Five Ideas for Responding to a Refusal to Reconcile

Rembrandt van Rijn - "The Return of the Prodigal Son"Pope Francis declared this year to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time to extend mercy to others through both acts of forgiveness and care for those who are poor or most in need. We also know ourselves to be in need of mercy as sinners. My favorite definition of mercy is that of my colleague Jim Keenan, SJ, who says that mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another. In this Year of Mercy, we are being asked to work for reconciliation in our families, friendships, and communities.

What, though, can we do when another refuses to reconcile despite our best attempts? While the situation is imperfect, it can still be an opportunity for growth and for love. Here are a few ideas for how to respond.

1. Let go and hand over the situation to God.

We can never control another person’s actions. Part of genuine reconciliation is to recognize the dignity of another person and their freedom to respond or not to respond, as she or he sees fit.

2. Accept God’s forgiveness.

As good as it might be to hear expressions of forgiveness directly from a person whom we have offended, God is always waiting to extend forgiveness and love. Going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation can help to restore peace to our souls. God’s love is unconditional even when human love is conditional.

3. Let the land lie fallow.

Among the practices associated with the jubilee year in the Hebrew Scriptures was allowing fields to lie fallow, i.e., not to plant so that they could have some rest and produce better in another year. Perhaps everyone involved in a damaged relationship needs time to process and to heal. Genuine reconciliation cannot be rushed and may take a very long time. In prayer, God can help us see what we need to see, and to heal where we need to heal.

4. Forgive yourself.

Sometimes seeking forgiveness from another is really about an inability to forgive oneself. I regularly visit a prison, and while I find it relatively easy to believe that God forgives others even for the most serious of crimes, forgiving myself is much harder. Yet it is often only when we can love ourselves with our faults and failings that we love the way that God loves us, as we already are: human. We are broken and sinful, but also beautiful in our brokenness. Sin does not make us unworthy of love.

5. Be the prodigal father.

When we think of mercy, it is easy to want to be the prodigal son or daughter who receives mercy. But Henri Nouwen, in The Return of the Prodigal Son, writes that we are also called to be the prodigal father. Part of Christian maturity is to learn that we are also the merciful parent, and not only the needy child. We are called not only to receive mercy, but also to be its bearers. Who is in need of our forgiveness? Who yet needs our mercy? And we may find in extending mercy to others that we find the very love and mercy for which we were looking.

How else can you work for reconciliation in your family, friendships, and community?

Image: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. View the Arts & Faith: Lent video reflection on this artwork.


  1. Our son is harboring a lot of resentment and hatred towards us, his parents. He is married to a narcissistic, emotional abuser. She controls him – managed to destroy our family business. He now blames us – refuses to have anything to do with any of his family. She fills our grandsons heads with thoughts against us. They run past us when they see us … probably the hardest part of this! I understand this is out of my control – just hope that God has it! Great article – praying for my son and grandsons! I do not believe reconciliation will ever come and I must go forward and be happy!

  2. I also have tryed to mend a broken relationship with my daughter. I had a lot of baggage from my childhood, abuse, never feeling loved or wanted etc.
    I did not know how to Be a Mother.I am So So Sorry for what I have done and not done!
    God I release this to you, please allow her to heal and please Bless her life and Family… Thank you!

  3. It’s hard to forgive abuse.
    Yet, I know we are called to do as we are all in need of forgiveness. I know I’ve been healed but today I had flashbacks and brought me to anger towards the abuser who by the way justifies himself. I need Gods mercy so that I can do this!! Not alone. But it’s hard to see God’s presence during these difficult days. I know our hurts are part of HIS plan but still sooo hard. Thank you!

  4. When given an opportunity, I have tried to reconcile with a sibling who is not willing to do so. Yes ha e passed, and I long to me peace with this person, whom I have always loved.
    Thank you for these ways to my peace of mind and forgiveness.

  5. So well expressed in ways both practical and inspirational. I appreciate the challenge
    you present as an everyday approach to relationship with God, self, and others.
    Thank you,

    • Me, too and Me, 3 or 4 readings to give me courage w/my inability to understand a difficult friend
      and never stop praying for her or him or myself. Thanks


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