A number of posts ago we talked about true confession. I used the word “true,” because it is not uncommon for us to either make or receive half-baked confessions. When this happens, things usually get more confusing. I can remember a friend apologizing to me for some things that had been quite hurtful, and my friend’s inability to know how to confess left me in a quandary about how to respond: I wanted to forgive (and knew that I was commanded to forgive), but I didn’t really know whether my friend had actually confessed. Out of a desire to forgive, I then said, “I forgive you.” But as soon as the left my lips, they felt hollow. Hence, the huge need for knowing how to confess.
But equally important is knowing how to forgive. Indeed, I would put knowing how to confess and forgive right up there with knowing the Trinity: it’s not just elementary Christianity; it’s essential Christianity. And yet countless Christians do not know what this means.
So when we say, “I forgive you,” just what are we saying?
Well, we’re resolving–I didn’t say promising, but resolving–NOT to do at least four things concerning the wrong that has been done to us. We’re resolving NOT…
1. to dwell on it: that is, we resolve not to bring it to mind, so as to obsess about it;
2. to discuss it–either with the offending party or with others; that is, we won’t bring it up to anyone, so as to gossip about it or to use it against them;
3. to distance yourself: that is, I won’t break fellowship with the offending party, but will continue to invest in the relationship.
When someone has confessed his/her sin to us, if we respond by saying, “I forgive you,” and then by elaborating on that statement by saying something like, “What I mean is, I resolve not to…”, that communicates to them the meaning of our forgiveness in a powerful way, bringing beautiful closure and enabling the relationship to begin mending.
A few comments for clarification:
1. Forgiveness does not mean that the offense should never enter our minds again. It is an event that has happened; it is part of our story. But it is a part of our story that God is redeeming and will redeem, partly through reconciliation. Nor does forgiveness mean that the offense will never need to be a topic of conversation with the offender or with a third party (e.g., it is not wrong to go a trusted friend to seek counsel on how to pursue reconciliation; the tone and even the content of such a conversation are clearly different from that of gossip). But that conversation must be framed by the reconciliation that has occurred and must be aimed at strengthening the peace that has already been established (however fragile that peace may be).
2. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly “okay” between the offended and the offender. Reconciliation is both an event and a process: true confession and true forgiveness are together the single event that enables the process of reconciliation to begin–a process marked by, e.g., rebuilding trust, listening to one another, serving, prayer, and patience.
3. Depending on the severity of the offense, #3 (“NOT distancing yourself”) may need to be modified. It goes without saying that some offenses are so egregious that the offended and offender need to be separated (e.g., where the offender must be incarcerated). However, the welfare of the offender must be the concern of the offended, such that, even if (rightly) separated, the offended can in time come to pray for that person. Such prayers are necessary both for the good of the offender and for the good of the offended: personally, I have found that praying for those who have wronged me (regardless of whether or not we have been reconciled) to be profoundly liberating and life-giving.
4. Strictly speaking, we can only forgive another’s sin when they first have confessed it to us. That is, when it comes to forgiveness, it takes two to tango. In Romans 12 Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” When the offending party has not confessed their sin, we are called to extend not forgiveness but mercy: Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
Where do the resources to extend such mercy come from, especially when the offending party has not confessed? They come from Jesus’ first and second coming. In the sacrament of the reconciled–i.e., the sacrament of communion these two are held together: Paul says:
“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11.26).
Jesus came to be the undeserved recipient of divine justice, that we might receive mercy. Thus, mercy to others comes from having received mercy from God. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a story of a man who in truth did not know mercy. Therefore, he did not show mercy. As the parable makes soberingly clear, mercy and forgiveness are not options for those who profess to follow Jesus. They are essential. By not extending mercy and forgiveness we place ourselves outside the community of Jesus–why?–because that community is defined by God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus will return not to impart mercy but to mete out justice as God’s appointed instrument of judgment. There is probably nothing so liberating for the offended as the knowledge that God is a God of justice. Paul urges the Romans, “Do not take revenge, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Our deeply flawed, partial, extremely limited desire for justice can “stand down,” utterly overshadowed by his perfect, impartial, unfettered and infinite justice.
But this justice does not call us simply to “step aside.” When we truly reckon with the truly terrifying wrath of God, we are called not to neutrality but to love and intercession–and so Paul continues:
“On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink…”
He then concludes with a liberating exhortation: “Do not be overcome [i.e., conquered, subjugated by] evil, overcome evil with God.” Paul exhorts the offended not to let this injustice control them (e.g., by being overcome by bitterness, anger, resentment, etc.), but to pursue the course of action he has laid out so that they might find freedom and peace.