In the last decade or so, my discussions about the nature and practice of forgiveness have been lively. It’s amazing how often the subject comes up.
A conversation might be around a meal or cups of coffee. A statement is made about forgiveness. Someone says, “I’ve forgiven them and moved on,” or “I’m having trouble forgiving myself.”
The question is then asked: “What do you mean you’ve forgiven and moved on? Was the relationship rebuilt?” or, “On what do you base this idea of self-forgiveness?”
Frequently, the response describes what the person heard or read, sometimes from a “Christian” source. I then attempt to draw the discussion into what the Bible says about forgiveness. I may say something like, “Forgiveness needs both parties to …” or “Forgiveness isn’t just about ‘me’, it’s about ‘us’.” The looks often turn to puzzlement: “That’s not what I believe!”; “I’ve been told that ...”; "How can that be?”
Of course, any of us will react this way when we’re challenged on something we thought we understood.
At this point, some ‘shut down’ or walk away – but most engage. Forgiveness is so important to us that we need to know we’ve got it right.
As the conversation develops, people reach for a Bible and engagement between holy text and personal belief intensifies.
For many, they have never examined what the Bible says about forgiveness. Often this is the first time their ideas and practices have been questioned.
The apostolic statement is introduced to the conversation (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13): “… forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Then we ask, “What does that tell us about how we are to forgive?”
“Well, we are to forgive just like God does. Like God forgave me.”
“Okay. How and when did God forgive you?”
“I can tell you when I first experienced God’s forgiveness. I had this profound sense of my need for forgiveness, and I admitted that to God. It was then that I received Jesus Christ. But how is that relevant to how I forgive another person?”
“Let’s explore that."
"Would you agree that God always loved you, but that God had not always forgiven you?”
“Yes, I know that God always loved me – John 3:16 tells me that. But, as I said, I was forgiven when I admitted my need to God and received Jesus Christ.”
“Let’s listen to your experience. You are telling us how ‘God in Christ forgave’ you – right? Your admission of your need for forgiveness is the language of repentance – that’s your experience of making a radical change of direction regarding how you ‘see’ your sin, yourself, God, and Christ.”
“I understand – at least in theory – that I’m supposed to love others all the time. But are you saying that forgiveness doesn’t take place until the wrongdoer has a change of heart about what has broken our relationship and somehow admits that to me?”
“Isn’t that how God in Christ forgave you?”
“I suppose it is, but that raises a lot of questions.”
As the conversation develops, there are those ‘aha moments’ when people ‘get it’.
People around the table begin to see (perhaps for the first time) that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the model of forgiveness God has designed for rebuilding our relationships with Him, and our relationships with each other.
This is an exhilarating experience of discovery.
Conversations like this tell me two things.
First, for many in our culture, true or biblical forgiveness is largely unknown and unpractised. In its place, a counterfeit is masquerading under the name ‘forgiveness’. It makes promises like removing the pain of broken relationships and enabling life in the loneliness of alienation. The pain and dysfunction are real; the proposed remedy is not.
Second, there is a desire to understand and practice true forgiveness. To deal with broken-ness as God deals with it; to rebuild relationships as God rebuilds them.
This way is costly and painful.
It involves vulnerability and may end in rejection. It calls us to love – and that means patience, humility, truth, bearing all things, hoping, enduring, inviting (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Isn’t that how God in Christ forgives?
God designed us for relationship and we yearn for community. Biblical forgiveness enables and sustains real relationship and genuine community.
We can discover something without reclaiming it.
We need to reclaim forgiveness.
This implies we have lost something of the teaching and practice of forgiveness. Two of the leading causes for this loss are a loosening grip on biblical doctrine and increasing seep of culture. Brad Waggoner refers to this cultural seepage as “the incipient invasion of ideas, perspectives, and beliefs that are contrary to a biblical worldview.”
A renewed attention to biblical teaching or doctrine is needed to recover biblical living. James K. A. Smith has stated that biblical teaching or theology “is not some intellectual option that makes us ‘smart’ Christians; it is the graced understanding that makes us faithful disciples.”
Here are three things you can do:
1. Prayerfully examine what you believe about forgiveness.
Let the holy text of Scripture be the authority in this matter. Be responsive in bringing your ideas, perspectives, and beliefs into alignment with what it says.
Consider beginning with a passage such as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). This is an illustration of the dynamic of forgiveness. Included are the break-up, the exclusion, the father’s love and the son’s change of heart, the embrace, and the celebration of relationship brought back to life. Another illustration is David in 2 Samuel 11-12; Psalm 51; and Psalm 32.
Test your beliefs and your practices of forgiveness against the model of the gospel (Ephesians 4:32). Ask whether your beliefs and practices are consistent with what God in Christ has done, and is doing.
2. Re-read these posts. Click “Reclaiming Forgiveness” to take you to the first in this series.
3. Identify relationships that need to be rebuilt.
As you renew and refresh your practices of forgiveness, identify those relationships that need to be rebuilt or nurtured because they have been broken, damaged, or neglected.
Pray and take the necessary action. Do you need to experience a change of heart and go to the ‘other’ like the prodigal son? Do you need to invite a change of heart from the ‘other’ and be ready to embrace like the prodigal’s father?
Through all of this, might you never be the same. May you be blessed, and a blessing to many others.
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