Let’s Get Serious About Forgiveness

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I wonder if to forgive and forget, to keep the peace, or to put up with wrongdoing are really what Jesus had in mind when he talked about forgiveness.

Sylvia had been working as the administrative assistant at the church for three years when the new pastor came up behind her, pressed his body against hers, and began groping her breast. She was horrified, ashamed, and embarrassed. Still, she decided to report the incident to the chair of council, who said he would handle it. Sylvia started to hate going to work—it didn’t feel safe anymore—and she did everything she could to avoid being alone with the new pastor. A month later, she still hadn’t heard anything from the chair of council. When she approached him again, he said he had talked to the pastor, who had assured him that it was no big deal, that he had accidentally brushed up against her, and that Sylvia was overreacting. The chair of council indicated that he didn’t think it would be a problem again and that she should let it go. Forgive and forget. 

Roland grew up in an emotionally abusive home. His father was frequently gone and his mother was overwhelmed and stressed by the challenge of raising three boys almost single-handedly.  Unfortunately, as the oldest, Roland bore the brunt of much of his mother’s stress. She frequently belittled him, making him feel like he wasn’t good enough, that she was ashamed of him, that he was the son she never wanted. The scars of his childhood continued to affect him long into his adult life. He struggled with low self-esteem, depression, anger management, and self-destructive tendencies. His siblings told him he needed to forgive their mom—for the sake of the family and for his own sake. Mom was never going to acknowledge her wrongdoing, so it was up to him to make peace in the family.

In some ways, the impulse seems so right. After all, forgiveness is an integral part of Christian discipleship. Just as God in Christ freely forgave us, so we are to forgive others. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he was to forgive someone who had sinned against him, Jesus said, “Not seven times, but 77 times” (Matt. 18:21-22). If we take Jesus’ comment about forgiveness seriously, we will readily forgive those who have wronged us. 

But while this is true, I wonder if to forgive and forget, to keep the peace, or to put up with wrongdoing are really what Jesus had in mind when he talked about forgiveness. Have we traded in the rich, biblical concept of forgiveness for an impoverished imitation, one that relieves the wrongdoer of responsibility for their actions and increases the harm and injustice to the one wronged?

The Process

A brief look at Matthew 18 and the larger context of Jesus’ response to Peter might provide some help here. Immediately preceding this conversation about forgiveness is the well-known passage about how to deal with someone in the community who sins against you. The person who has been wronged is to go to the wrongdoer and point out their sin. If the wrongdoer will not listen, the wronged person brings several others to be witnesses. If the wrongdoer still refuses to listen, the wronged person tells the church leaders, who are then responsible for looking into the matter and calling the wrongdoer to repentance. If the wrongdoer still isn’t repentant, the church is to treat them like someone who does not know Jesus and who needs to be called to faith. 

The conversation between Jesus and Peter about forgiveness follows these instructions about confronting a wrongdoer. The assumption is that the above mentioned process has been followed, that the wrongdoer has been called to repentance by various persons and leaders within the larger community who stand in solidarity with the person who was wronged, and that the wrongdoer has repented.

Throughout Scripture, but especially here, forgiveness is depicted not as a response to sin, but as a response to repentance (Luke 17:3-4). When sin has ripped apart a relationship, repentance and taking responsibility for the harm done is the mechanism for repairing the breach. Forgiveness follows, signaling that the person who has been wronged accepts the wrongdoer’s contrition and determines that the offense will no longer control the nature of the relationship. The aim of repentance and forgiveness is to set the wrongdoer on a journey toward reconciliation with the person who has been wronged and with the community as a whole. 

Forgiving Is Not Forgetting

While this mutual work of repenting and forgiving goes a long way to bring healing to broken relationships, it is important to note that even with repentance, forgiveness is not a cure-all that erases the impact of the wrongdoing. Forgiveness, for instance, does not undo the wounds or scars caused by the wrongdoing. Forgiving is not forgetting. In fact, depending on the level of trauma and harm experienced, the wrongdoing might continue to impact a person’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being in profound and unpredictable ways. Healing takes time— sometimes a lifetime. And while holding the wrongdoer accountable for their actions goes a long way to contributing to the healing of the one wronged, the ongoing effects of the harm might remain. 

Furthermore, forgiveness does not restore trust between the two parties. For trust to be restored, the person who has been wronged must have a reasonable belief that they won’t be harmed again. This is a journey that will take time and evidence of changed behavior on the part of the wrongdoer.

Repentance and Reconciliation

And finally, forgiveness without repentance cannot bring reconciliation. When the wrongdoer refuses to acknowledge the harm they have done, the person who has been wronged might work to let go of their bitterness and anger by giving up to God the right to justice and/or the desire for vengeance. This can be a way for the person who has been wronged to release the negative emotions that simmer in their heart and mind and bring further harm. But this isn’t the same as reconciliation. For true reconciliation to happen, repentance is required.

Forgiveness is an important spiritual discipline of the Christian faith. As people who have received forgiveness in Jesus Christ, forgiving and reconciling with others is an expression of our reconciliation with God and a tangible manifestation of the healing that comes as we die to our broken selves and rise to new life in Christ.

But taking responsibility for and seeking forgiveness when we have wronged someone is also an important spiritual disciple and a reflection of our reconciliation with God. As we experience peace with God, we desire to be forgiven by those we have wronged or hurt us and seek to take responsibility to restore peace with them, to be bearers of shalom. 

Perhaps as a Christian community, the issue is not that we take forgiveness too seriously, but that we haven’t taken it seriously enough. Getting serious about forgiveness means not only encouraging people to forgive those who have brought them harm, but urging all of us to desire forgiveness more deeply, to long for reconciliation with others, to actively pursue a right- relationship with those whom we have wronged. For through our desire for forgiveness, we open ourselves up more fully to the redemptive and reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. What stories of forgiveness, real or fictional, do you cherish as being profound? 
  2. How have you understood Matthew 18:15-20, the passage concerning one who “sins against you”? How does the article’s treatment of this passage with the context of Peter’s conversation with Jesus (verses 21-35) shed new light on both of these passages?
  3. If forgiving is not forgetting, how can we better frame or understand forgiveness?
  4. The article suggests that, perhaps, Christians have not taken the call of forgiveness seriously enough. Do you agree? Why or why not?

About the Author

Amanda Benckhuysen is the director of Safe Church Ministry for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Previously she was professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. She attends Kelloggsville Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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