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Friday, January 15, 2016

What Is This Thing Called Forgiveness?

I've written before about forgiveness, about how it is not unconditional and about how it is not "feeling better toward" someone. That's what it is not. What is it? Basically, forgiveness is releasing someone from further obligation. The forgiver has been wronged and grants to the forgivee a pardon from future punishment or restitution. Note that this is not cheap or free. It's not as if the debt isn't paid. When forgiveness is granted, the forgiver takes the payment of the debt on himself. The way the Old Testament expresses forgiveness is to "remember no more" the wrong done. Now, be careful. That doesn't mean "forget". It means "to no longer call to attention." I noted, however, in previous entries that the obligation to forgive is predicated on repentance.

Let's make clear, at this point, that while the obligation to forgive (remembering that "forgive" means "to pardon, requiring no further punishment or restitution") is predicated on repentance, in no case is it biblically acceptable to hold a grudge, maintain hard feelings, or be angry. We know, for instance, that we must "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled" (Heb 12:15). God tells us "the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God." (James 1:20) Instead, we are commanded to love, and love requires that we "not take into account a wrong suffered" (1 Cor 13:5). So all those hard feelings that often accompany a wrong suffered are ruled out by Scripture, with or without forgiveness.

So, we are to be "forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." (Eph 4:32) The Bible is clear that in all cases of repentance we are obligated to forgive. We also have examples in Scripture where people who did not repent were granted forgiveness as well (e.g., Mark 2:5; Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). So forgiveness in the case of repentance is commanded and is possible without repentance.

Recapping, then, we know that Christians are to imitate the Father by forgiving when they are wronged. This forgiveness is predicated on the forgiveness we have been granted and entails a release from further punishment or restitution. This forgiveness is required in the case of repentance and allowed without it. In no case is bitterness or continuing anger acceptable for the believer.

So what does that look like? You can't, for instance, forgive someone else's injury. Perhaps you are injured in an accident with a drunk driver. You may opt to forgive (require no further punishment), but the injury is also done society and the law will require further punishment that you cannot forgive. Nor does forgiveness require that you forget.

Sticky questions still remain. For instance, does forgiveness mean that you lay yourself open to all sorts of potentially dangerous situations? "He robbed me twice, repented twice, and I've forgiven him. Does that mean that I cannot be wary of the possibility of another relapse?" If "wary" is categorized as "punishment" in your thinking, yes, it does. I don't see "wary" as punishment. Someone that proves their untrustworthiness can be released from penalty (forgiven) and still not be trusted. I think this is a version predicated on the "forgive and forget" concept. "Well, I'm forgiven, so there are no longer any concerns between us." If forgiven means "forgive and forget", that would be a reasonable conclusion. But forgiveness is not to forget. It is to release from penalty. And being wary isn't penalizing. So if a child breaks a rule, repents, is released from further punishment, there is no reason to require that there be no considerations or preparations for a repeated breaking of that rule. Just no punishment.

I think forgiveness is tough. We talk about it like it's easy. It's not. But if we are commanded to do it, there is one thing that is clear -- forgiveness is not an emotion. (You cannot command feelings.) So it is possible to choose, out of obedience, to release someone from further punishment (forgive). And dealing with your own emotions (bitterness, bearing a grudge, hurt, anger, etc.) is an issue that requires a change in thinking. That one is best acquired by remembering that God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Eph 4:32). Remembering the immense debt Christ paid for me (Matt 18:21-35) ought to produce a heart willing to forgive. And if the one who is forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:47), I suspect that should go a long way toward that whole bitterness and grudge problem, too.

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