… Then the Lord God made the rib He had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said:
This one, at last, is bone of my bone
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called “woman,”
for she was taken from man.
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.
—Genesis 2:22-25 HCSB
What makes marriage unique among all interpersonal relationships? Is it not the degree of intimacy? Yes, amongst all human relationships, marriage is the most intimate. And even though we know that some marriages are not as intimate as they could be, we all agree that they should be. We know intuitively that we should be more intimate with our own wife or husband than with anyone else. To know this does not require an advanced degree in Rocket Surgery. We just know it to be true.
But many marriages seem to suffer a loss of intimacy as the years go by. Why is this? Many husbands and wives who are fully committed to their marriage, experience this loss of intimacy, though they might not even recognize it for what it is. What is often recognized, however, is the loss of the "thrill," or that magical feeling of being in love.
One problem is that we learn of all the things we have in common before we are married, which is very exciting, but we don't learn about our many differences until after we are married. So a wife might end up thinking, "I just don't know how I got hooked up with a guy who has no value for birthdays." And a husband might find himself wondering, "How can she possibly have so little appreciation for what it takes to keep a car in good running shape?"
These might seem like trivial differences, but they are differences nonetheless, and they, like all differences, will erode and undermine the marriage relationship—unless they are reconciled.
The Wall Between Us
"My marriage is not great, and we're just faking it," said the faithful husband of twenty years.
"He says he forgives me, and I believe him, but it seems I've done irreparable damage, because we've never been as close as we were before we were married," said the devoted wife.
How did these couples arrive at their current situation? Who or what has stolen their joy? Why do they exist at arm's length from each other, instead of being held in each other's arms? What is this stone wall that stands between them, though they love each other, and though each is devoted to the other?
The reason: their relationship lacks one thing—Reconciliation.
- Forgiveness comprises a decision;
- Repentance comprises an acknowledgement;
- Reconciliation comprises a process.
The one may forgive the other. The other may have repented of, and apologized for, his or her offense. But unless and until they both actively engage in the process of reconciliation, they will not be reconciled, and the stone wall between them will remain.
We might wonder, How can two people who love each other grow apart? Why do we see this happen so commonly? It is because there is a process that is missing in their relationship—the process of reconciliation.
Think about it. God commands us to love our enemies. And we often find that we can in fact do this—as long as we don't have to interact with them. But it's much more difficult if your enemy is your coworker, and you have to be polite and make nice with him or her every day. This situation typifies the marriage without reconciliation. Without reconciliation in your marriage, you are effectively reduced to the task of loving your enemy. Every day. Day after day. No wonder it's hard!
So the questions arise… Why are we not reconciled? If reconciliation is the missing link in our relationship, then how can we get this stuff and fix our marriage? If lack of reconciliation is the stone wall between us, then what is the stone wall between us and reconciliation?
These are the questions you need to ask. When you find yourself asking things like:
- "Why can't she see things my way?"
- "Why can't he love me the way I want to be loved?"
- "Why can't she just relax and let me lead?"
- "Why does he always have to get his own way?"
—when you find yourself asking these questions, you need to change the question to "What is keeping us from being reconciled right now?"
Later on I will offer some possible answers to this question. But for now let's just let the question linger; let's let it remain rhetorical for the time being.
What is keeping us from being reconciled—right now?
Our Common Confusion
I have observed a common confusion of the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation. I therefore believe it is primarily essential that we have a very clear understanding of the difference between the two. And once we have that understanding , it is of course important that we not kid ourselves about whether we have or have not forgiven, and whether we are or are not reconciled completely.
—verb (used with object), for·gave, for·giv·en, for·giv·ing.
- to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
- to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
- to grant pardon to (a person).
- to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one's enemies.
—verb (used without object)
- to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc. (often followed by of ): He repented after his thoughtless act.
- to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one's life for the better; be penitent.
- to remember or regard with self-reproach or contrition: to repent one's injustice to another.
- to feel sorry for; regret: to repent an imprudent act.
rec·on·cile [rek-uh n-sahyl]
—verb (used with object), rec·on·ciled, rec·on·cil·ing.
- to win over to friendliness; cause to become amicable: to reconcile hostile persons.
- to compose or settle (a quarrel, dispute, etc.).
- to bring into agreement or harmony; make compatible or consistent: to reconcile differing statements; to reconcile accounts.
- to reconsecrate (a desecrated church, cemetery, etc.).
- to restore (an excommunicate or penitent) to communion in a church.
Simply studying the definitions above can be very instructive. Clearly, one of us can repent, the other can forgive, yet we can still remain unreconciled.
Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.
Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.
And this is the key thought here:
"Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you…"
This is where so many of us are confused about forgiveness. We know that it is wrong for the Christian to say, "I cannot, and I will not forgive that person". But we often do not realize that it is not necessarily wrong to say, "I cannot, and I will not be reconciled to that person".
Please understand the clear and simple difference between these two statements. The former is a proclamation of the will, a refusal to acquiesce. It points only to the speaker's own heart, for forgiving depends only on his own will. The latter, though it might indicate stubborn refusal, is equally likely a statement of fact which derives from the condition of the other person's ([that person]'s) attitude. If someone desires to harm you, you might be able to forgive them, but you cannot be reconciled with them until they repent of their desire to harm you.
This should be obvious, thus it should also be obvious that anyone who would compel a person to be reconciled to an unrepentant offender is in great error! Such "reconciliation" is nothing more than a facade. It is a sham, yet it is all too common. It is fake, as it depends on pretense (on the part of the forgiver) rather than repentance (on the part of the offender), which is what authentic reconciliation demands and requires.
The scripture says,
Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
—2 Corinthians 5:18 HCSB
But we know that the "us" here refers to believers, for God is not reconciling unrepentant sinners to Himself. Reconciliation depends on the repentance of the offender, whereas forgiveness does not. So even though God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, He has not required us to be reconciled to the world, or to the godless, or to those who mean us harm. Certainly we can forgive them, even as Jesus prayed for forgiveness of those who put Him on the cross. But it should be obvious that in that moment, those hurling insults and mocking Him were in no way reconciled to God, for they were yet unrepentant. Only later, perhaps in quiet reflection, having come under conviction of the Holy Spirit, and having repented, could they become reconciled to God.
Why are You not Reconciled?
There are three fundamental reasons that a marriage can lack intimacy due to non-reconciliation:
- Failure to forgive on the part of the offended.
- Failure to repent on the part of the offender.
- Failure on the part of either (or both) to seek and enter into the process of reconciliation.
As for numbers 1 and 2, it's pretty obvious that pride is most likely the source of the problem. Those two are pretty easy. As for number three, however, the reasons are likely more complex, hence, more elusive. The reasons we fail to seek authentic reconciliation likely find their source in past experiences of having been burned by someone, even stemming from our childhood.
But each of us, if we are good-hearted, well-intentioned people, should pause to examine ourselves and ask ourselves, "Why do I tend to avoid reconciling with the one whom I love?"
Our Human Nature Seeks Reconciliation
Even though we often fail to actively pursue the process of reconciliation for a number of reasons, we still intuitively seek its fruits, or end results. We humans are pre-wired with a propensity toward reconciliation. The only ones who aren't are the sociopaths. Even the narcissist craves reconciliation. (His problem is that he is fundamentally unrepentant, and seeks reconciliation only on his own terms, so he tosses aside those who won't agree with him.) And God, being the God of Reconciliation, created us in His own image, so is it any wonder that we have such a desire, such a deep longing? And is it any wonder then, that we often, in our human weakness, would rather jump to the end (reconciliation), and just skip over the difficult steps of forgiveness and repentance?
This, I believe, is the source of myriad inter-relational problems. This is how husbands and wives come to the place where they realize, "My marriage is not great, and we're just faking it." The marriage lacks intimacy because, though they might believe they have forgiven one another, or though they might think they have repented, they have not reconciled. Reconciliation requires hashing things out, but of course if one will not repent, or if one will not forgive, then the hashing is all in vain.
Of course then there's the spectral opposite, wherein someone just wants to hash through a bunch of stuff just for the sake of appeasing their own sense of pride. This person will hash on into the night, and into the future, usually because they refuse to forgive. But that's a separate issue.
More often, the hashing—that is, working thoroughly through the issues—is so painful to one or both individuals that the process is simply avoided or aborted once begun. Consequently, reconciliation never takes place. But when the one who has difficulty reconciling (the one who cannot bear the pain) is confused about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, he can fool himself into thinking that because he has forgiven the other, or because he has apologized, then they are therefore reconciled.
But whereas forgiving is done in the heart of one individual, reconciliation necessarily requires the participation of two individuals. Forgiveness can be granted in an instant—in the blink of an eye, you can forgive someone. But reconciliation is a process. Reconciliation takes time, for it is a two-way dynamic, it requires mutual participation between two parties, the essential ingredients being
- repentance, and
There can be an abundance of any two of these, but without all three, there is no reconciliation. And as for communication… small talk won't cut it. The communication that leads to reconciliation is a very specific communication.
Furthermore, reconciliation requires humility on the part of both parties. This means that when someone has offended you, and you have forgiven them, you still cannot be reconciled unless and until you are willing to entertain and discuss the possibility that you have also offended them. If you believe that their wrongdoing outweighs your own, then you cannot be reconciled. It is impossible.
Reconciliation is Three-Dimensional
The following comes purely from my own imagination...
Picture your "self" as a sheet of paper upon which is printed the various aspects of your character… a map of your self… all your hopes, your likes, your sense of right and wrong, your motivations mapped onto a two-dimensional surface. Now picture your husband or wife as another, separate sheet of paper. When you come to a point of conflict, one of you has done something wrong in the eyes of the other. Both of you now have reason to either forgive or repent, depending on the nature of the conflict. You can "move," as it were, to the left or to the right on your map, analyzing right from wrong. And you can move forward on the page to forgive or repent, or move back on the page to dig your heels in.
Let's assume you both move forward toward forgiveness and repentance. The stage is now set, and conditions are favorable for reconciliation, but as long as you are both two-dimentional sheets of paper, you cannot be reconciled. Even if the two sheets are put face to face, they are still two separate sheets of paper which do not intersect.
In order to be reconciled, here's what you have to do: take your map and wrap it over a sphere such that all of its edges meet and join on the back side. It takes some stretching, and its not easy, but topologists know how to do this. Now imagine that all of the information on your map "bleeds" into the sphere, as though projected toward the center point, where it all combines at a single point.
Now you are both no longer a two-dimensional map. You are a three-dimensional sphere, the center of which is the core of your being. Reconciliation is where the two spheres move together, collide, and begin to occupy the same space!
The spheres are both the same size. Notice that once the core (the centpoint) of one sphere enters the other, both spheres contain the core of the other. You are now reconciled, and you enjoy intimacy, for each of you is able to view the other from the inside looking out. You are no longer on the outside, looking in.
Reconciliation is three-dimensional. The three dimensions are
- Your view of the world in terms of right and wrong
- Your willingness or reluctance to forgive and/or repent
- The other person with whom you are reconciled
Forced Reconciliation: a Common Abuse
When my children were young, they occasionally got into an argument, as is common amongst siblings. In a typical conflict, one had retaliated against an offense committed by the other. Then the argument would ensue. On the several occasions that I happened to come on the scene, I would intervene by stopping the discussion and then "hashing through" the events leading up to the disagreement in a controlled fashion. After sharing each one's experience with the other, helping them to see it from the other's viewpoint, I would extract a promise of repentance from each, and then I would say, "Alright, now give your brother a hug, as though you love him." And then, "Okay, now hug your sister, as though you love her."
The "… as though you love her" part was a very intentional use of ironic humor. My intent was to invoke an internal thought in their own minds: "… of course I love her. Why would he say, 'as though…' ?" It was my way of implicitly proclaiming, We know we all love each other, so how about we all act like it's true!
Though I didn't realize it at the time, I was walking my children through the steps to a healthy relationship: forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation. I thank God that He had prompted me to attend to the necessary details, for I could have just as easily skipped the first two and just commanded the third: "Hey kids! Stop fighting, be quiet, and just get along with each other!" (I'm not saying I never did that, but fortunately I didn't do only that.) The adverse results of this kind of "forced reconciliation" are many, and they are destructive.
Think about why a cease-fire situation in war time is such a fragile state of affairs. One errant mis-fire of one weapon could be all it takes to reignite the whole war. This is because although the two parties are acting like they are reconciled, they in fact are not. This kind of mandatory peace is really no peace at all, for everyone involved is still carrying within themselves the turmoil of being at odds with the other side.
And it is the same with interpersonal relationships. Too many marriages appear to be peaceful only because the spouses have called a cease-fire. But they are not intimate—not like they should be—because they are not reconciled. Thus, husband and wife both carry within themselves the turmoil of being at odds with their spouse. They are both just faking it, having mutually agreed to a form of "forced reconciliation," or "mandatory peace." See, it is peace through mandate rather than peace through mutual adoration. I think the latter is to be preferred, don't you?
But peace through mutual adoration can only be attained via authentic reconciliation. And THIS is why the axiom rings true, "A good marriage takes a lot of hard work." Because reconciliation can be hard, as it requires forgiveness and repentance, both of which cut across the grain of our pride.
Reconciliation Must Become a Habit
Some of us—particularly those who suffered abuse from their parents—never got walked through the process of authentic reconciliation and hence, we do not have the habit of reconciling after a disagreement.
"Don't ever do that again," said the parent.
"Why not?" asked the child.
"Because I said so!" said the parent.
Most of us, at one time or another, experienced something like that exchange when we were young. But if that exchange is what characterizes the relationship, then this parent is abusive. This is the essence of forced reconciliation, and it is an abuse. This parent displays no empathy toward his child. He cares not for their relationship. He only cares whether the child conforms to his prescription of correct behavior. He and his child are not reconciled, and the child grows up thinking this is normal.
Later in life, this child will grow up, look back, and comment to his peers, "Yeah, my dad was pretty tough on me, because he loved me." This man might believe he is reconciled with his father, only because he himself has come to terms with the abuse he suffered at his father's hand. The fact is that he has forgiven his father; and that's a good thing. But he is kidding himself about being reconciled unless his father has openly expressed sorrow, regret, and repentance of the abuse. Unless and until they have those conversations, the reconciliation is fake. It's not real.
Likewise, his father might like to believe that since his son has forgiven him, then they are reconciled. But he too is just kidding himself. Just because someone forgives you, that doesn't let you off the hook for repentance. In order to restore the relationship, you must first truly repent of your transgressions, and then go through the process of reconciliation, which entails communication.
You can imagine the scenario where the formerly abusive mother says, "Yeah, I think I beat my son too much when he was young, but I see that now, and he said he forgives me, so I guess we're good." No, you're not "good" until you have discussed the whole issue, openly demonstrated your repentance (with statements like, "I'm sorry"), and have gone through the process of reconciliation.
Now here's the problem: this young man brings his flawed concept of reconciliation with him into his marriage. Please pause, re-read, and think about the ramifications.
His dad was remote and aloof. He knew his dad loved him, because every kid knows his dad loves him—whether it's true or not, every kid "knows" it's true. Do you see what I'm driving at? The boy grows up believing it is normal and okay to be remote and aloof from the ones you love. He thinks this way for two primary reasons:
- This is the example he learned from his mom or dad, and
- He was never instructed in the process of reconciliation.
For too many of us, the words "I love you" and "I forgive you" are nothing more than empty, insubstantial lip service to an esoteric, abstract concept. There is no concrete substance in them, because they were never followed up with the process of reconciliation. We therefore grow up thinking that reconciliation just means, "I am willing to live with your insufficiencies," or something like that. We think that our ability to cohabitate peacefully constitutes reconciliation. But we are wrong, and our marriage is compromised as a result.
Reconciliation: The Proof of Love
Reconciliation is the proof of love. God proves His love for us in that He has reconciled us to Himself. And this is the chief indicator that God is humble, not proud. For whereas it would not be wrong or prideful of God to say, "You have sinned and I have not; therefore the wall between us is your problem, not mine," we clearly see that God invokes His humility in saying, "Though you have sinned and I have not, I have nonetheless provided a means for us to be reconciled. I have provided a means for the repair of our relationship."
Thus, we are acutely aware of God's love. We have a very keen sense of the love of God, for He can be bothered with the tedious work of reconciliation with us, though He is under no moral compulsion to do so.
But of course we also must acknowledge the fact that if we refuse to repent, there is no reconciliation. We are not reconciled to God if we are unrepentant. Let us not kid ourselves about this.
The Paradox of Reconciliation
There is a paradox; there is a fast track to reconciliation, a short cut, if you will, found in the fact that Reconciliation does not require universal agreement.
If we are reconciled to God, we soon find it necessary that we agree with Him. This is because He is God, and He, by definition, and in fact, is right in His opinion. He's God, after all, so who are we to stand in disagreement with Him? Interestingly, however—and paradoxically—, He does not require our full agreement before reconciling us to Himself. Were that the case, then none of us could be reconciled to Him, for whom among us knows the whole mind of God?! We see then that our agreement with God comes as a result of our reconciliation with Him. It is part of the process. We are not reconciled with God as a result of our agreement with Him on all terms, but only a few (that few being the subject and purview of the theologians and of scripture, which I leave to the investigation of the reader).
In the case of our interpersonal relationships, the same principle applies:
Reconciliation precedes, and thus does not require, agreement on all things.
Certainly in marriage, there are a number of basic, fundamental criteria of behavior which are of crucial importance, outside of which the marriage is obviously destroyed, effectively nullified, or ruined by their very presence. Sexual infidelity, of course, is at the top of this list. But most common marital difficulties don't fall into this category. Most conflicts between married couples do not rise to the level of marital vows. Most are far more trivial. Thus, for the purpose of this discussion, let us exclude issues of faithfulness to marital vows.
In these cases, the only required agreement is that you love each other, and that you both shall not allow your disagreement to cause a rift in your relationship. You agree that your marriage is most important, and that whatever you are arguing about must, at the end of the day, take a back seat to your relationship. The important point here is that you don't have to agree on everything in order to have a healthy, thriving, intimate, affectionate, loving relationship. You must, however, be able to set your relationship above all those other issues in importance. This is where love, if it is real, comes into play.
Husbands, if you really, actually love your wife, then you will allow her to disagree with you, and you will still love her.
Wives, if you really, actually love your husband, then you will allow him to disagree with you, and you will still love him.
Sometimes, what this looks like is simply patiently waiting for your spouse to come around to your way of thinking, while humbly acknowledging the fact that: You never know! You might end up seeing it the other way yourself! But really, who cares? Because it's not as important as the fact that you love this person, you are married to them, and you intend to enjoy your marriage aside from any disagreement you might have with them. Most importantly, you two are reconciled, even though you disagree for now.
The Stone Wall
And now I return to the main question:
What is keeping us from being reconciled—right now?
The first stone wall is the thing that haunts our human existence, the thing we all have in common, the very thing that caused Satan to fall from his primordial position of glory…
Husbands: are you reconciled with your wife? Of course you love her… but are you reconciled? And wives: are you reconciled with your husband? You may verbally affirm your love and devotion all you want… but are you reconciled? You see, the question is not whether you love each other! Let us assume that you do, but you are still reading this because you sense something is missing in your marriage.
Husbands and wives: Can you be bothered with the tedious work of reconciliation? Or do your spouse's offenses outweigh your own? For as long as you entertain in your mind's eye the scales of justice, balancing his offenses against yours, or hers against yours, you cannot be reconciled. Your pride stands in the way. Whether you are called to forgive or to repent, you must deal with your own pride before the process of reconciliation can commence. And since the relationship cannot be repaired outside of reconciliation, it therefore cannot be repaired outside of humility on the part of both parties.
Regarding our relationship with God, we already know that God is not proud, thus the repair of our relationship with Him seems to hinge upon our own humility.
Though the Lord is exalted, He takes note of the humble; but He knows the haughty from a distance.
—Psalms 138:6 HCSB
He mocks those who mock, but gives grace to the humble.
—Proverbs 3:34 HCSB
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
—Matthew 23:12 HCSB
But pride is so entirely pervasive across all sectors of human society that we simply fail to notice its presence most of the time. Thus we often don't see it in ourselves. But let us recognize that God has set His pride aside, else we could never, ever be reconciled to Himself. It's just that simple.
So the question becomes this: Which is more important to you… your marriage, or your pride? Which is more important… your marriage relationship, or your own sense of justice? Who is more important… your spouse, whom you promised to love to your death, or yourself? In God's case, He obviously finds our relationship with Himself more important than His own pride (which He has rightful claim to, given His attribute of perfection).
Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t give the Devil an opportunity... All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.
—Ephesians 4 (emphasis mine)
So what is it? What is standing in your way? What is keeping you from being reconciled right now?
Is it your pride? Then check it at the door, and go to your spouse, humbly seeking authentic reconciliation. Tell him or her,
"I want to set my pride aside.
I care less about who is right or wrong than I care about you and our marriage.
I am sorry for the things I've done wrong, and I am willing to talk about them on your terms.
I furthermore forgive you for everything I've ever thought you did wrong to me, because I love you, and I care more about you than I care about those things.
Though I might still want to talk about some of them, I don't need to right now. Right now, I only care that you know that I love you as much as I ever have."
And if you have ever let the sun go down on your anger, this is something that you absolutely must repent of! What this basically means is that you absolutely must be reconciled before falling asleep—every night.
I am convinced that there is nothing more damaging to a marriage than unresolved differences, as particularly demonstrated by letting a day end without at least an attempt at reconciliation.
Men, you want to wake up with the girl to whom you expressed love and acceptance the night before, not the woman you're still mad at! Am I wrong? You know I'm right.
Ladies, you want to wake up with the man you admire for his positive attributes and strengths, not the knucklehead who embarrassed you yesterday! Tell me this isn't true.
And you can wake up each morning with this person if you make a habit of reconciling every night. Yes—reconciling every night. So commit yourselves to the habit of reconciliation. It's easier if you do it every night. It's even easier if you do it earlier in the day, and you might then enjoy the evening even more, don't you think? I know I would.
And let this daily habit of reconciliation be the foundation for the deeper, thorough hashing-out discussions that must be accomplished in order to produce a true, authenticly reconciled relationship for your marriage. Then rest, and enjoy the intimacy that God has intended for you to enjoy!