“When you forgive someone, do you have to continue to allow them in your life?”
She wanted a Biblical answer not our opinion. My friend and I glanced at each other as we started to draw upon the Bible verses we had tucked away in the recesses of our minds.
Later, as I pondered her question, I realized there are many myths surrounding the subject of forgiveness. It seems the ones that are so easily swallowed—yet often just as dangerous—are the ones that promote passive behavior.
But first, what is forgiveness?
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These days forgiveness has come to mean giving up resentment against an offender, or granting relief from a payment. However, in the Biblical sense it’s deeper than that. Jesus taught some lessons which clarified what forgiveness is all about. In the parable of the unforgiving servant , we find that when the king forgives he essentialy assumes the servant’s debt. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father reinstates the son to his previous position as part of the act of forgiveness. Jesus’ ministry focused primarily on reconciling our broken relationship with God. We find, then, that forgiveness is a process of giving a person a clean slate, reinstating them to a former position, and finding ways to repair a broken relationship.
Admittedly, this isn’t an easy subject. Nonetheless, here are seven myths about forgiveness:
Forgiveness before repentance
There is a common myth that forgiveness is something we can do on our own. The other person doesn’t have to ask forgiveness, yet we are obligated to give it. However, we see from the Biblical narrative that forgiveness is a clear transaction when a person understands the gravity of their sin and turns away from it. Then, forgiveness is offered. A great example is that of the parable of the unforgiving servant. It was not until the servant understood the gravity of his wrong and begged for mercy that the king then offered forgiveness.
Biblically, we are called to actively seek reconciliation with a person who has sinned against us, allowing them to see their error and encourage them to make things right so you both can live in harmony. Jesus counsels us, “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.”
Forgiveness without boundaries
There is a misconception that we are obligated to keep people in our lives who either willfully choose not to repent, or repent in words only. Repentance is only valid when there is an active turning away from sin. Just as Satan was kicked out of heaven, there are some people who need to be removed from the inner circles of our lives.
Jesus counsels us to make an exerted effort to initiate reconciliation, but if all attempts are unsuccessful, he says to, “treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.”
Of course, we should always keep the door open to the possibility of reconciliation. We should keep praying for the person. When Peter asked how many times we should forgive our brother, Jesus responded, “Seventy times seven.” While this phrase has been taken mean an infinite number of times, we must remember that people can also grieve the Holy Spirit in their resistance to change.
Forgiveness is intercession
As Jesus hung on the cross, he uttered a curious prayer. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Stephen shouted a similar sentiment minutes before that fatal rock struck him and took his life. “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”
In her article on 5 myths about Forgiveness in the Bible, Maria Mayo points out that Jesus teaches us to “forgive boundlessly” if there is repentance. She maintains that Jesus could not forgive His attackers because there was no repentance. Instead, He asks God to do so in keeping with the Biblical teaching to pray for those who are abusing him.
In any case, both the prayers of Stephen and Jesus are intercessory. Intercession is a powerful tool that can bring the redemptive power of the gospel into the lives of those who otherwise might not be receptive. It is Jesus’ work of intercession that saves us.
Although we don’t know if Jesus’ prayer for His attackers was answered, but we do know that Stephen’s was. Saul later converted and became Paul, and was a powerful warrior in the work of spreading the gospel. Biblical teaching inspires us to forgive when there is repentance and intently intercede when it is absent.
Biblical teaching inspires us to forgive when there is repentance and intently intercede when it is absent.
Forgiveness by peace-faking
In his book The Peacemaker, Ken Sande talks about the slippery slope of conflict. We may employ some tactics which we think are peacemaking strategies; however, they are really what Sande calls “escape responses.” These include denial, flight and suicide. Denial usually includes refusing acknowledge the issue and to use Biblically based techniques to resolve conflict. Flight may include ending a relationships, switching churches or quitting a job without attempting to resolve the conflict.
While there are situations where offenses should be overlooked, there are times were a sin breaks down the relationship and needs to be addressed. Forgiveness is not a cop-out to avoid working toward reconciliation and unity through finding practical and reasonable solutions to conflicts.
Forgiveness without redemption
“But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too” Matthew 5:39, Good New Translation.
We often take this to mean passively submitting to evil people. Herb Montgomery, a Bible scholar and pacifist, argues that perhaps there is more than meets the eye. Perhaps, this is an act of defiance that questions the motives and actions of the attacker begging them to think about what they are doing.
As Gandhi said, “[Nonviolence] does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.” (Mohandas Gandhi, Young India; January 8, 1920, p.3).
As Christians, we should always be asking “how can I best glorify God?’” and “how can we best reconcile others to Him?” We should always be finding ways to point others to the otherworldly way of dealing with conflict. We should be demanding that others think through their actions and question if they are the most Christlike way of going about things.
[Nonviolence] does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.
Forgiveness is unconditional
The Bible doesn’t teach that forgiveness is irrevocable. There is parable after parable of individuals who got their favor revoked. Jesus counsels that if a person resists efforts to be reconciled they should be treated as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. Paul is even stronger counseling believers to not even associate with a person who disregards the teachings of the gospel.
Yet, these are all redemptive strategies. Treating a person as a tax collector or a pagan means praying for them and showering them with kindness. Paul explains that not associating with a person is for the purpose of refusing to associating with the wayward brother was to make him ashamed and receptive to seeing the error of his ways. Essentially, they are at a place where they have to be re-reached with the gospel or have to be made to suffer the consequence of their actions.
In his book The Peacemaker, Sande tells a story about a man who was determined to divorce his wife and move in with his lover. After hesitating, the Pastor informed the man that the church would have to remove him from church membership if he was determined to follow this wayward path. The man was shocked. He quickly recanted, broke up with his lover and made an effort to effectively reconcile with his wife.
Most of the time when unbelievers are abusive, there is no way to reason with them to help them see the error of their ways. We may have to resort to nonviolence resistant techniques such as turning the other cheek or going the extra mile in a way that makes them stop and think about their practices of injustice. We can also pray for them, giving the Holy Spirit permission to soften their hearts to the gospel.
Forgiveness without accountability
There’s this verse in the Bible that says, “He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.” We tend to attribute this merely to an act of forgiveness, but we should rethink that. It is more closely aligned with God’s redemptive and cleansing power. God is in the business of saving us from our sins. In the same way, we should keep our brothers and sister accountable. James counsels us,
“My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” James 5:19-20, New Living Translation.
There are always going to be conflicts, but how we deal with them demonstrates God’s redemptive power in our lives. It isn’t enough to say we forgive a person. We have to go the next step to foster a relationship that glorifies God and works through conflict.
Forgiveness is all about redemption.