From the outset, I want to say that like most people regarding faith, I am on a journey in terms of understanding all the nuances of this complex topic of forgiveness. Those who do not think of forgiveness as complex may not have had certain life experiences which threatened to, or did, confound faith. There are some who apply legalistic renderings of forgiveness, where people are damaged through the deployment of a theology that opts for injustice cloaked in a fake and reprehensible grace in situations that involve deeds that God hates, for instance, as are outlined in Proverbs 6:16-19.
I want to suggest the value in pondering the following quote. To set this up, it is important to realise that there are people who have had experiences where others have done abominable things to them, and certainly unforgivable things if not for the hope of the gospel — which expresses hope that a person will hear the good news and they’ll turn back to God. It is usually only when we have these kinds of experiences of abuse and trauma that we even recognise others have had these experiences, and this draws us into community with them, where our individual and collective perceptions are understood, harnessed, and inevitably healed. The following quote is from someone highly regarded in the advocacy-for-abuse field. Tiffany knows her stuff because she has lived this theology directly in her own life and has searched the Scriptures and meditated on these very things for many years. Let us, therefore, partake of her wisdom:
“How can He forgive the most unforgivable?
Only by their repentance can He forgive, it’s not automatic.”
— Tiffany Thigpen
In other words, God forgives anyone their sin, provided there is repentance. Just as God forgives and saves us at our repentance. I know some people who would want to take issue with such a quote. Perhaps if you feel like judging the quote, in that you feel it makes forgiveness a conditional thing, you might explore the theology of God in much of evangelical tradition, for one instance in 1 John 1:8-10:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
If we convert these verses to exist between peers, they may read this way: “If they claim to be without sin when we have some case for them to answer, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them. If they confess their sins against us, we can be faithful and just also and forgive their sins against us so they may be purified from all unrighteousness. If they claim they have not sinned, they cannot be true believers.”
The beautiful thing about salvation, apart from the fact we could procure none of it, is that the ball is in our court. God does not force salvation on us. We are not required to force our forgiveness on someone else. Love forces nothing. Salvation is an offer, and we accept that offer through a transaction. That is, we accept our need of God and we opt to follow God all the rest of the days of our life. We hence receive God’s forgiveness, that was, as a standing truth, made eternally available to us through our repentance. All it took was for us to turn around. The same theology applies to the broken relationship between us and the perpetrator of our impasse through an attitude we nurture: an attitude of forgiveness. The grace that God holds out to unbelievers, is the same grace we hold out to an unrepentant person. As we respond to God via repentance to be forgiven, the person who abused or betrayed us also must repent to be forgiven.
Our job is not to forgive an unrepentant sinner who has hurt us badly but to be ready to forgive them if/when they do repent. Merciful hearts are not hard to convince. Merciful hearts know that by giving mercy there is the receipt of mercy. And God’s plan of redemption is achieved through reconciliation.
AN ATTITUDE OF FORGIVENESS
As we assume the above theology of repentance and forgiveness is true, God ordains that we forgive those who seek genuinely to be forgiven. That is, we don’t withhold our mercy from those who admit their wrongdoing, apologize for their part, accept the consequences, and alter their behavior. This article is not about that unless they expect our forgiveness without adequate repentance.
It is probably clear at this point that forgiveness is a two-way street, in that to be forgiven the person needs to seek forgiveness, having adequately apologized. It is difficult to label a process ‘forgiveness’ if the person being forgiven doesn’t see they need to be forgiven. So, instead, it might be better to consider that if the person needing to be forgiven never asks for it, i.e. they feel they have no need of it, that we are not disobeying God to not give it — for it isn’t yet required. But we nurture an attitude of forgiveness for our own good, such that the ongoing injustice doesn’t rip us apart in the process, for we are mortals. What troubles us does not necessarily trouble God in the same way.
The operative part of the penultimate sentence is, “for we are mortals.”
Jesus died on the cross for all sinners, and the compassion of God is offered openly and freely, and we may imagine, that because God is so other-than we are — in that there is no skin off God’s nose if people resist Jesus their whole life, for God knows who will and why they’ll do this — we cannot make the fair comparison between God’s forgiveness and our own.
We surely must forgive those who adequately repent; those who therefore seek to be forgiven. But in those cases where a person does not seek forgiveness, for our own good we nurture an attitude of forgiveness, which is good for us in the interim, and so we are ready for their repentance, should it happen.
The freedom in this message is that our forgiveness is only warranted once their repentance has been performed. One is dependent on the other, and the repentance must come first. So, it also is with salvation. We follow God’s model.
THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING DEBTOR (MATTHEW 18:21-35)
We know from the parable of the unforgiving debtor that he was punished most severely because he refused to extend mercy when clemency was sought — having had clemency extended to him. The lesson is not in the refusal to forgive but in the refusal to forgive in a situation where mercy was sought. There is a difference. Perhaps someone who has abused us has no way of repaying the debt, but we can forgive the trauma they have caused us if they genuinely seek out our mercy. And most if not all victims of abuse don’t besmirch their perpetrators — they just want them to be honest and that they would seek the mercy of their forgiveness. On the contrary, it is because the perpetrator refuses to acknowledge the wrongdoing in the first place that victims of abuse are traumatized at a whole deeper level.
TREAT THEM AS A PAGAN OR TAX COLLECTOR (MATTHEW 18:17)
Before the parable of the unforgiving debtor was Jesus’ procedure for how sin was to be resolved between believers in Matthew 18:15-17. When Christians behave like pagans or tax collectors, they warrant being treated as pagans and tax collectors. This does not mean that we disrespect them, but we can no longer hold them to the same standards with which we would hold a Christian to. We would expect a Christian to see the need for justice, just as we would expect the Christian to uphold justice. If a person has no regard for justice, how can we treat them as a Christian? If a person bears no signs of repentance, i.e. there is no fruit of salvation, they need to be treated as unregenerate at least as it comes to us, i.e. someone who does not know Christ. (But it does get complicated when the person has real power, authority, and influence in the Christian world, as is so often the case.)
Knowing there is the obligation of repentance on the wrongdoer, makes having an attitude of readiness to forgive (should repentance take place) all the more viable. Nothing more is required, and certainly no demand that they be let off the hook.
MORE IS THE NEED OF BIBLICAL PEACEMAKING
Wherever there are two parties who are willing to look at their own contributions to conflicts, there is great hope for reconciliation, and this presumes repentance and forgiveness. In cases of abuse and betrayal, the landscape is murkier in that the one perpetrating the abuse is much less likely to repent, because they are more solely at fault, and because they did a reprehensible act in the first place.
Jesus’ vision for his followers was always that they would love one another; that as followers we would be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. It is unconscionable, therefore, that any believer would betray Jesus in refusing to reconcile with a brother or sister. The burden for this reconciliation is not with the one harmed, who so often wants repentance to be done so there may not only be justice but a suitable reconciliation — but not things back as they were. The burden for this reconciliation, however, lies solely with the one who did the sin.
Written by Steve Wickham
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on epitemnein-epitomic.blogspot.com.