It was a tense moment. I was sitting in an office as the person who had the power to fire me from the Christian institution I worked for calmly read aloud passage after passage which used the word “forgive” or “forgiveness.” He had told me that I was not to talk, but that I was to listen. Along with another person in the room. More on him later. But the meeting was a surprise for me. Both of them were in the office when I was called to come in.
Undoubtedly, I had made a few grievous personal mistakes that had landed me here. I had responded to a really difficult situation in a really poor way. I was angry and I wrote an email (a lesson I have had to learn the hard way many times). I wanted to be right. I wanted to get things off my chest. I had worded things too strongly.
But I didn’t lie. What I said was true. It was just unwise and unfruitful to say—especially in an email.
So, here I sat. The person I had written the email to sitting across the table (I’ll call him “the dude”), looking back at me as we were read a litany of poorly-understood passages about forgiveness. And what I had been told was that I was not to respond. The person reading these passages to me (I’ll call him “the enforcer”), with the power to fire me, had implied that any response from me, anything other than “I understand and I forgive” was going to get me fired. I was to say nothing of what had been done (repeatedly done) to me and my family. That didn’t matter (and the dude knew it) because the ultimate issue here was my “unforgiveness.”
I won’t spend much time on what the dude had done. Truth is, I don’t think much about his actions any more, though I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the actions of the enforcer. But, for the purpose of this article I’ll say that what the dude had done was a sort of repeated character assassination on me. Multiple times he had said something to someone about me which had hurt my reputation. I’d call him out on it and he’d say he was sorry and the next week he’d do it again. Over a period of several weeks, people kept coming to me saying, “Hey, the dude said ‘XYZ’ about you to me, is that true?” And I’d go through the cycle of being hurt, confronting him, get the “toes-in-the-dirt” apology and the whole thing would start over again. If only his infractions would have been in email…oh the irony.
He’s since apologized and owned up to all that, so I really am not trying to throw him under the bus.
Finally, I’d had enough. I wrote a lengthy email (stupid) telling him everything I’d thought of his actions. I told him I forgave him, I didn’t expect him to make things right. BUT I was done being friends with him because he’d shown me a pattern that proved I couldn’t trust him. The email was angry, sure. But it was honest. I thought that counted for something. Again, I am not justifying myself. My response was not wise. But I really thought that people understood that there are times to say, “I’m done with this relationship.”
Not hardly. I was being told in that office that not only did the Bible’s command to “forgive” demand that I must continue the relationship, my job depended on it as well. And during it all, not one word was said about his actions. Again, I was told that they did not matter. Only mine.
I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes. The truth is I left that job and my life got a LOT better. It got worse (I went through a divorce), but I found a new church to minister with and I have a job I enjoy a great deal more now in a better place. So, it ended well.
This whole obfuscated story is intended to be an opening illustration, a personal experience from my past to introduce my reflection on the nature of forgiveness and reconciliation. This experience, coupled with family experiences (especially the way I’ve had to deal with episodes of abuse history in my childhood) has driven me to find a balance to understanding Jesus’ command to forgive. And I think I did. In fact, I’ve been using the following argument as a lecture-piece in my theology classes for years now. But the issue is still confusing for folks.
I mean, on the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples in Mt 18:22 that they must “continually” forgive someone who causes them harm. “Seventy times seven” he said. Later, in that same chapter, he implies that the person who does not forgive “will not be forgiven” by God. Hard words. Since Jesus said them, and since I have agreed he is my Lord, I have to accept them.
We also have that wonderful statement in Ps 103 that when God “forgives” our sins he “removes them as far as the East is from the West.” This, for many, implies a sort of “forgetfulness” of our sins. “God doesn’t remember them, why should we?” (I will try to unpack that later…).
On the other hand, John tells us that when Jesus was in Jerusalem teaching, Jesus refused to “entrust himself to the people” because “he knew their hearts.” (Jn 2:24-25) In other words, just because Jesus loved people and offered forgiveness, he didn’t always trust them because he knew what they were capable of.
Still on the other hand, this is the same Jesus who repeatedly called people out for their sins. Mt 23 is one of my favorite chapters in scripture. Jesus unleashes an angry rant against the self-righteous Pharisees, calling them all manner of names. It certainly doesn’t sound like the “forgiveness” I’ve so often been told I must exhibit if I want to be Christ-like. I must “forgive and forget.”
But, let’s be honest. That understanding of forgiveness does nothing but release the “perpetrator” (I’ll call him the “perp”) from all responsibility to the victim and hold the victim responsible for maintaining the status quo. We’re all human and we all make mistakes. We all do things that hurt one another. But when a person continues to hurt someone (or wrong them) with no responsibility and the expectation is that the person who is being hurt must continue to “forgive” and keep the status quo…that’s about control. It’s called “abuse.”
See, “forgiveness,” in the situation I discussed above and in many others I’ve seen, is often wrongly confused with “reconciliation.” This understanding considers forgiveness to be a constant “forgetting” of wrongs or a dismissal. As if to forgive someone I must simply ignore some evil that they are doing. And that’s one of the reasons that people have such a hard time with forgiveness. They feel that if they forgive someone, they just have to pretend that what happened didn’t happen—that the person who did the wrong is now somehow “off the hook” and has no responsibility. That seems wrong to them. And I think they’re right about that. Remember, God is interested in justice (restorative justice, but justice).
So, when I begin my lecture on this topic, I often say to my students, “When Jesus was on the cross…you know, he’d been beaten to a pulp and nailed to a piece of wood…when he said, ‘Father, forgive them,’ what did he mean? Was he saying, ‘Oh, you know, don’t worry about this. It’s no big deal!’ Was he saying, ‘Listen, I’ve already forgotten all about this. What? The crucifixion? What crucifixion?’”
Of course he wasn’t. He was in agony. He couldn’t just “forget” what was happening, nor does he ever. His forgiveness wasn’t a casual dismissal. “Forgiveness” isn’t pretending. I mean, it’s not like pretending that something evil didn’t happen. It isn’t pretending that a person hasn’t done some wrong. Forgiveness isn’t ignoring or dismissing evil.
Think about it a little further. When Jesus forgave the people at the crucifixion (and, by extension, all those who at one time or another have crucified him—like me), did that mean that all those people were, in fact, “saved?” One would hardly think so. The injunction throughout the rest of the New Testament is that those who confess, repent, are baptized, and follow Christ are the ones who are “saved.” Are we intended to believe that everyone there did these things? I don’t think so.
So, what was Jesus saying when he said, “Father, forgive them?” Here’s what I think. Hang with me a few more paragraphs while I attempt to define the terms.
First, suppose we have a situation in which one person has hurt another. We’ll use the terms I used earlier, “perp” and “victim.” Now, of course, we know from experience that in most situations in which we’ve had a disagreement both parties may have been the perp and the victim. But, for our purposes, let’s just keep it simple and assume person “a” (the perp) just hurt or betrayed or wronged person “b” (the victim). This means that the relationship is now dysfunctional. There has been a wrong—and that’s not the way relationships should be. The wrong must be resolved if there is to be reconciliation—the restoration of the relationship. And for that, three things must happen.
First, the victim must “forgive.” And by “forgive” we mean this: the victim must release the perp from the burden of repayment. “Forgiveness” is actually a financial term. It literally means “releasing someone from a debt.” The term implies that a relationship is kind of like a bank account. When we are friends or co-workers, we have a kind of credit system. When we first get to know one another, we extend a little basic credit. If that credit is used wisely, we extend a little more. If that credit is abused and we are hurt, we know not to extend any more.
Well, forgiveness is not the continued blind extension of credit. When the relationship is dysfunctional, forgiveness is saying, “Look, you’ve obviously done wrong here. But I release you from debt. In other words, I don’t expect you to make this right.”
Now, there are a couple of implications to that. First, it means that forgiveness isn’t only not pretending that an evil happened, but in fact forgiveness implies that I MUST acknowledge the wrong! In other words, when Jesus was on the cross and he said “Father forgive them” he was, in fact, saying “This is wrong.” Forgiveness is not a being a doormat. Forgiveness is not taking that slap in the cheek and saying, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Forgiveness implies looking a person in the eye and calling them out. It means saying, “There is a debt here, and it is yours.”
Second, this means that forgiveness is really for the benefit of the victim more than the perp. Have you ever met one of those people who was old and bitter over things that had been done years, maybe decades, prior? One of the things that often happens is that the perp moves on with their life and the victim holds on to the grudge. And, in a way, they become like a “debt collector,” always trying to chase down the person who did the wrong, always trying to get them to make it right (with interest). But they never can. And what they need to do is forgive. Because forgiveness doesn’t just release the perp from repayment. It releases the victim from the horrible burden of chasing down repayment.
This is why Jesus said, “seventy times seven” and “if you don’t forgive you can’t be forgiven.” We MUST forgive if we’re going to be healthy Jesus-followers. We can’t BE debt collectors. Because that would mean that we simply don’t understand what forgiveness is. And that forgiveness is offered for the health of the victim even if nothing else ever happens in the relationship.
But here’s the thing: just because I forgive, doesn’t mean I have to continue extending credit. More on that in a few….
So, the first thing that must happen for there to be reconciliation is that the victim must release the perp from repayment of the debt, or “forgive.”
The second burden for reconciliation is on the perp. What the perp must first do is “confess.” The New Testament word for “confession” means “saying the same thing.” In other words, confession is when the perp agrees that the victim is correct by saying, “Yes, you are right. I did something wrong.”
See what I’m saying? Confession is the acknowledgement that a debt has been incurred, or that a wrong has been done. When a person confesses to a crime in court they are saying, “Yes, I agree that I am the one to blame.”
So, the second thing that must happen for there to be reconciliation is that the perp must acknowledge the debt, or “confess.”
The third burden for reconciliation is also on the perp. The perp must then “repent.” The New Testament word for “repent” literally means “to change the mind” but practically means “to change the actions.” In other words, for there to be reconciliation, for the relationship to be restored and not to be abusive, the perp must stop doing the hurtful action.
So, the third thing that must happen for there to be reconciliation is that the perp must stop doing the hurtful action, or “repent.”
Why do I think that this is necessary for a restored (reconciled) relationship? Because this is the model that is given to us by God. He offers forgiveness to all people (as Jesus on the cross demonstrated), but that forgiveness doesn’t mean that all people now have a free pass. That forgiveness is only effective for restoring a person back to relationship with God if they will confess and repent. This is what Peter has told us and it’s the pattern throughout the Old Testament.
Israel was always wanting to be forgiven for their wrongs without having to change them. And God was never satisfied with that kind of dysfunctional relationship—as much as he loved his people. His love wasn’t sufficient to keep them with him, he required their reciprocation. And this is why his prophets always said things like, “Sacrifice and offering you did not require, but a contrite heart.”
Not everyone that God offers forgiveness to is saved. Only those who accept that forgiveness (confession and repentance) are restored to a healthy relationship with God. And God doesn’t spend his time chasing down repayment of wrongs that we do—he spends his time chasing down people to accept his forgiveness! But no one is saved apart from acknowledging that they NEED forgiveness. What a catch-22!
The same applies to our relationships. We must “forgive,” when we are hurt, yes. But reconciliation cannot happen without the confession and repentance of the perp. It is because if that does not happen, the relationship cannot be a healthy, or godly, one. What do I mean?
Well, say I continue to “forgive” a perp who has hurt me and we continue in a relationship in which the perp refuses to acknowledge the wrong. That “peace” (it isn’t truly peace at all, by the way) comes at the continued expense of the victim. It is based on a lie that something wrong hasn’t happened or isn’t continuing to happen. God’s relationships are never predicated on lies and pretending. They always acknowledge what is true. Grace always acknowledges what is true—or else it isn’t grace. Or else it’s just pretending.
Say I continue to ignore that. What happens? The relationship is abusive. The person continues to do harm. So, what must I do if someone refuses to confess a wrong? I suppose, first, I must make sure I’m not mistaken. Make sure that it really is wrong. I may go for counsel on that. But, in the end, if it is indeed wrong, I will simply say to the perp, “I hate this. I forgive you. I don’t expect you to pay me back for the wrongs. But if you can’t acknowledge what’s happened or what’s continuing to happen, you’re only going to keep hurting me. So, I am leaving this relationship.”
This is a healthy thing to do! This is not “unforgiveness.” This is exactly what God does when someone refuses to acknowledge their sin!
What happens, though, in the case of my friend earlier who always confessed but never repented? What about that person who always acknowledges the debt, but never changes the action? Well the same thing must happen. “I forgive you, but this isn’t working out. Hopefully some day it can, when you are willing to acknowledge the wrong and change it.”
On the other side, it is equally unhealthy to try to continue a relationship if you were the perp (and we’ve all been the perp at one time or another) and the victim refuses to forgive the debt. Say I’ve confessed the wrong and repented of it and even asked forgiveness. If that person refuses to offer release from the debt, then I will always be locked in a relationship where I’m trying to make right something I have no power over!
We can never undo wrongs. We can only heal from them and move forward. We can work with God to make them right again. This, we call “reconciliation.”
God is a God of justice. When we think of justice, we often think of retribution—punishment. I do not think that is God’s form of justice. His form of justice is restorative. But restorative justice an active process of making wrongs right (God does this, ultimately, through resurrection, I think). And that active process works out in our relationships through forgiveness, confession, and repentance.
But what that means is that forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation—it is just one part of it. And that means that there are plenty of instances in which my forgiveness of someone’s wrong does not imply that we continue in relationship. Forgiveness does not open the door for abuse. It opens the door for restoration. For reconciliation and restoration to happen, the person who does the wrong must walk though it!