Forgiveness abused? How could that be? Isn’t forgiveness a vital dimension of the Christian experience, the ability to accept and extend forgiveness a characteristic of Christian spirituality? If so, then how can something so good and noble be abused?
The terms forgive and forgiveness are familiar to every Christian. It is impossible, in fact, to consider oneself a Christian apart from an awareness of what is involved in confessing and receiving God’s forgiveness. Likewise, we Christians recognize that an evidence of our forgiveness by God is our willingness to extend forgiveness to persons who “trespass against” us. These are elementary Christian truths, emerging repeatedly throughout the scriptures.
One of the most extensive passages in the New Testament on the subject of forgiveness is a parable told by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 18:21-35. The point of that story seems obvious. As citizens of God’s kingdom, Christians have experienced God’s forgiveness in abundance. Our human sinfulness constitutes a debt against God which we cannot hope to repay, yet God forgives it all, wipes the slate clean, whenever we acknowledge our need for His forgiveness.
Because we have been forgiven so great a debt, the story goes on to teach, we kingdom citizens should be quick to forgive any who have hurt or offended us. In no case are we to withhold forgiveness from a brother or sister who acknowledges his or her wrongdoing and calls upon us for forgiveness. (Jesus stated this principle more directly in Luke 17:1-4.)
We have hurt God by our sin, yet God has forgiven us. Because we have been forgiven, we extend forgiveness to those who hurt us. It’s as simple as that. What, then, is the problem?
The problem is that this simple and fundamental Christian truth, “forgive as you have been forgiven,” is misunderstood and misapplied by many well-meaning, contemporary Christian teachers. The consequences of such teaching in the lives of earnest, unsuspecting hearers are, I believe, unfortunate and possibly dangerous.
HUMAN FORGIVENESS BASED ON DIVINE FORGIVENESS
The whole of the New Testament teaching on the subject of forgiveness either assumes or declares one fundamental premise: human forgiveness is based upon and patterned after divine forgiveness. That is, what we understand about forgiving those who have hurt us, we learn by observing the way God forgives us when we hurt Him. Thus any discussion of human forgiveness must begin with a review of God’s forgiveness.
Here are some of the things the New Testament teaches about the nature of God’s forgiveness.
1. Every human being needs to be forgiven by God. There is no question of our guilt before God (Romans 3:23). We are all guilty of offenses toward God which warrant, indeed require, God’s forgiveness if our relationship with Him is to be restored.
2. God always forgives us when we seek His forgiveness. There is never a chance that God will say, “That sin is so gross and heinous. I just don’t know if I can forgive it.” No, he always forgives.
3. When God forgives us, it is always for our benefit, not for His. While it is true that God forgives us because of His innate characteristics of faithfulness and righteousness (1 John 1:9), it is not true that the act of forgiveness causes these characteristics, or any others, to develop in God. God forgives us because of who and what He is, not because of what He desires to become.
4. There are some people whom God will never be able to forgive. They are those who never acknowledge their need for God’s forgiveness, who never ask Him to forgive them. The New Testament is clear that God’s forgiveness, while abundantly available to all in potentiality, is extended, in actuality, only to those who request it.
ERRORS IN CONTEMPORARY TEACHING
This is where any contemporary discussion of the subject of human forgiveness must begin—with an understanding of the nature of God’s forgiveness. And this is precisely the point at which misunderstanding and distortion enter much of the current teaching on this subject.
The contemporary Christian scene is overrun with speakers and writers who apparently believe that theological truths and psychological principles, while important for Christians to understand, need to be simplified and “popularized” so that they can be expressed “in layman’s terms” and understood by the masses.
This kind of thinking suffers from two major flaws. First, the average Christian is able to comprehend far more of the “complexities” of theological and psychological truth than the average writer/speaker/publisher seems to believe. Second, the speaker or writer who attempts to popularize the theological or psychological principles is often neither a theologian nor a psychologist. The result, all too often, is that the simplified, popularized principle suffers from fundamental misunderstanding by the popularizer and is therefore simply inaccurate.
This is precisely the case with much of the contemporary teaching and writing on the subject of human forgiveness. Consider some of the ways in which contemporary thought on this subject betrays a lack of comprehension regarding the concept of divine forgiveness on which our understanding of human forgiveness must be based.
First of all, many of the “pop-psychologists” misunderstand the purpose of forgiveness. They call on Christians to extend forgiveness toward others because of the benefit which the forgiver will receive from the act. We are exhorted to forgive those whom we perceive to have done us wrong in order to gain inner freedom and peace of mind.
Further, a willingness to forgive is often added to a list of other attitudes or actions which Christians are instructed to cultivate as a means of achieving victory or maturity in the spiritual life. Unfortunately, the items on these lists vary from speaker to speaker and writer to writer. When they are compiled, the result is a formidable array of expectations which can become burdensome instead of liberating. They degenerate into a form of legalism.
Then again, those who advocate forgiveness as the way to handle every “glitch” in interpersonal relationships foster a mentality which can be unhealthy and dangerous. The encouragement to approach every difficult or unpleasant situation with an attitude of forgiveness develops a tendency to think always in terms of who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Sometimes, however, we suffer pain through our own misunderstanding or insensitivity. In those cases, it is presumptuous to offer forgiveness to another who, in reality, has done no wrong. Forgiveness, in those situations, is not called for. Patience, understanding, and love are.
[The conclusion of this article will be published as my next post. Please reserve judgment on my point of view until you read that. Thanks.]