It would be imprudent of me to conclude this series without making some important clarifications to what I have said up to now. There are, unfortunately, a number of teachings about forgiveness in the modern church which do grievous harm. Several come to mind that I address here.
Releasing vs. forgetting
Forgiveness is letting go. It is not forgetting. I know this contradicts the practically canonical “forgive and forget,” but it’s true. In fact, the notion of “forgive and forget” is both dangerous and blasphemous.
The danger will become obvious under the next section. Regarding blasphemy, I have heard many a person quote Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 8:12, and Hebrews 10:17 as if they taught that God forgets our sins. Yet Theology 101 tells us that God is omniscient. He cannot forget. Which takes us to Hermeneutics 101 where we learn that Scripture means what it says. Exactly what it says. And these texts say “I will remember their sins no more” and “I will not remember your sins.”
Not remembering is different from forgetting. God intentionally chooses not to remember our sins. He does not hold our sins against us. And just as it is blasphemous to suggest that God forgets, it is ridiculous to suggest that a human can forget. Attempts to do so are more likely to result in neurosis than godliness. Especially when the offence was also a crime. And that brings us to the next point.
Justice vs. revenge
The difference between justice and revenge as I intend them here is that revenge involves me taking vengeance while justice involves the God-ordained institution of government taking vengeance on the behalf of society.
Perhaps a more helpful distinction is that while revenge addresses a crime against me, justice addresses a crime against the state.
In both cases, revenge is wrong and justice is right. Indeed justice is always right. We cannot claim to know God or grasp the gospel if we do not uphold justice as profoundly good in every case. Without justice, neither hell nor the cross would matter and salvation would be unnecessary. There is, therefore, no contradiction between forgiveness and seeking justice.
Consequences vs. grudges
It is a grave error to mistake holding someone accountable with holding a grudge. For instance, let us suppose that an employee is caught embezzling. A Christian employer must forgive, but there will be consequences and justly so. Restitution should be paid and the employee will not be entrusted with counting the tills any time in the near future. This is not holding a grudge (though it may at times accompany the holding of a grudge), rather it is the natural and appropriate consequence of the offense which is not removed simply by forgiveness or reconciliation. To see this point more clearly, apply it to infidelity in a marriage or sexual indiscretion by a Christian minister.
Forgiveness vs. reconciliation
Jay Adams argues a mistaken concept of forgiveness in which forgiveness is dependent on the repentance of the offender. So the offended must be willing to forgive, but cannot actually forgive until the offender asks for forgiveness. This view is the result of confusing forgiveness with reconciliation. The two are not the same. Forgiveness releases the offense and therefore releases the offended. Reconciliation restores the relationship and therefore reconciles the estranged parties. The fact that both forgiveness and reconciliation occur at the cross should not be misunderstood as equating the two. A woman may forgive her husband’s murderer without being reconciled to the murderer (either because there was no relationship in the first place or because a lack of repentance and remorse in the heart of the murderer prevents reconciliation).
Process vs. event
The Christian church too often hammers the hurting to forgive before bringing the hurt to the point of ability to forgive. Forgiving your friend for hurting your feelings may be a fairly straightforward event. But forgiving the person who sexually molested you throughout childhood is more likely to be a process for several reasons.
First, the nature of the offense is such that the very person of the victim has been compromised. The lines between the abused and those around her have been smudged. She has been taught not to own her “selfness” as her own. Her own responsibility. Her own right. Her own to give or to take. Since you cannot release what you do not possess, forgiveness at first will be fairly cosmetic. Deeper forgiveness will need to happen again and again as God repairs the broken sense of self and as the reality of the offense becomes more distinct in the heart of the offended.
Second, such forgiveness may be a process because no matter what we might be told in a fifty-minute counselling session, our view of Christ’s work at the cross and it’s implications for our response to others is learned over a lifetime. Each time a deeper grasp of the cross is attained, the brokenness in our lives will be reassessed in the light of our increased enlightenment.
Third, this forgiveness may be a process because just as some gifts keep on giving, some offenses keep on offending. A simple offense such as an angry word from a friend can be released quickly and need not be brought to memory again. But the impacts of a violent home may be a trove of offenses that “keep on giving” for years and even decades to come. Some of the most beautiful moments of life may be marred and damaged by the experiences of the past and each time this happens, the offended will have to forgive again. It’s not that they did not forgive the first time. Or the second. Or the third. It’s that the same old offenses cause new offense. For instance, a father who sexually abuses his daughter takes not only her innocence now, but he takes something from her on her wedding night and on a thousands nights following. No eighteen year old counsellee can fully comprehend those future events much less forgive them.
The substance of forgiveness is grace. We must demonstrate precisely this grace when dealing with those who struggle to forgive. When we are pointed to the grace of God toward us which is demonstrated in his incarnation, his life, his atoning death, and his present reign, we will learn to forgive those who sin against us.
May God teach us his grace such that forgiveness, compassion, benevolence, and prayer begin to characterise our lives. And may we, as a result, experience healing in a spirit of sweetness, joy, edification, and humility.
Grace to you.