I have often wondered whether Christians truly understand Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. So many believers struggle to respond to those who have wounded them. The man or woman whose spouse has committed adultery with a friend. The business partner or investment counsellor who has cheated him or her of all of their retirement savings, and who now is reduced to poverty. The slander that has been used to get someone fired from his or her job. Or consider the person who has murdered a family member. There are some grievances that are so deep and lasting, that trite words of “forgive and forget” sound overwhelmingly hollow at best, and at worst, are used to re-victimize the offended party. Failure to recognize genuine sin for what it is is never what forgiveness is all about.
What is a believing, biblical response to severe injury?
For the sake of clarity, out of compassion for both those who have been injured, and for those who have done the injury, let me lay out an important biblical distinction.
There is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is always demanded of any believer. Reconciliation is always possible for any believer. Please notice the difference between the demand and the possibility.
Let’s start with understanding forgiveness. In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus is confronted with the question of how often we should forgive the one who has sinned against us. He responds by saying that we should forgive seventy times seven. He means, of course, that we must never stop forgiving.
But what is forgiveness?
In response to this question, Jesus tells the parable of the man who was forgiven a great debt by a king who could have thrown him into prison for life. Rather than seeking vengeance, the king forgave the debt. In this story, the forgiven man then finds a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money. When that debt could not be repaid, the forgiven servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison. The lesson is plain. All of us who truly believe, have been forgiven a great sin against God. For this reason, we are required to forgive those who have sinned against us.
But, within that context, what does forgiveness entail? Clearly, forgiveness means we are unwilling to demand compensation for sins done against us. We are not to seek revenge. We are not to demand punitive vengeance. That is forgiveness. It does not seek to harm the victimizer.
But from the rest of the New Testament, forgiveness is more. From Hebrews 12:15, we are commanded that we are to allow no root of bitterness to grow within us. Hence, forgiveness means we are forbidden from nurturing an inner attitude of resentment and hatred. And finally, from Matthew 5:44, we are also required to pray for those who persecute us and even called upon to love them.
And so, forgiveness refused to seek vengeance, fosters an inner attitude of grace, and necessitates we pray for the evildoer.
But does all of this mean the relationship is restored?
I know there are those who mistakenly assume it must be so. But, consider the woman whose husband beats her. Is she to continue to restore the relationship seventy times seven until the abuser has either murdered her or so destroyed her life that she is but an empty human shell? Does seventy times seven mean that she is to continue to play the victim?
The answer must be: “No!” Biblical reconciliation always implies repentance and a turning away from evil. It mandates that the victimizer do what Zacchaeus told the Lord, as recorded in Luke 19:8. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
It is possible to truly forgive and to remain un-reconciled. Lack of reconciliation is merely a sign that the victimizer remains unwilling to repent and believe. True repentance, when it occurs, is always accompanied by the desire to make matters right, as Zacchaeus did. Furthermore, the truly repentant man or woman does not demand reconciliation. Demanding reconciliation is not repentance; it is manipulation. True repentance seeks to take ownership of the sin, as David did when he repented publicly before all of Israel. Restoration seeks to restore that which he or she has destroyed. No more and no less.
When this occurs, the believing and forgiving victim rejoices that salvation has come to the house of what was formerly an evil man, and rushes in to embrace.
And that is the important distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Indeed, that important distinction is the heart of the gospel.