What Is Forgiveness?

Growing up in church, I was taught from an early age the importance of forgiving others.  I knew that I needed to forgive others, but I had a very vague sense of what that meant.  I don’t recall ever receiving clear instruction on how to forgive others until I was well into my adult years.  I doubt that I am alone in that experience.

So I want to share seven theses that outline my approach to this issue:

(1) Forgiveness can only occur in the context of a relationship.  I think it would be ridiculous to ask those whose loved ones were killed in the 9/11 attacks if they had forgiven Osama bin Laden.  They have no relationship with him.  Forgiveness cannot be extended in the abstract.  It only applies when two (or more) parties have ongoing personal interaction with each other.

I am not saying that those who have been wronged by Osama bin Laden should be obsessed with his destruction.  They should leave vengeance to the Lord.  But that is not the same thing as forgiveness.  Forgiveness means separating an offender from the consequences of his sin forever.  Leaving vengeance in the hands of the Lord simply means acknowledging that God is God, and he will deal with the offender for his sin at the right time.  Not only do we not have any obligation to forgive those who are not in an ongoing relationship with us, it is actually impossible to do so.

(2) In many cases, forgiveness is a one-sided act of which the other party may not be aware. There are numerous “faux pas” sins that we commit against each other that are often easily disregarded by the offended party.  If someone sins against me in a relatively small matter, I normally have to make a decision at some point (and the sooner the better) that whatever happened is not going to cause any disruption to our ongoing relationship.  No apology is necessary.  Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

(3) In many cases, forgiveness cannot be properly extended until the offending party has apologized and repented. In more serious matters, disruption has occurred in the relationship, and thus it is necessary for the offending party to make amends.  The relationship cannot be repaired until both parties come to a meeting of the minds on the act in question.  It is not below the offended party to initiate the process of reconciliation.  In fact, it is commanded in Matthew 18:15.  But whether the offended party makes the first move, or the offender has a change of heart and preempts such a move, there must be a process of confession of sin, repentance, and then a personal, verbal extension of forgiveness on the part of the one who has been offended.  Without this process of getting the sin out into the open, there can be no forgiveness because there can be no true reconciliation in the relationship.  Again, it is impossible to forgive in the abstract.  If someone has sinned against me in a serious way, I cannot simply decide in my head one day that I have forgiven him or her.  Once a relationship has been disrupted due to sin, the act of forgiveness only takes place when I communicate forgiveness to the one who has sinned against me.

(4) The offended party must be lavish in offering forgiveness. When Peter thought seven times would be particularly magnanimous, Jesus told him to extend that to seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22).  And then he told a parable illustrating the complete lunacy of knowing God’s forgiveness and yet withholding forgiveness from a brother who seeks it from you (Matthew 18:23-35).  Our ability to forgive others is rooted in the gospel, through which we have been forgiven far more than we could ever forgive others.

(5) When a person extends forgiveness, he or she gives the other person assurance that the matter will never be brought up again. True forgiveness releases the offender from the personal ramifications of what he or she has done.  The offended party relinquishes any right to speak of the matter again in a way that would cause the offender to feel shame, embarrassment, or guilt.  Once forgiveness has been extended, the relationship is healed.

(6) Nevertheless, forgiveness does not necessarily mean that all consequences for the sin can be wiped away. For example, let’s say a man commits an unspeakably horrible act and molests the child of another family in his church.  When the parents find out, they notify the authorities, and the man is arrested and put through the legal process.  Let’s say he serves several years in prison and pays his debt to society.  What if, after his release, he returns to the church, confessing his sin and seeking forgiveness from the congregation and in particular from the child and parents that he wronged?  The demands of Christ are clear: all offended parties should forgive this man.  I am not saying that it wouldn’t be very difficult to do, but at some point, those who had been hurt by this man would have to relinquish all claims against him if they wanted to live in light of the gospel.  So let’s assume that in our hypothetical situation the church and the family both follow Christ’s command and extend forgiveness.  As far as they are concerned, the matter will never be brought up again.

Nevertheless, such a church would be foolish to put that man on the rotation of nursery workers and thereby put him in a context where he will have ample opportunity to commit the same sin again.  Forgiveness is akin to forgetting, but it is not the same thing.  When we forgive, we do not eliminate from memory.  We simply commit ourselves not to allow the sin that we have in memory to determine how we will relate to the person who committed it.  But we do have a responsibility to act in a way that will protect the offender from the temptation to fall into the same sin again and that will protect other people from becoming the victims of such sin.  We can forgive and still maintain that there are some non-relational consequences that simply cannot be erased.

(7) Although forgiveness gives us personal psychological benefits, our motive in forgiveness is not primarily therapeutic. I have heard many times that those who hold on to grudges are those who keep themselves miserable.  And I think that is true to a large degree.  There is a great release that comes with offering forgiveness to another person.  But the primary biblical teaching on forgiveness is that we should do it because we have been forgiven, not primarily because we believe it will achieve psychological benefits for us.  Too much of the teaching I have heard on this subject focuses on what forgiveness will do for me rather than on my obligation to forgive because of how much I have been forgiven.  Let the riches of the gospel spill over into your relationships with others.  This is primarily what forgiveness is all about.

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