Some years ago, when I was pastor of a small, rural church, the wife of one of our elders developed a serious illness from which she died within two years. At an elders’ meeting shortly after her diagnosis, her husband shared with us the difficulty he was experiencing in dealing with this situation. At that point another elder put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said something like, “I know what you must be feeling just now.”
The truth is, he didn’t know what that young man was feeling. His wife was healthy; he had never suffered the loss of a member of his immediate family. His comment, though well-intentioned, was actually insensitive and irresponsible.
That young husband, normally stable in temperament and kind in all his interpersonal relationships, suddenly blurted out in response, “How could you possibly know what I am feeling? You’ve never experienced anything like this in your life.”
Admittedly the retort was a bit sharp, but under the circumstances it was not only accurate, it was completely understandable. And even though the brother who thought he was offering comfort was momentarily stunned, it was not forgiveness which he needed to extend to this young man who was in such deep pain himself. It was caring love and compassionate understanding.
I mention this incident only because, as I discussed it later with the elder who had made the ill-conceived attempt at offering comfort, he assured me that the matter was settled. As he told me, “I have forgiven him” for his “outburst”. Contemporary distortions of the biblical concept of forgiveness encourage, I fear, this sort of insensitivity.
MORE CONTEMPORARY MISUNDERSTANDINGS
When we are encouraged to resolve experiences of pain by extending forgiveness to the person or persons we perceive to have hurt us, we frequently avoid examining our own role in the situation. Whenever we forgive anyone, we must first determine the person’s culpability in the matter in order to justify extending forgiveness. In the process we very often overlook our own culpability and need for forgiveness. Or we even fail to see that, as in the case I related above, sometimes there is no blame to assign and thus no forgiveness warranted.
I repeat this very important principle—anytime we contemplate an extension of forgiveness, we must necessarily assign guilt, for where there is no guilt, there is no need for forgiveness. In the complex sphere of human interpersonal relationships, we need to be extremely careful about assigning guilt or blame in any situation. Assigning guilt may simply be a means by which the matter can be resolved in our own minds. We assign guilt. We forgive. The matter is resolved.
Any discussion of human forgiveness must begin with an understanding of divine forgiveness. We are able to forgive those who have wronged us because we appreciate the magnitude of our own forgiveness by God. Moreover, our forgiveness of others is patterned after God’s forgiveness of us.
That is, as God extends forgiveness only in the face of our indisputable need for it, so we ourselves extend forgiveness (and indeed we are able to extend it) only in those cases where an actual offense has occurred.
As God extends forgiveness immediately to everyone who recognizes a need for it and calls upon Him to forgive, so we extend forgiveness, without hesitation, whenever, and as often as, it is requested by anyone who has offended us.
As God extends forgiveness for the benefit of the offender and not for His own benefit, so we forgive because that forgiveness will liberate those who have offended us from the burden of their offense. We should never extend forgiveness in the hope that such an action will contribute to our own spiritual growth. We extend forgiveness because God has already been at work within us, by His Spirit, cultivating those characteristics of growth and maturity without which forgiveness is not possible in the first place. Our willingness to forgive those who ask our forgiveness is a reflection of our spiritual maturity, not its cause.
And finally, even as God is able to forgive only those who recognize their need of His forgiveness and call upon Him for it, we are able to offer forgiveness only to those who acknowledge their offense and request it (Luke 17:1-4). “Forgiveness” which is not acknowledged and received by the offending party is not genuine forgiveness at all. It may make us feel better, but it is not really forgiveness.
God can do such a work in our lives that we are no longer in pain because of a particular offense, even one that is intentional and indisputable. We may develop an attitude of genuine willingness to forgive the offender, but forgiveness cannot be extended until its need is acknowledged and its benefits accepted by the offender.
When a Christian has been wronged by another party, and that party, having acknowledged and confessed the wrong, comes in repentance to ask forgiveness, however great the wrong may have been, the Christian’s only appropriate response is to extend forgiveness immediately and completely.
If, however, the perceived offender seems unaware of the offense or is unwilling to acknowledge culpability, we must not come too hastily to the conclusion that forgiveness is in order. Truth be told, the “offender” may not be guilty. The problem may really be ours after all. Or, in the case of a genuine wrong, until the Holy Spirit convicts the offender of wrongdoing and prompts him or her to repent and ask forgiveness, any attempt on our part to extend unsought forgiveness will likely only exacerbate the problem.
In the course of our daily lives as Christian believers, we all experience pain and disappointment. Some of it we bring on ourselves, but much of it we simply don’t deserve. How do we deal with those hurts we don’t deserve? We open ourselves up to the ministry of the Holy Spirit within us to cultivate those Christian graces which Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5). This is genuine inner healing, and it is possible whether or not our offender is willing to acknowledge wrongdoing.
As we allow the Holy Spirit to fill and control us, He soothes our spirits with “peace that passes all understanding.” In this process of spiritual growth, we are enabled to love even those who have hurt us most deeply. Then, when God makes our offenders aware of their wrongdoing, we can respond to their requests for forgiveness immediately and wholeheartedly.
Make no mistake about it, the willingness and ability to forgive is absolutely essential for citizens of God’s kingdom. In fact, an unwillingness to forgive betrays a failure to appreciate one’s own forgiveness by God. Forgiveness, however, is not a means of self-improvement. Genuine forgiveness is possible only because the Spirit of God has cultivated genuine Christian graces in our lives. It is this ministry of God’s Spirit which enables us to rise above our circumstances and to live abundantly even in the face of undeserved pain.