Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What is Forgiveness?

I am troubled by how the average Christian understands the concept of forgiveness, and I cannot help but wonder if it is directly tied to a lousy understanding of repentance. If I am wrong, then I am the one who misunderstands how forgiveness works, and I need correction. Hopefully, some astute readers will be able to help me with this by affirmation or reproof.

So what is forgiveness? Here is the dictionary definition for "forgive":
1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon. 2. To renounce anger or resentment against. 3. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).

Of these definitions, I like #2 the best because I think that it is the only real power that I have. It is not in my power to pardon sin or excuse it, and I certainly cannot absolve someone of a sin-debt. I can only "renounce anger and resentment." The question is, and it is a very good one, "How do I do that?"

I believe that the Bible is clear that if a brother asks for forgiveness, then we ought to forgive him. Jesus said, "Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3). I also want to quickly point out that asking for forgiveness and being repentant are not always the same, and often one who is offended can tell the difference. But let me be clear and say that if someone sins against us, and after rebuke repents, we ought to forgive them for Christ's sake.

In all of this, I am not so much worried about the offender. I am worried about the offended. I am worried about a bitter, rebukeless Christianity. Bitter because sin should be punished, and when we are not confident that it will be, it leads to despair and enmity. Rebukeless because we think that we can easily go to a true forgiveness while short-cutting past the necessary rebuke. Confronting sin, I believe, is a necessary step in the forgiveness process.

I remember seeing after a school shooting, perhaps the one in West Virginia, where a group of students held up a sign saying that they forgave the shooter. I found that to be interesting. Such things are often heralded as a positive sign, and I believe if they found peace in the midst of the tragedy then good, and if by "forgiveness" they meant that they had given up resentment, then all the better. But I do not believe that people who go wild and shoot people and then kill themselves will be receiving any forgiveness from the Lord God. I believe that they will pay for their wickedness.

Practically speaking, if someone bursts into my son's school and guns him down, I will be grieved and angry because of such a wicked act. My personal challenge is to be rid of all thoughts of evil myself. That is, I cannot allow my soul to seethe with bitterness and hatred. I can pray that such a villain will find forgiveness in Christ, if they have not already killed themselves. But ultimately, my comfort will rest in knowing that both forgiveness and vengeance rest in the hand of God. That is, I know that He will not overlook this evil act of violence: either the murderer will pay or Christ will. Either way, I do not have to worry about justice being done in this situation. Therefore, my ability to forgive is based on the certain fact that evil will be paid for, one way or another. This way, I do not have to seethe with anger or long for my own vengeance. God will repay. I believe I once heard John Piper say, "If you hold a grudge, then you don't trust the judge." I believe that is a proverb worthy of acceptance.

Hopefully you are beginning to see how I believe forgiveness works. The only way that I believe you can be free from bitterness, anger, and an unforgiving spirit is to place absolute trust in the Lord God who does all things well. Whatever crime has been committed against you, beloved, the Lord will surely judge. They will pay the debt that their crime demands, down to the last penny. If they do not pay, then you can be certain that the sufferings of the Lord Jesus are sufficient to cover any debt that they may owe, and if they have found forgiveness in Him, then we should be free of resentment and full of joy.

In the end, for clarity's sake, I want to say that all forgiveness must be achieved with an eye on the cross and faith in God as judge. The Lord knows our sorrows, and He will not let injustice go unpunished. I pray that those of you who are battling with a real injustice and the resulting unforgiving spirit will find the grace to trust Christ more today that you may be free.


Keith said...

I am glad he forgives me. I must certainly be glad when he forgives other believers. And it seems to me Paul was glad that unbelievers wouldn't be forgiven in his words "thier condemnation is just"....

Nice post.

Keavin from Plaqumine said...

Pray for me, Brother Brad. I have been wronged and I desire more than anything to get over the anger and resentment. I covet your prayers and those of all believers.

Brad Williams said...

Brother, email me at hespeaksatyahoodotcom.