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Restitution: Going beyond forgiveness

By Gary Allen

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 19:8,9).

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 ("Let’s 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 God’s 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 offender’s 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 person.4

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, "Let’s 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. It’s 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. It’s 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 offender.5

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 friend’s 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.


Gary Allen is national coordinator of ministerial enrichment for the Assemblies of God.

1 Robert Jeffress, When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2000), 119.

2 Everett L. Worthington Jr., Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

3 Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: Pocket Books, 1984), 50.

4 Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 190-191.

5 Becky Beane, Prison Fellowship (http://www.christianity.com/CC/article/0,,PTID2230|CHID100523|CIID858076,00.html, accessed October 2001).

6 Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986).

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