“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
One of the chief points at which love and forgiveness converge is that love always seeks reconciliation, and the asking and receiving of forgiveness is the basis for reconciliation. Seeking reconciliation is not optional. Our first obligation when sinned against is go to the person – and not to anyone else – tell him about it (Matthew 18:15,16), seek reconciliation. I assume Christ here speaks of sin heavy enough to merit heavy action, not the daily small offenses that love simply overlooks. How miserable the home in which this is not done a hundred times a day! But if the offence is grave enough to break fellowship, love seeks reconciliation and forgiveness makes it possible.
Of course, we need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s a thin sheet of paper with only one side. Rare is the occasion when the offence is 100% on one side. As a result, the question of whether it is my responsibility to ask forgiveness or to extend it may not be clear, at least not clear to both parties in the same way. In seeking reconciliation, it doesn’t matter who offended, whether I have offended someone (Matthew 5:23-24) or the other person has offended me, it is always my move! I am the one who must seek reconciliation.
But suppose even though I go to the offending person about the matter they still don’t repent or accept my quest for reconciliation? If the offence was theirs and they don’t recognize or accept that, am I obligated to forgive anyway? How many times do I go and seek reconciliation?
One answer is another question: how many times does God seek to reconcile us to himself? So love keeps reaching out. But in the Bible’s key passage on forgiveness, note that the formal procedure is to exhaustively seek reconciliation by going first alone, then with others and finally to the officials. After that the offended one is to break relationships- treat the offender as an outsider (Matthew 18:15-17). That is an outline of the responsibility of the offended party. But most situations are too complex for this to happen quickly and cleanly. In the meantime, to act in love for the eternal benefit of all concerned is the key to evaluating the complexity of ruptured relationships. Remember that God doesn’t give up easily! And he is our model. Also remember that love, unlike forgiveness, sometimes holds guilty people accountable. When does love cease seeking reconciliation and begin to hold accountable?
Love always seeks reconciliation when fellowship is broken, but love cannot- and would not- force reconciliation. So there comes a time when even love may give up the quest, even though love always remains open to the “return of the prodigal.” When forgiveness is requested, love always stands ready to cancel the debt. God graced us with full forgiveness. Then he turns to us and commands us to forgive in the same way, even if it means paying for the offence of the other person, just as he did for us.
The sincerity, the motivation is for God to judge, the canceling of any debt against me is my responsibility (Luke 17:3ff). That is impossible! So thought the disciples, too. But they didn’t ask for more love, enough to keep on forgiving the person over and over. They asked for more faith. Faith to believe that God can handle this situation, overrule it for his glory, and protect me. Faith must be strong to wait for God to change the other person. Or me. And if the guilty party- as God sees the guilt- does not change, faith waits for God to vindicate the cause of the innocent.