(For those of you who check into this Blog fairly regularly, please forgive me for not keeping it as up-to-date as I should. It’s true that so many other
matters have occupied my attention recently even though I have tried to commit myself to writing something new and helpful each week. I hope my apology means that you won’t write me off.)
I have just illustrated a very low key and common way in which we often need to appeal for forgiveness from others. This kind of communication is a very important part of our daily human lives because we are prone to offend others often. As sinners we are in perpetual need of this kind of grace from others. But how does it work?
What happens when someone we have trusted (such as a family member, fellow Christian, or neighbour) deeply betrays us in some significant way? How do we keep from carrying a deep bitterness in our heart towards that person and how do we recover trust and reconciliation in that relationship? This is a complex question but something that it is essential to process in personal relationships and in the work of the local church.
First of all, it’s important to understand that we live in a world that in general bases relationship on merit. The basic philosophy is, I’ll be good to you because you have been good for me. The negative form of this is tit for tat. If you’ve been mean to me, then I need equal compensation — “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s the way justice works. You pay for the crimes, sins, and transgressions you have committed. And that is actually how we stand before God. That is why, the wages of sin is death and the reason the world is under God’s judgment – because of God’s holiness and justice.
But in the New Testament, or the New Covenant, the judgement that should have been ours is dumped on Jesus and he dies in our place. By his death on the cross, he takes what we all deserved. In Christ and his cross we are offered forgiveness. Father forgive them… were his words on the cross. It is for this reason that we can say forgiveness is a distinctly Christian grace. Jesus demonstrated this aspect of God’s character in what he did for us by his death on the cross for our sins. It is a revolutionary concept — a whole new way of administering justice. And because of what God has done for us, we can do the same for someone else. (See Ephesians 4:32.)
Its application to our lives, I think, works in this way:
- You accept the reality of the cost involved.
You have to be realistic about the pain and loss. It is your keen sense of justice that makes you conscious of the fact that you have been violated, and it is important to recognize the reality and seriousness of another’s violation against you. (Sometimes people try to deal with violations against them simply by denying them but then the hurt comes out later in other ways. This is especially true of people
who have been hurt deeply as children – perhaps in sexual violation. It is so painful that a person denies it but then it goes deep into their sub-conscious until the hurt comes out in some other way. And that is why the violation of children is such a serious matter. )
- You give the cost and the pain of the other person’s offense to Jesus who already suffered for the sin of the whole world. Though there is a societal dimension of justice that necessarily involves punishment, an individual can experience a release from the burden of another’s offense by rolling all of it upon Jesus. This is done in prayer by an act of your will. You say, Father I forgive this
person for what they have done by trusting Jesus to take the pain of this person’s offense. By doing so, you trust God for his justice toward the offender and for his blessing in your own life in spite of what the person has done to you.
- But there’s another aspect of forgiveness that is also very important. It’s one thing to forgive a person in your heart; it’s quite another to communicate that forgiveness to that person and to live in a reconciled relationship. You need to be able to talk to the offender about the offense in order to be reconciled with that person. Luke 17:1-4 speaks, for example, about the relationship between repentance and forgiveness. Just as we are reconciled to God by acknowledging our sin to Him and turning from it, so it is in our relationship with one another. Too often forgiveness is
forfeited and bitterness persists for years because we avoid talking about what needs to be addressed. Ideally, this happens best if the person, like the prodigal son (Luke 15) comes to ask for forgiveness. (In that story, the father recognized this attitude and forgave the son completely even before he really asked.) But if the person doesn’t come to ask for forgiveness, you may have to go to that person in some way to affect forgiveness or to experience God’s peace. This is consistent with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:23, for example.
And, depending on the response, according to Matthew 18:15, you may have to take someone else with you. In the end, you may have to leave the matter with God, but at least you have tried to make it right.
- If the person is not responsive, there is one more thing you can do to extend forgiveness to a person who has hurt you. You can extend
blessing to that person. This is the clear teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:43 and also of Paul in Romans 12:19. We are not to avenge ourselves but to leave the matter with God. In fact, instead of
seeking revenge, we are to bless and pray for that person, and in so doing, overcome evil with good.
Forgiveness is a vital part of pastoral ministry and also in transitional ministry in a church. So often an individual or church is hampered in moving forward because unforgiveness persists. In our lives and work as Christians we need to emulate the spirit of Paul who said that he always tried to keep a clear conscience toward God and toward others (Acts 24:16).