What is Forgiveness?
In a couple of weeks I will be giving a short sermon on the subject of forgiveness. I knew from the outset that this was not a “safe” topic for me. Forgiveness does not come easy for me, especially in the places that it really matters, that is, in the places where the perceived wrongs are very real and very painful. I have also realized that “forgiveness” is not something that I have ever thought very deeply about, and as a result my own approach to forgiving others has lacked a real sophistication that the act requires.
Up until now I think that “forgiveness” has meant, in my own mind, more of a state of mind than a group of actions. Another way to put this is that “forgiveness” has been something passive rather than something active. If forgiveness is passive then I can forgive simply by changing the way I think about someone. “Forgiveness” can be an armchair exercise; it can be something quietly and personally dealt with on my own.
I’ve begun to realize that this is insufficient, but in order to achieve some sufficiency I’ve had to really work out the process. Here is where I am for the time being, and I would very much welcome input and critique from you, the reader.
The first step is to ask the question, “Have I really been wronged?” There are plenty of things that I am upset and/or offended by that I shouldn’t be. I have to examine these situations and really come to terms with the fact that it’s possible that I am upset or offended for the wrong reasons, and thus need to change my own thinking about the situation. If I haven’t really been wronged, then I don’t need to forgive. However, if I truly have been wronged then the situation calls for forgiveness. Pretty simple, but with deep significance:
Principle #1: True forgiveness is only appropriate if I have truly been wronged, therefore forgiveness means recognizing, rather than ignoring, that the other person is in the wrong.
This circumvents one of the biggest misconceptions about forgiveness which may create one of the biggest obstacles to true forgiveness. Forgiveness is not looking at a wrong and saying, “That’s OK.” The first step is actually the opposite. To forgive is precisely not to condone. There is also a second principle that flows out of the fact that only what is truly wrong can be truly forgiven:
Principle #2: If I have been truly wronged then that means that God cares about what has happened to me, and he cares about it more than I do.
All sins are ultimately against God. This means that what I can’t think is that a wrong against me is uniquely my business, and that it is within my rights to deal with on my own terms. This is exactly what Paul is getting at in Romans 12.19:
“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
Notice the logic: The reason we are not to take revenge is not that we need to be avoid being “judgmental” or even an appeal to God’s gracious and merciful character (though that has a part to play) but that God’s wrath is a reality, and vengeance belongs to him. Vengeance is His business, not ours. This leads to the next principle.
Principle #3: We fail to forgive when we forget that God is dangerous on our behalf.
Unforgiveness is an act of unfaithfulness. It is an act that takes seeks to steal something that only belongs to God. Unforgiveness steps into a sphere that is reserved for God’s wrath, and it takes initiative in a sphere that is outside of our reckoning.
What I mean by that is this: God knows who is truly His, and ultimate justice for each and every one of us is His concern. When I fail to forgive I am trying to circumvent the justice of God. Applied to the believer, this justice is fulfilled by our incorporation into Christ. What right do I have to condemn one whom God has pardoned? Applied to the unbeliever, the final verdict is still out. God’s mercy is expressed in His patience. In his sovereignty He allows time for repentance. I don’t get access to that timeline, and so it is beyond my rights or knowledge to try to take the law into my own hands. Again, who am I to condemn one whom God may pardon, and with whom he is currently mercifully patient?
So what do I do in the meantime? Paul answers this question for us as well:
“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom. 12.20)
Rather than taking revenge, we ought to actively provide for the needs of our enemies. To this we could also add the actions prescribed in Romans 12.9, 14-15, 17-18, and many more. This leads to the final principle:
Principle #4: True forgiveness is embodied in concrete actions towards those who are our enemies.
The state of mind behind these actions is, of course, also very important, but forgiveness must also be much, much more than mere thought. There is certainly a lot more to be said, but I will leave it here. I would love hear your insights, critiques, and questions in the comments section.