The Abuse Of Forgiveness (Part Two)

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.

SUMMARY

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

The Abuse Of Forgiveness (Part One)

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.]