We know from Scripture that Christians are commanded to forgive. But is it always required, even in situations of abuse or violence?
“Required” might not be quite the right word. There is indeed something about the depths of God’s forgiveness of us that creates a call for us to extend forgiveness in human situations of wrongdoing. When Jesus’ disciples ask him whether it’s sufficient to forgive an offender seven times, Jesus adds some astonishing multiplication (Matt. 18:22). And he immediately underscores his point with the parable of the ungrateful servant (18:23-35)—a reminder that God’s forgiveness of our huge debt of sin should mean that we are willing to forgive the meager debts of offense owed to us.
Yet in situations of horrifying violence or abuse of the vulnerable, we’re not really talking about a meager debt, are we? While all sin might be in some sense equal in God’s eyes, we usually acknowledge varying levels of severity in the human realm. If someone says something unkind to me, my recognition of God’s gracious forgiveness should naturally lead me to be quick to forgive. But isn’t a situation of violent, predatory victimization of a child something different?
The call to quick forgiveness can minimize the weight of an offense. To say to a victim “God forgave you, so you must immediately forgive” is a form of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Furthermore, pressured forgiveness isn’t really forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness is freely given and sometimes requires the Spirit’s patient work along a journey of healing. It is also important to recognize that forgiveness doesn’t automatically absolve the one forgiven of culpability and consequences for the harm they caused, even if they are sorry.
If a victim is eventually nudged and empowered by the Spirit to forgive their perpetrator, let us give thanks. If that journey isn’t straightforward or the destination is complex, let us extend prayerful compassion rather than judgment. And let us always remember that forgiveness does not always have to involve reconciliation. One can forgive while remaining unable to enter into renewed relationship with the one forgiven, especially if the offender has not repented. And sometimes the breach of trust and resulting trauma are simply too much.
Just as our sanctification is never complete on this side of God’s kingdom, so also our journeys of forgiveness may be only partial. What they look like when fulfilled in the kingdom we do not yet know.