The Question of Forgiveness
Stories of crime investigations and legal prosecutions have always fascinated me. I enjoy the process of figuring out the clues, listening for that one slip of the tongue that shifts the direction of the story and results in the perpetrator being prosecuted for his crimes. You could say that I love to see justice served.
These shows are often focused on discerning the motives, finding the criminals, and navigating the legal system. However, I tend to get wrapped up in the other side of the story. Whether the crime is about money that affects the livelihood of a family or, far worse, a crime of passion that takes the life of another, I often wonder how the victims cope and move forward.
My Side of the Story
In my own story, I have never dealt with a real life criminal or the legal system, but I have had plenty of situations which involved a perpetrator. I was the victim of childhood abuses while growing up in a children’s home, and I navigated a difficult relationship with my mother. It should then come as no surprise that, by the age of eighteen, I had become the perfect candidate for marriage to an abusive man. Having never known words of affirmation or genuine human kindness, the man I married didn’t seem abusive since dysfunction, manipulation, and walking on eggshells was all I had ever known.
Fast forward several years and, by the grace of God, I became a Christian. Diving into the Scriptures each day for years, I slowly began to learn that I had value and worth. Although I was attending a church that leaned heavily toward legalism, in the privacy of my quiet time, I was discovering a new worldview that took a woman whose posture was often slumped over from rarely lifting her head and turned her into a gal who now confidently walks about with a smile and a lot less baggage.
The Question of Forgiveness
I’m twenty years older and wiser now and living a life free from abuse, but the memories and triggers are still ever present. Whether I’m attending church, listening to an online message, or reading a book on theology, there is a topic that weighs on me. It causes me to catch my breath and clench my hands, and it upsets my stomach. It’s about forgiving others.
Growing up under legalism and false teachings, I’ve had to take one topic at a time and re-examine what the Scriptures truly say about it. There are so many presuppositions we have from our childhood years, culture, and the churches we were raised in. I don’t take for granted that I know anything until I’ve studied it myself.
So why would forgiveness cause me such discomfort? In taking the time to study, pray, and think on the topic, I’ve discovered a Christian cultural expectation that isn’t biblical and often causes additional trauma to victims. Let me explain.
Most of us attended Sunday school where we were taught with flannelgraphs the different stories of the Old and New Testament. At the end of the lesson, we focused on a specific trait of Jesus or a characteristic of what good little Christians do. Enter forgiveness. At this level, it’s about someone who took your toy or stepped on your toe. In essence, the “do not hold a grudge” type of forgiveness.
But as children grow, so do the complexities of these topics. Far too often, we are left with simple cliches about bitterness and anger that leave us wanting and sometimes confused. Teaching an important topic like forgiveness needs to start with an understanding of how God designed the transaction, as well as what forgiveness teaches us about God.
In Scripture, forgiveness is more than a transaction between the guilty and offended. It’s referenced as an attribute of God, a call to humility, and more. For this article, let’s look at a few key verses when trying to formulate how the forgiveness transaction occurs:
1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Luke 17:3-4: Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” you must forgive him.
Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
What I immediately notice is how forgiveness is a transaction between two parties. The idea that we just need to forgive someone without working the issue out or expecting a confession is foundationally wrong. It takes two to tango, and it takes two for the transaction of forgiveness to take place. The offender is required to confess, and the offended is then required to forgive.
I can breathe a little. This idea alone lightens my load. No, I’m not required to forgive simply because I claim to be a Christian. I do not have to wrestle in my mind forgiving someone who will not acknowledge wrongdoing and continues to abuse or offend as often as possible.
Stop for a moment and consider salvation. Does Jesus simply forgive us without our acknowledgment and remorse for sin? No, He doesn’t, and neither should we. Think of it this way, If Jesus forgave the way forgiveness is traditionally taught in the church, there would be no need for evangelism since all would be on their way to heaven, never required to confess.
The strange and unusual idea of forgiving without requiring responsibility on the offender’s part has had stifling ramifications on our culture and in the church. The victim is often pressured and weighed down with immense fears because they wrestle over and over, often failing to forgive.
But in context of forgiving as Jesus forgave, then I, with great joy, long for the moment my offender acknowledges their wrongdoing and seeks my forgiveness. Not only for the sake of the relationship between us, but because I know that true confession requires a work of the Spirit of God. In this, I can be confident that the work of God is going on in their lives.
Where does that leave me? Well, I stopped asking myself to forgive those who have done great harm to me. Instead, I spend my time focusing on developing a strong and personal relationship with Christ, examining my own heart to determine where I might have offended others and need to confess; then, I wait. Prayerfully, I wait with hope that one day I will have the great opportunity to forgive the way Christ forgave me. In this I stand ready; in this I stand free from condemnation and fear; and in this I remain hopeful.
After Thoughts: What About Bitterness?
While wrestling with my new thoughts on forgiveness, a constant topic bombarded my mind. From early childhood I was taught that we forgive, even when the offender does not acknowledge or repent of sin, because if we do not, we end up hurting ourselves and others by becoming bitter.
Quickly processing this statement, it sounds simplistic and true. However, it is only when we dive deeper into these notions do we find where they fall short. Let’s begin with a verse often used to argue the point:
Hebrews 12:15: See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.
In context, Hebrews 12 does not reference forgiveness. It is a chapter encouraging believers to remain steadfast in the faith. To keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The topic of bitterness is introduced, not because we refuse to forgive, but rather, because we fail to recognize the work of God in our lives and submit to it.
If bitterness is a result of unforgiveness, then how do we explain events that happen in our lives where we do not have someone to blame? Job loss, death, cancer, accident, our own decisions, etc.
I believe the answer is in the question. Unforgiveness that results in bitterness is often caused by a person seeking to blame what they have not wrestled and submitted to God. Therefore, bitterness is not about the other person; it’s about our refusal to recognize God’s sovereignty.
Though we started off trying to simplify the gospel for Sunday school students, we now have a generation of believers that does not understand the greater and weightier matter of God’s sovereignty and our purpose in life of bringing Him glory!