At first glance, giving and receiving forgiveness appears to be sufficient
resolution of most interpersonal conflicts. However, often something
more is necessary for full reconciliation than the offender simply saying,
"I am sorry," and the offended person saying, "I forgive
you." The offender should closely examine whether restitution is
appropriate. Restitution is not punishment imposed or repayment coerced
by the one offended. It is the payment we volunteer to another person
we have offended.1
We are to make every effort to get along with one another and live
at peace. Paul says, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on
you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18, NIV). This implies
that not every difficult relationship will be perfectly reconciled.
The statement, "as far as it depends on you," says we cannot
assume responsibility for the attitudes, motives and behavior of others,
but we are responsible for our own.
Restitution is biblical
In the Old Testament the Law required restitution for wrong done. "When
a man or woman wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the
Lord, that person is guilty and must confess the sin he has committed.
He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and
give it all to the person he has wronged" (Numbers 5:6,7).
In the New Testament, even under grace, we have evidence of restitution
voluntarily being offered from one who experienced salvation through
Jesus Christ. "But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, Look,
Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if
I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the
amount. Jesus said to him, Today salvation has come to this
house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham " (Luke
Zacchaeus recognized Jesus as his Lord, he was moved to compassion
to give half of his possessions to the poor, and he was willing to pay
back four times what he had stolen. This last action was possibly based
on Exodus 22:1 which says that a man who steals a sheep and slaughters
it or sells it must pay the owner back with four sheep.
How should we address a difficult situation when the offender will
not acknowledge the wrong done? Scripture says, "A gentle answer
turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
The offended person should make a gentle approach to the offender. The
offender should be accountable for injurious behavior and assume responsibility.
Confession must win over denial. The offender needs to be encouraged
to convey sincere regret, to offer restitution and to ask for forgiveness.2
Restitution is a part
of the reconciliation process
The effective process of reconciliation is one in which offenders (1)
respond to the conviction that they have done wrong, (2) are willing
to confront the person(s) they have offended, (3) confess their guilt,
(4) repent (turn away from their wrongful behavior), (5) humbly accept
forgiveness, (6) voluntarily make restitution by paying for harm or
damage done, (7) are diligent to restore the relationship, and (8) are
committed to a permanent reconciliation.
Sometimes a shorter version of this process is attempted by an offender
which includes only a shallow confession ("I am sorry I got caught"),
a request for forgiveness ("Please overlook my mistake"),
and a weak reconciliation ("Lets act like nothing ever happened").
Such a process does not heal damaged or broken relationships and only
perpetuates a dysfunctional person who continues to hurt others.
Restitution is an integral
part of forgiveness
Because we have experienced Gods wonderful forgiveness we are
able to forgive others. His plan is simple. When we offend or wrong
someone, we are to be quick to ask for forgiveness, repent and make
restitution for the wrong done. In fact, God said, "If you forgive
men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive
you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not
forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14,15).
The Scottish theologian H.R. MacIntosh defines forgiveness as "an
active process of the mind
of a wronged person, by means of which
he abolishes a moral hindrance to fellowship with the wrongdoer, and
reestablishes the freedom and happiness of friendship."3
Jesus said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents,
forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven
times comes back to you and says, I repent, forgive him"
(Luke 17:3,4). The key to this example is the offenders willingness
to repent, changing his or her mind and turning away from doing wrong.
When an offense is too serious to overlook and the offender is not
repentant, you may need to approach forgiveness as a two-stage process.
The first stage may be called positional forgiveness, and the second
transactional forgiveness. Positional forgiveness is unconditional and
is a commitment you make to God. Transactional forgiveness is conditional
on the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and the
There may be times when so many hurtful things have been said and done
that it is nearly impossible to recall and address them all. Forgiveness
at this point may only be possible by saying, "Lets start
over again." The offended and the offender must submit themselves
to God and to each other and agree to love one another and make every
effort to reestablish a healthy relationship.
If the offender is not repentant, the one offended must forgive and
move on with his or her life even when the ideal process of repentance,
forgiveness, restitution and reconciliation is not accomplished. If
the offender is not accessible or deceased, then again, the one offended
must forgive, let the situation go, and move on with life.
It is important to understand what forgiveness is not:
Forgiving is not excusing. Its not saying, "Well, with their
background, no wonder they acted that way." Forgiveness still holds
people responsible for their actions.
Forgiving is not forgetting. We will still have memories of the event,
which may cause sorrow and pain. But we will no longer be imprisoned
by anger and bitterness which only hurts us more than our offenders.
Forgiving is not tolerating. We are not letting the person "get
away with it." Criminal, harmful behavior is unacceptable and may
warrant consequences including prison, restitution or some other
method of correction.
Forgiving is not dismissing our pain. Rather and this is the
difficult, lengthy part it means being brutally honest about
our pain and what caused it. Its saying no to repressing, denying,
trivializing or hiding our feelings.
Forgiving is not reconciling. Forgiveness may lead to reconciling
or it may not. Forgiveness is something we do to heal ourselves, regardless
of what the offender does. Reconciliation requires a restoration of
trust and that requires true repentance (a turnaround) from the
Restitution is the right
thing to do
When we have caused emotional pain, done physical harm, or taken something
from someone, restitution is the right thing to do. In the context of
relationships, righteous action is action that promotes the peace and
well-being of human beings in their relationships to one another.6
Righteousness has as much to do with how we treat each other as it does
about how close we are to God.
Restitution may be actual or symbolic. If at all possible, the offender
should pay for or replace property taken, damaged or destroyed. If the
monetary amount is so great that the offender is prohibited from repaying,
then partial and/or symbolic restitution may be appropriate. I remember
a young man in our church who had an accident while drinking and driving
and killed his close friend. The young man was sentenced by the court
to provide school assembly lectures for all of the high schools in the
area on the perils of drinking and driving. Certainly there was nothing
he could do to actually pay for his friends death, but the symbolic
restitution to the community was very powerful.
When the offender has damaged or maligned the character and reputation
of another, restitution may be in making every effort to declare and
affirm the integrity of the one offended.
Practicing forgiveness and restitution will prevent many personal differences
from becoming destructive conflict. Forgiveness, for the one forgiven,
carries with it the obligation of restitution. Words of love and forgiveness
are wonderful, but change in behavior and restorative actions on the
part of the offender are also vital. They give evidence of a changed
heart that can be enjoyed in a reconciled relationship.