21 September 2017

The Task of Forgiveness – Always Possible? Part 2

Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me – up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” We must forgive as often and as many times as we are hurt. How often must you use anti-septic cleanser and a bandage? The answer is ‘as often and as many times as you get cut.’

How Does Forgiveness Work?

(Read Matthew 18:23-35)

Lewis Smedes in The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How,  suggests that there are three fundamental stages:

The first involves rediscovering the humanity of the person who hurt us. When we are gravely injured by someone, our natural tendency is to lose sight of their humanity and ours. We see them only in light of the offense and we become blind to our own vulnerability to committing offences against others. The servant in Jesus’ parable was condemned for not having mercy on his fellow servant, whose sin was very similar to (and even much less than) his own. Central to the story of the unmerciful servant is the idea of pity—of putting oneself in the place of the other.

The second stage involves surrendering our right to get even. There is an important difference between justice and vengeance. Justice is an objective moral accounting where someone pays a fair penalty for wrongdoing. Vengeance is that illusive personal satisfaction we seek in making our offender hurt in the same way that they hurt us. Our hurt magnifies our injuries and blinds us to the injury of others. Samson’s experience is such an example. (Judges 15:1-11) There is no final appeasement for the cycle of revenge. We have God’s assurance that He will take care of the rest. ( Romans 12:17-21) Forgiveness does not do away with justice but it allows us to be released from the endless tyranny of vengeance.

Thirdly we enter the stage of revising our attitude and sometimes, eventually, our feelings toward the person we forgive. Once we have recognised the common humanity of our offender and let go of our right to seek revenge, we may notice in time that we begin to no longer wish the other person harm. As Smedes puts it, “we feel him differently after we see him differently. We may actually begin to wish him well. We may find that we can begin to pray for and even act toward his blessing.” 1

In Jesus’ story of the unmerciful servant, we find ourselves. I, by my own choices and actions, was responsible for a debt that was impossible for me to pay. Likewise, there are debts owed to me by others—debts that are impossible for them to repay (for no one can undo what has been done in the past or remove its ongoing consequences). In agreeing to live with the past and its present realities, releasing my felt “right” to vengeance, I too open the door to freedom and new possibilitiesfor myself and others.

It is important to realise that there is a purpose in forgiving; God asks us to do it for a reason, in fact, we might identify three reasons. First, I forgive for my sake: to free and heal myself. Forgiveness is God’s provision for a future lived in freedom and truth. It has been said that granting forgiveness is making the choice to release a captive and then discovering that the prisoner that has been set free is me.

Secondly, I forgive for their sake: to offer freedom and healing to others. In Matthew 18:12-20, Jesus sets out a process for going after one of His sheep who has gone astray, setting the pattern for how to treat another member of His flock who causes us injury. It is the very ones who have been hurt by those strays that God wishes to involve in their rescue.2  The correct person to forgive is the one who has been hurt, and it is that  one (or if necessary, two or three),  in the freedom of forgiveness, who is to go and speak the truth of that hurt to the one who is in error. The purpose here is not paybacks, but correction and restoration of the offender to the flock. Forgiving enables us to care enough to invite repentance in the other. This cannot be done without forgiveness having first done its work in the heart of the offended. The hurt must already have been brought to God and the snare broken before the rescue mission can be effectively equipped. Perhaps too often we get this in reverse order. We often seek out the stray, not to rescue them, but with demands for them to meet our needs and right the wrong— something that, because of their own waywardness, entanglement and wounds, they simply are unequipped and unable to do. Alternatively, we may jump to the last response that Jesus gives and treat them as an outsider even before we have done any of the steps that Jesus commands (including the implied first step of forgiveness).

Thirdly I forgive for God’s sake: to reflect God’s image and incarnate His Kingdom on the earth. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2) God, being love, has given His people the way of forgiveness. When we live this way, we reflect His true nature to a watching world. Jesus said that His followers would be recognisable by the love they had for one another. There is no greater love that we can show for God and others than to surrender our claim on vengeance, refuse to walk in denial, and follow Jesus along the path of forgiveness.

The Issue of Repentance

In Luke 17:3-4 we have another version of Jesus’ teaching on what to do when a brother sins against you. In this version, he says to “rebuke” the brother, and “if he repents, forgive him.” Many people include the repentance of the offender as a prerequisite for forgiveness.3  It is important to clarify that true repentance is not merely remorse (feeling sorrow or regret because of one’s choices and actions) nor penance (attempting to make up for the past by personal sacrifice and/ or payment). True repentance is the recognition of personal responsibility for what one has done and the related consequences, choosing a new way of behaving and having new intentions for the future. In Matthew 5:23-25 Jesus teaches that it is our responsibility to go to our brother, repentant of wrongdoing when our brother has something against us. Repentance is my responsibility when I am the offender. If I demand it of a brother before I forgive him, I remain caught by his sin. He retains the power to hold me back from experiencing the healing, freedom and peace that acknowledging and feeling my hurt and releasing my anger and right to get even to God will bring. Repentance is the prerequisite for receiving forgiveness, not granting it. Forgiveness and repentance are both important steps in the process of reconciliation of relationship— two sides of the same coin working in the individual hearts of the parties involved.

Yes – forgiveness is very, very far from easy. On reflection, though, the implicit command to forgive everyone who injures or offends us just might not be the most difficult part of ‘the Lord’s prayer’ at all because if we take seriously the initial focus Jesus places on the coming of the Kingdom and the fulfilment of the Father’s will on earth, we are confronted by a much greater challenge to the way we live, of which the call to forgive is only a part. To pray, “Your Kingdom come,” is to accept our own individual responsibility to make this happen. If we pray that our Father will have His say on earth, then we are asking that He will have His say in each of our individual lives and in every single part of them. Praying that the Father’s ways are acted out on the earth in just the same way they are in heaven, involves being willing, as His child, to be a part of making that a reality. So if His grace-filled, forgiving heart is to be seen on the earth, then it will be seen in the way His children live. Forgiving as He forgives us is just another part of seeing His will done and His Kingdom come. Of course, as Jesus explains, the key to this kind of living is that we can only have the grace and power to act as the Father acts because He has come to make His home in our hearts by His Spirit and we continually and intentionally find our home in Him (John 15) so that our every act and word emerges from His life within us, not our own. As Paul wrote (Galatians 2.19- 21) when we belong in Jesus, it is no longer our fallen, human lives that are being lived through our bodies but the abundant, merciful, God-honouring life of Christ.

Jill Harshaw Leader, Community Life Team & Lecturer in Practical Theology Belfast Bible College

1 Ibid., p. 24.

2 Jeff Manion, The Challenge of Forgiveness: http://www.adabible.org/weekend_ services/audio_archive.php

3 David Augsburger, Caring Enough to Forgive: True Forgiveness (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1981), p. 31.