To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Thoughts on forgiveness

The following is adapted from a long comment I posted several years ago on the weblog Contratimes. Because that blog is now available only behind a permission wall, I'm posting my comments here.

From a biblical standpoint, is forgiveness conditional? In other words, are Christians called to forgive those who have offended them only if the offender is repentant, or are Christians to offer blanket forgiveness even if the offender has no remorse or regret for the wrong he has done us?

Part of the difficulty in finding answers to that question is that several processes are involved in what we commonly call forgiveness. Lawyers, I think, call this situation a difference without a distinction. Let's look first at forgiveness by Christians and see if we can then better understand God's forgiveness.

One type of forgiveness is described in Luke 17:3-4:

Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’forgive him. (NASB)
If a brother repents, we are to forgive him in the fullest sense of not only giving up trying to make him pay the punishment for his wrong, but in re-establishing a faithful, brotherly, shalom relationship with him. This kind of forgiveness is hard to do but is empowered from both ends: by the offending brother's willingness to repent and the offended brother's letting go of his superior position in occupying the moral high ground (at best) or his spiteful desire for revenge (at worst). This first type of forgiveness is characterized by mutuality and a re-establishing of relationship. In that sense you might call it conditional, although I don't think that distinction is particularly helpful--mutuality and restoration are probably more descriptive terms.

Although this first type of forgiveness involves what might loosely be called forgiving and forgetting, it doesn't necessarily mean all consequences of the initial wrong are ignored or that the offending party literally forgets the wrong. For example, a church might forgive a treasurer who is found stealing from the collection plate (provided he repents). In restoring the relationship, the church might do well not to press criminal charges and welcome him fully back into the life of the congregation. At the same time, they should make arrangements for him to pay back what he stole and not allow him to handle the church's money any more. In short, accepting forgiveness in this or any other sense does not erase all consequences of the initial offense. God may be able to forgive and forget, but human beings do not and cannot forget in the strictest sense. In fact, trying to forget a serious wrong is quite simply a psychological pathology--denial or repression I think it's called. So we shouldn't try literally to forget. We are, however, called to forget in the metaphorical sense of not re-fracturing the relationship by continuing to dwell on a past wrong.

Another and probably more common type of forgiveness is more limited. It simply involves letting go of the prerogative of exacting vengeance for a past wrong. Christians are called to practice this kind of forgiveness even for those who do not repent--up to and including our enemies. Giving up our claim for vengeance is not the same as excusing a wrong; it is simply acknowledging that "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). From a practical standpoint, this kind of forgiveness takes a weight off the soul of the offended party. This second type of forgiveness doesn't necessarily establish shalom between the two parties, but it at least makes it possible on one end. Only by giving up one's claim to vengeance is a Christian truly able to find God's peace and to love his or her enemy.

So those are the two kinds of forgiveness from the standpoint of Christians. My wife, Carolyn, points out the bigger picture that ties together these two types of forgiveness. In short, forgiveness is not an end in itself but rather a means of establishing peace, shalom. Whether or not the offender repents, the offended party is called to forgive in order to do his part in re-establising shalom. Whether peace is actually re-established, of course, depends on both parties. Conversely, the offender is called to confess and repent whether or not the offended person forgives. In the broadest sense, then, confession, repentance, and forgiveness are all components of establishing shalom--not only between human beings, but between us and God.

What about from God's standpoint? It occurs to me that God also does both of these types of forgiveness, although because he is God, the results play out differently. On one hand, God re-establishes a shalom relationship with those who truly repent and cooperate with him in re-establishing that relationship. For those who do not repent, God nevertheless offers shalom in Jesus Christ, but if the offender does not respond, the relationship is never restored. The difference, of course, between God's forgiveness and ours is that God is not only the one who forgives, but the one who brings vengeance. So even though he offers forgiveness and peace to the unrepentant, he will eventually bring vengeance upon those who reject it.