A church brother deeply offended you, so you find a reasonable excuse to step down from serving together with him on the worship team. You figure life would be easier this way. Both of you still smile, greet each other, and engage in small talk, but your relationship is distant. Though you would never openly acknowledge it, you feel hurt and no longer trust him.
You and your wife had an argument, didn’t speak to one another for three days, but now are talking again. Though life is going on as usual, you avoid the topic of your argument, knowing conflict would be just around the corner if you didn’t.
In both of these situations, since you are speaking to one another again, does this mean you have reconciled? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. As I interviewed Chinese Christians in China, I discovered that reconciliation, like conflict, is conceptualized slightly differently around the world.1 Zhang Jing’s description of typical Chinese reconciliation summed up what I had heard from several people:
The Chinese type of reconciliation is a surface-level reconciliation. Or it’s the parent style of reconciliation. For example, the person is a leader so whatever they say goes, that kind of reconciliation. It’s not a genuine, from the heart, going to speak and reconcile with the other person.
In our environment, we really stress the importance of harmony. The church that I grew up in highly values peace and living harmoniously with one another. So, when there was conflict, we would seem to make peace; however, some people chose to leave. Some people had bitterness and weren’t able to speak to one another, and then, in the end, left.2
While harmony is highly valued in Chinese societies, far too often people only experience surface-level harmony.
Simply put, surface-level reconciliation is a superficial restoration of a relationship.3 After a conflict, both people behave politely toward one another, cooperating again, but beneath the surface, at the heart level, their relationship remains distanced or broken. Outwardly everything looks deceptively fine; their politeness toward one another camouflages the real state of the relationship.4 Sadly the real conflict issue remains unaddressed and unresolved.
When some people think about reconciliation, the only concept in their mind is surface-level reconciliation. Yet, those I interviewed also excitedly talked about a much deeper, or truer reconciliation experience. Zhang Jing continued on saying,
How many people actually, from the heart, restore a harmonious connection at the level that we have learned about in our biblical peacemaking study? Truthfully speaking, it is difficult to find. It was only after participating in this peacemaking study that I began to feel my way and try to restore relationships after conflict.
Zhang Jing, like many others, has discovered that another type of reconciliation—heart-level reconciliation—is possible.5
Strikingly different from surface-level reconciliation, in a heart-level reconciliation genuine change has actually occurred in the people previously at odds. Issues have been or are being dealt with. Differences are being discussed, accepted, and accommodated when possible. Apologies have been given, amends made, and forgiveness granted. Trust is being restored.6 Genuine harmony is being cultivated or is present. We now see the beginning signs of a deeper and stronger relationship, new expressions of care, reengagement, and renewed cooperation.
For Wu Chunhua, a truly reconciled relationship is even more beautiful than simply a harmonious relationship between two people who have had little conflict because they naturally get along so well:
Two people in a harmonious relationship look like a very pretty glass, which is good. However, in a reconciled relationship, the glass has been broken to pieces. But God will glue those pieces back together again in a beautiful way, maybe using gold. It will be a beautiful glass, even more beautiful, more artistic than the original.7
A relationship that has been reconciled at the heart level can be even more beautiful because of having worked through something difficult and come out together on the other side.
How would you now answer the question I posed at the beginning: If you are on speaking terms with someone again after a conflict, does this mean you have reconciled?8
According to the surface-level reconciliation definition, yes, you have. But Jesus teaches that reconciliation involves more than just being on speaking terms; we must address the conflict issue: “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 offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Heart-level reconciliation involves proactive communication.
God also calls for heart involvement. To those who are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, the Bible instructs us to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another” (Colossians 3:12-13). If we have a complaint against someone, we are to forgive each other: “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (v. 13). And “above all these” we are called to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v. 14). Genuine reconciliation will always require a great deal of involvement from our hearts.
Pursuing heart-level reconciliation can be hard, humbling work. A labor of love. Yet when our love is infused with God’s love—our source of strength to reconcile—we can persevere in the process, doing our best, as far as it depends on us, to live genuinely at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).
Note: This blog post contains content from Jolene’s yet to be published book: Changing Normal: A New Approach to Conflict, Face Issues, and Reconciling Relationships.
- John W. de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), Kindle, chapter 1, section 2.
- Zhang Jing (pseudonym), author interview.
- Surface-level reconciliation in Chinese: 表面上的和好 (biaomian shang de hehao).
- Li-Li Huang, “Interpersonal Harmony and Conflict for Chinese People: A Yin-Yang Perspective,” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016): Article 847 (see p. 4 in PDF version), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00847.
- Heart-level reconciliation in Chinese: 发自内心的和好 (fazi neixin de hehao).
- Joyce L. Hocker and William W. Wilmot, Interpersonal Conflict (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018), 324.
- Wu Chunhua, author interview. Note: When she described this process, I wondered if she knew of the Japanese art form called kintsugi; her description matched it perfectly. I didn’t have the opportunity to ask her.
- Interestingly, in the Bible, God uses actions and story more than words to show rather than tell the world what reconciliation looks like. In the New Testament, the Greek meaning of the root word for reconciliation (αλλασσο allasso) is “to change” or “exchange.” Allasso is used to describe the exchange of hostility for friendship, the restoration of a friendship after a dispute, and even the establishment of a good relationship between people who were once enemies. Specifically, the term is used to describe the restoration of a person’s relationship with God and with others.
Having spent much of the time between 1997 and 2020 committed to working overseas in China, Jolene Kinser now lives in southern California. Jolene works as a global Chinese peacemaking ministry developer and educator and as a peacemaking specialist under the South Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Jolene …View Full Bio
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