubt. The problem is that we are so human that we all backslide even on our most fervent declarations. Family problems based on familiarity can be like that especially. The effects of a wound to our inner selves can be debilitating for life. That is why forgiveness must be like the bright star that shines above and through the clouds of negativism and doubt.

4. BE GRACIOUS IN SETBACKS. Helping people save face is crucial. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met serious failure when they left the fateful Reykjavik Conference in 1986 but both men’s commitment to peace through nuclear arms reduction was stronger than a temporary defeat. They knew what had to be done and they knew their moment in history was rare. This took reaching out to each other in the spirit of, “I see that you are trying, I am grateful for your efforts.” As President Reagan said later, “Political leadership requires humility.” Eventually a deal was struck.

5. HOLD OUT HOPE. Many time people who have clearly offended others – the perpetrators – are still suspicious and inwardly hurting. Guilt tears at them in many subtle ways. Joseph had to be tenaciously reassuring to his brothers (Genesis 50:21). No one said any of this would be easy. The Chinese say the longest journey begins with a single step. Treading the uphill and stony path of reconciliation demands the best effort each party can give no matter how exhausting. “This means to get beyond simply repairing the breach and moving toward positive changes,” says Worthington. Sincere expressions of hope and optimism can mean the world at times such as these. “So speak that you will not contribute to the calamity,” says Dr. Diane Landsberg. Yes, at the very least both dialogue partners can aim for that. In the end, a thousand mile journey amounts to millions of such tiny steps.

Yet, this is the path we accepted as Christians. But the payoff is more than worth it.