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Why divine and interpersonal reconciliation differ: a conceptualization and case study with implications for clinical practice.

Psychologists and theologians tend to disagree over what it means to forgive, specifically with regard to the issue of reconciliation. Psychologists often are concerned about the danger of victims being re-injured through reconciliation and therefore emphatically separate reconciliation from forgiveness. Theologians, in contrast, seem to put more emphasis on the connection between the two, similar to the renewed relationship between God and people (Frise & McMinn, 2010). How helping professionals think about this issue has direct implications for the wellbeing of the people whom they serve. It is for this reason that we examine the issue here of why divine and interpersonal reconciliation differ.

We argued elsewhere that this might be caused by the conflation of two different kinds of forgiveness, divine and interpersonal forgiveness: God alone offers the forgiveness of sins (the forgiveness of offenses against God), which, if received in remorse and repentance, allows sinners to enjoy a restored relationship with God, but people in forgiving others attempt to emulate God's offer of unconditional forgiving love without canceling the offender's sin (Kim & Enright, 2015). In other words, the first act of offering love is unconditional in both divine and interpersonal forgiveness, but the second act of forgiveness (removal of sins) is done exclusively by God, leading to reconciliation. Our empirical study with graduate-level theological students also showed that while a majority of respondents were clear about the possibility of achieving interpersonal forgiveness without reconciliation, they were divided over the necessity of reconciliation for divine forgiveness to occur (Kim & Enright, 2014). Qualitative data from the same study also bolstered the finding above and further elucidated that the difference in opinions may be caused by the difference in nature between God and people. Common motifs are found across divine and human forgiving such as Christlike love (Cheong & DiBlasio, 2007) and God's redemptive grace for all sinners (Shults & Sandage, 2003), but it was of clinical significance that those in the helping professions distinguish between the two (forgiveness and reconciliation in interpersonal relationships) in order not to give the burden of reconciliation to the offended party when reconciliation cannot be achieved by one party's effort alone.

If recognizing the difference between divine and interpersonal forgiving has clinical implications, then recognizing the difference between divine and interpersonal reconciling may be as important for clinical practice. We reason that if human forgiving is clearly distinguished from divine forgiving (because the agents of forgiving differ), then it also is feasible that divine reconciliation is different from interpersonal reconciliation at least for the same reason that the agents of divine and human reconciling differ.

Therefore, in exploring the clinical importance of recognizing the difference between divine and interpersonal reconciliation, we first will reflect on the essence of person-person reconciliation--the process of restoring trust--and then show how God-to-person reconciliation differs from person-to-person reconciliation by making five contrasts between the two. This first section will necessitate theological reflection on this psychological issue of reconciliation because pastoral counseling is about both psychological and theological reflections by the helper and the client. Then, we will share some findings from an interview with a pastor as a case study to show why it is important to distinguish the two kinds of reconciliation, and finally, we will conclude with some clinical implications for those in the helping professions. To our knowledge, there has not been a scholarly attempt to distinguish the different natures of divine and interpersonal reconciliation for clinical significance; therefore, we hope that this article ignites a scholarly discussion about the difference between divine and interpersonal reconciliation, which may be an important addition to the growing literature of forgiveness and reconciliation in both pastoral and clinical settings.

What Is the Essence of Person-to-Person Reconciliation?

In psychology, person-to-person reconciliation is seen as a behavioral coming together again through the hard work of restoring the broken trust between the offended and the offending parties (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Enright & the Human Development Study Group, 1991; Worthington, 2003). While forgiveness as a moral virtue can be practiced without prior responses from the offender, reconciliation is not a moral virtue but a negotiation strategy (of restoring trust) between two or more people and thus requires prior responses such as the "three R's" of remorse, repentance, and, where appropriate, recompense from the offender (Enright, 2012). Even if the forgiver is contemplating the possibility of engaging with the offender again, without the offender's promises for changes through the "three R's," there is no necessary assurance (not an absolute guarantee but a certain level of certainty) that the offender would not offend again. in this sense, the restoration of trust is the essence of interpersonal reconciliation because the forgiver first needs to see, through enough evidence, that taking a risk of engaging with the offender is worthwhile where the amount of trust restored helps the forgiver to determine whether to risk reconciliation.

One might argue that if forgiveness is a loving response to an injustice, then the forgiver must pursue reconciliation even if it means that she might risk getting injured again. However, such an argument is a misunderstanding of what moral virtues are. Moral virtues are to be practiced alongside each other because a virtue practiced in isolation might distort its essence. For instance, one cannot love another without trying to be kind, gentle, and patient. one cannot seek justice without being courageous or wise. Likewise, while forgiveness helps one to practice justice without resorting to revenge, justice also needs to be in place to protect forgivers from being injured again (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Enright, 2001). Thus, unconditional forgiveness does not demand from forgivers that they must endure further injustices. Therefore, different from unconditional forgiveness, interpersonal reconciliation must be seen as a process of restoring trust so that in reconciling, the forgiver can now enjoy, without fear of getting hurt again, a renewed relationship with the offender.

How Do Divine and Interpersonal Reconciliation Differ?

We have discussed so far that the process of restoring trust is the essential aspect of interpersonal reconciliation where both offended and offending parties behaviorally come together to work on restoring the relationship. We also argued that because of the original injustice, the offended person now needs to feel safe interacting with the offender through a sense of trust restored. is it the same in divine reconciliation? it is here that we must turn from a psychological to a theological discussion by asking the following: Does God need to restore trust toward sinners before reconciling with them? We discuss five contrasts that describe the continuum from the effect of initial injustices to reconciliation as summarized in Table 1. Our main argument is that the restoration of trust, which is essential in person-to-person reconciliation, is not necessary in God-to-person reconciliation and therefore divine reconciliation occurs immediately after divine forgiveness of sins. To put it simply, interpersonal reconciliation is a process and divine reconciliation is not where only the former involves restoring of trust between two parties. Without this kind of understanding, pastoral counseling could get confusing and even dangerous for clients as we will see in the case study of a Protestant pastor.

1. God Is Not Psychologically Damaged by Our Actions.

A serious moral injury can change one's behavior, cognition, and emotion. For example, when people come to forgiveness therapy, they typically show symptoms of unhealthy anger and low self-esteem (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). In more severe cases, the client can present with psychological depression and a lack of hope in the future (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Freedman & Enright, 1996). The process of person-to-person forgiveness helps those injured recover from their psychological challenges. Empirical studies consistently show that the benefits of human forgiving include decreases in anger, anxiety, and depression and increases in hope for the future and self-esteem (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, & Worthington, 2014). However, trust broken by the injustice is not automatically recovered as a result of forgiving because the restoration of trust involves the offending party's changes. Therefore, forgiveness offered needs to be sought and received by the offender so that the process of restoring trust toward reconciliation can now begin. However, what if there is no injury done after an obvious injustice? Is there a need for the restoration of trust before reconciliation? Does God suffer as a result of human actions in the same way that people suffer from others' injustices?

The immutable God does not suffer from moral wounds (impassibility) nor does God change as a result of such offenses (unalterability) (Bray, 1993; Grudem, 1995). In other words, even though people can offend God by violating God's law and so sin against God, God does not suffer from human sins in the same way that people suffer from moral injuries.

In fact, theology students in our empirical study agreed that in divine forgiveness, God does not necessarily need to release resentment, give up a desire for revenge, and develop positive feelings of goodwill in the same way that people need to do in forgiving others (Kim & Enright, 2014). God who is offended but not damaged by human actions does not need to recover from anything, and thus no changes are anticipated in God, but in sinners.

2. God Is Omnipresent And Omniscient.

Because of the damage done, trust is broken in humans, and those injured might feel uncertain about the future with the offender. Why is this so? People cannot see into the future to be certain that they will not get injured again by continuing the relationship with the offender. Trust is always a risk, even if minimal, because the one trusting has no guarantees, cannot know the future, and is risking future hurt. Therefore, the restoration of trust as a component of interpersonal reconciliation is being sought to counterbalance the possible risk of further injuries.

In contrast to people taking a risk of being injured again in the future by interacting with the offender (not hastily but based on the amount of trust restored through enough evidence), the all-knowing and ever-present God does know the future, and by so knowing, does not have to risk anything because there is no uncertainty for God (Grudem, 1995).

3. God Does Not Need to Trust.

The first layer of an injustice not only psychologically damages the offended but also breaks the trust between the two. Then the second layer of the injustice (as a result of the damage done) makes the offended one hesitant to interact with or continue the relationship with the offender. Why is this so? As we argued in point 2 above, people do not see into the future. This makes the restoration of trust necessary in interpersonal reconciliation even if to trust always involves risk without any guarantees about the future. In other words, needing to restore trust first is a reaction to the offended party's uncertainty about the future.

In contrast, God does not need to establish trust with sinners before reconciling because a) He is not psychologically damaged (thus no risk of being injured again) and b) sees into the future (thus no uncertainty about the future). Therefore, restoring trust is a concept foreign to God who is omniscient without any risk or uncertainty about the future.

One might ask why God wants to reconcile with sinners if He already knows the future. Perhaps, it is similar to the reason why people are given the power to exercise their free agency in the first place. Even though He already knows what people will choose, God's knowing in advance does not imply that God is making the choices for them. People are making choices for themselves where God, by giving them such a power, allows them to make and expects from them responsible decisions in life. Similarly, an omniscient God does not have to restore trust toward sinners, but it does not mean that they cannot become trustworthy. Through His reconciling with sinners, they are given chances to become trustworthy, not because God needs to trust them before reconciling, but because now that they are reconciled, they can grow in relationship with Him through a life that demonstrates a restored relationship with Him.

4. God Forgives Sins Based on One's Acceptance of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ.

God forgives sins, but people do not (Kim & Enright, 2015). The offer of forgiveness is unconditional both in divine and human forgiveness, but the second act of divine forgiveness that involves His forgiveness of sins is not unconditional because God, without unconditionally granting universal salvation to all sinners, invites sinners to return to Him in remorse and repentance for the removal of sins.

The difference between divine and interpersonal reconciliation then is in part due to the same reason that God forgives sins but people do not. While God is content with one's acceptance of His saving grace before reconciling, people require enough evidence to determine that the offender is trustworthy for the future together before reconciling with the offender. People who a) are damaged by the original injustice have a risk of being re-injured, b) have uncertainty about the future, and thus c) must resort to trust before reconciling, need to see that the offender is now trustworthy before reconciling. However, God who a) is not damaged, b) knows the future, and thus c) does not need to trust, d) requires the sinner to accept the saving grace of Christ for the forgiveness of sins before reconciling. Unlike in person-to-person reconciliation, sinners, without needing to regain God's trust before being reconciled to God, are relying on God's saving grace accompanied by genuine remorse and repentance for their sins.

5. God Immediately Reconciles with Sinners upon Forgiveness of Sins.

Christian Scriptures tell us that God is the Agent of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19) who actively draws sinners back into a loving relationship with Him, and we instantaneously receive reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ in whom sinners find their salvation through faith (Rom. 5:11). Therefore, justification through faith (salvation through forgiveness of sins) seems equated with or spontaneously resulting in divine reconciliation with sinners (Rom. 5:1). How is it possible that God's reconciliation occurs immediately unlike that in interpersonal relationship? In reconciling with sinners, God who offers forgiveness of sins a) is not damaged by original injustices, b) can see into the future, and c) therefore without needing to take the risk of trust, reconciles with sinners d) upon their receiving of God's saving grace for the forgiveness of sins. God's reconciliation with sinners, due to His impassible and omniscient nature, does not go through the progression from recovering from offenses to restoring trust and reconciling. Instead, when people sin against God, God offers forgiveness of sins without a) risking being re-injured or b) suffering uncertainty about the future, c) does not need to trust them first, but d) invites them to have their sins removed in remorse and repentance. Therefore, without the necessity of an amount of time in restoring trust, God's reconciliation can occur immediately, unlike that of interpersonal reconciliation, when people are forgiven of sins.

As a final point in this section, it seems important to note that while sinners are reconciled to God without needing to prove anything to gain God's trust, this does not imply that now forgiven sinners are licensed for a life of debauchery.

Reconciliation certainly begins at one point when sinners accept His saving grace, but that certainly is not the end point of forgiven sinners' on-going relationship with God. Now that sins are forgiven and thus reconciliation with God is achieved, forgiven sinners are expected to mature in their trusting God and growing in the sanctified life (e.g. 2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 4:15; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18).

A Case Study with a Protestant Pastor

A case study with a Protestant pastor was done to see whether or not distinguishing interpersonal reconciliation from divine reconciliation is a matter of importance in pastoral counseling. A pastor who has been involved in various ministries for 10 years volunteered to answer a series of questions pertaining to his understanding of divine and interpersonal reconciliation.

We asked Pastor Joseph (pseudonym) if he sees any problems for his congregational members when they think about person-to-person forgiveness and God-to-human forgiveness. He gave two examples of psychological complications that befall some of his church members. "Sometimes," he said, "I see that certain people realize that God is quick to reconcile with a repentant sinner. Misunderstanding that person-to-person forgiveness is not perfect like God's reconciliation is, these same people are too quick to reconcile with those who were cruel to them, continue to be cruel to them, and probably will continue with this pattern of cruelty in the future. Of course," he continued, "this is a potentially dangerous situation, to think that people who are cruel are like God and can reconcile easily and perfectly. They have to remember that people can sin and therefore can break promises and sometimes have severe weaknesses where God does not. it is safer for people if they make the clear distinction between God's perfect forgiveness and reconciliation and people's more imperfect attempts at reconciliation."

In the other example, Pastor Joseph described a somewhat common situation in which people transfer their understanding of person-to-person forgiveness to God-to-human forgiveness. He explained it this way: "People who have committed grave injustices against other people learn that the offended too often will not forgive nor reconcile. The injustice is too great to handle. Now, when these people commit a sin that they think other people [not God] would never forgive, they ascribe this same unforgiving attribute to God. No matter how often they ask God for forgiveness, they come away unfulfilled, not because God has refused to forgive and reconcile, but because these individuals, in their own minds, think it is impossible for God to forgive in certain circumstances. My job is to begin separating the God-to-human pattern of forgiveness and reconciliation and the person-to-person kind of forgiveness and reconciliation. Once they see the distinction [that some people will refuse to reconcile whereas God will not refuse a sincere repentant person], they begin to relax a little more and realize that they very well may be forgiven by God. People's failure to see these distinctions leads to enormous and unnecessary inner turmoil. They are walking around feeling unworthy of God's forgiveness. This is why i think these distinctions between person-to-person forgiveness and reconciliation and God-and-person forgiveness and reconciliation are so vital to make and to teach to the congregation."

Implications for Clinical Practice

In summarizing our argument, it seems helpful to examine the progression from 1) to 5) in Table 1 in understanding the contrast between divine and interpersonal reconciliation. in interpersonal reconciliation, one is 1) hurt by an injustice, 2) feels uncertain about the future, 3) therefore needs trust restored with the offender, and 5) goes through the often slow and sometimes painful process of restoring trust that results in reconciliation. People 4) do not forgive sins; therefore, they need to see enough evidence for the offender's trustworthiness before reconciling.

In divine reconciliation, God skips 1), 2), 3) because He does not need to take time in restoring trust without any risk of injuries or uncertainty about the future. However, God 4) forgives sins when sinners accept His saving grace and 5) immediately reconciles with sinners without first needing to restore trust toward sinners.

We offer two implications for clinical practices based on our argument and the insight from the case study. First, it would seem to be psychologically unhealthy for repentant sinners to now reason that God must take a great deal of time before even tentatively reconciling. This misunderstanding seems to result from mapping interpersonal reconciliation onto divine reconciliation, but we have shown that God, because of His nature, does not need to trust before reconciling. Therefore, those in clinical practices should help repentant sinners enjoy their renewed relationship with God without the burden of proving to God that they are trustworthy. However, this does not confuse the essence of interpersonal reconciliation that requires the restoration of trust; people do not reconcile in the same way that God does with sinners.

Second, people who desire to emulate God's forgiving love and reconcile with the offender should not be advised to reconcile so quickly as God does. This misunderstanding perhaps is a case when divine reconciliation is mapped onto interpersonal reconciliation. Unlike that of divine reconciliation, forgivers must first see, by reasonable evidence, that the offender is now trustworthy (even though it is still a risk). We advise that if those who are wounded hope to reconcile with their offenders, then they do so by first fostering a forgiving heart (e.g., giving up resentment and a desire for revenge and developing a gentle and compassionate attitude toward the person). This is to make sure that they are psychologically ready to accept the offenders back into their lives. Then, the offenders' attempts at the three R's of remorse, repentance, and recompense as they try to regain trust from those they have wounded should follow for the healing of relationships between both parties.

Reconciliation is one goal of forgiveness certainly not without any challenges. We trust that conceptually separating the theology of God's reconciliation and the psychology of interpersonal reconciliation should better help people in the difficult process of reunification with God and with other people. This more likely will ensure: a) no fear of being injured again after forgiving others; b) no continued condemnation of the self; and c) no estrangement from God for repentant sinners who seek a renewed relationship with God.


Baskin, T. W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development, 82, 79-90.

Bray, G. (1993). The doctrine of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Cheong, R. K., & DiBlasio, F. A. (2007). Christ-like love and forgiveness: A biblical foundation for counseling practice. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 26, 14-25.

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: APA Books.

Enright, R. D. (2012). The forgiving life. Washington, DC: APA Books.

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Enright, R. D., & the Human Development Study Group (1991). The moral development of forgiveness. In W. Kurtines & J. Gwirtz (Eds.), Moral behavior and development (Vol. 1, pp.123-152). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 983-992.

Frise, N. R., & McMinn, M. R. (2010). Forgiveness and reconciliation: The differing perspectives of psychologists and Christian theologians. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38, 83-90.

Grudem, W. (1995). Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leister, England: InterVarsity Press.

Kim, J. J., & Enright, R. D. (2014). Differing views on forgiveness within Christianity: Do graduate-level theology students perceive human and divine forgiveness differently? Journal of Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 1, 191-202.

Kim, J. J., & Enright, R. D. (2015). Why forgiveness is not a component of reconciliation: A response to Frise & McMinn (2010). Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 34, 19-25.

Shults, F. L., & Sandage, S. J. (2003). The faces of forgiveness: Searching for wholeness and salvation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Wade, N. G., Hoyt, W. T., Kidwell, J. E. M., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2014). Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83, 154-170.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2003). Forgiving and reconciling: Bridges to wholeness and hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Jichan J. Kim

Liberty University

Robert D. Enright

University of Wisconsin--Madison International Forgiveness Institute, Inc., Madison, Wisconsin

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jichan J. Kim, Department of Psychology, Liberty University, DeMoss 4008, 1971 University Blvd. Lynchburg, VA 24515. E-mail:

Jichan J. Kim is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA. He has a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on forgiveness psychology.

Robert D. Enright is a full professor in the Human Development area in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Board Member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. in Madison. He has pioneered the scientific study of forgiveness, which he now has been studying for over three decades. He has a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota.
Table 1

The Contrast between Divine and Interpersonal Reconciliation

1. Divine Reconciliation

1) God is not psychologically damaged by
our actions.

2) God is omnipresent and omniscient. Thus,
God does not suffer uncertainty about the

3) God does not need to trust because trust
occurs only when one cannot see into the
future, which an omniscient God can do.

4) God forgives sins when sinners repent and
accept His saving grace.

5) Because God (who offers forgiveness of
sins) is: a) not damaged by original injustices,
b) can see into the future, and therefore c)
does not need to take the risk of trust, reconciliation
with people occurs immediately for
God upon accepting His saving grace for the
removal of sins.

2. Interpersonal Reconciliation

1) People often are psychologically damaged
by others' serious offenses.

2) People cannot see into the future and so
are uncertain about what will happen next
with the offender because of the damage

3) As a reaction to not being able to see into
the future, people must resort to trust of the
other if genuine reconciliation is to occur
with the offending person.

4) People do not forgive sins. People forgive
offenders. Thus, before reconciling, they
need enough evidence to restore a sense of
trust toward the offender.

5) Because of the damage done, uncertainty
about the future, and the risk of trust, reconciliation
proceeds slowly in most cases and
not immediately as God's reconciliation does.
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Author:Kim, Jichan J.; Enright, Robert D.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Article Type:Case study
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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