This week, we will discuss how we can implement Christ’s call in an age of outrage. If the gospel is about forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, then that is what we need to be about. But we will need some strategies to help us if we are going to implement God’s vision in our individual lives, our churches, our communities, and our society.
In some ways, forgiveness is the easiest of our three topics to discuss. We know that we have to do it, and we know that it is good for us. But in other ways, it is perhaps the hardest of the three topics to really understand and practice. Perhaps this is the case precisely because we are required to forgive those who have wronged us, but I think that it is also due to some confusion about what forgiveness is and how it should affect the way we think, feel, perceive, and act.
What Is Forgiveness?
Christians use the language of forgiveness all the time, but I am not convinced that we always know what we mean when we use that language. Indeed, I struggle to define forgiveness in a way that satisfies my own mind, much less in a way that would be acceptable to others. We know that forgiveness is often associated in Scripture with the canceling of a debt, and we know that forgiveness often accompanies some act of atonement. But what does the process of forgiveness look like in the heart and mind of God, and what should it look like for us?
If we are going to provide accurate and substantial answers to these questions, we need to clear up a misconception that has seeped into Western Christianity. Forgiveness is not, first and foremost, a psychological process. Certainly, it has foundations in the psyche of the forgiver, and it has implications for the psyche of both the forgiver and the one forgiven. Nevertheless, it is not exclusively an intrapsychic phenomenon.
Rather, forgiveness is a process of social exchange. I acknowledge my guilt, and the one against whom I have sinned accepts my acknowledgement of guilt—along with some act of atonement—as payment for the wrong committed. Does the social nature of forgiveness permit us to hold grudges against those who have not acknowledged their guilt? I do not believe that it does, and I suspect that the majority of the Christian tradition would agree with me. Our responsibility when we are wronged is to do as God does—that is, to stand in a posture of forgiveness, treating the act as if it is already accomplished in our minds and hearts and opening up channels of communication that would enable the social aspect of the process to be completed. Nevertheless, I think that forgiveness needs the social component in order for it to be all that God means for it to be.
Since I am pushing our discussion in the direction of clarity, and controversy, I might as well lay all my cards on the table. Contrary to what many in the church teach, I think that repentance is closely linked with forgiveness. We do not have time to collate and evaluate all the evidence here. I would simply say that just as repentance is a prerequisite for salvation, it is also a prerequisite for forgiveness, at least in its fullest form.
Now, when I say this, I am not talking about instances where two people genuinely disagree about the rightness or wrongness of a particular action and decide, for the sake of the love that they have for one another, to move past that disagreement. I also am not talking about those instances when we show mercy to those who do things that they did not know were hurtful or who do things as a result of systemic brokenness. Love and mercy are also required of us, for we have received them from God. But, in my estimation, expressions of love and mercy of the types that I have described are not the same as forgiveness.
Why is it so important to me to propose this clarification? After all, I am risking a lot by presenting forgiveness in this way. Simply put, I want to make sure that we are not placing a heavier burden on people than Jesus would place upon them. Especially when the injustice that a person has experienced is heinous, they need the help of the offending party to get to that place of forgiveness. It is their responsibility to silence the voice of hatred in their own mind and to open the door to forgiveness, but the offending party needs to walk through that door. And how do they walk through that door? They do so with repentance. How can we know that their repentance is genuine? We can know it when we see a pattern of behavior that is consistent with repentance (cf. Matthew 3:8)
What Are the Implications of Forgiveness?
Of course, what we have said about repentance can also be said about forgiveness. It isn’t real unless it has consequences for how we think, feel, perceive, and act. Does forgiveness require us to pursue reconciliation? Does forgiveness mean that a perpetrator can (or even should) be restored to a formerly-held position of authority? Does forgiveness mean that the relationship between the offender and the victim can move forward unaffected by the offense that was committed?
Ideally, one might argue that the answer to all of these questions ought to be “yes.” Practical considerations, however, might lead us in another direction. Genuine acknowledgement of one’s sin does not always result in an avoidance of punishment (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-23; Luke 23:39-43). And the church (and individual Christians) has a responsibility to protect people from serial offenders. This is not to say that we can avoid the practical consequences of forgiveness. We still must work to repair relationships and to help people find hope and meaning for their lives. It simply means that we may have to do those things with an acknowledgement that not everything will be made whole in this life.
The language of reconciliation is a prominent feature of Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, but the imagery and ideas of reconciliation can be found throughout the New Testament. Paul clearly thinks of his own work in terms of bringing people back into proper relationship with God. Yet, the larger argument of 2 Corinthians 1-9 suggests that Paul sees the ministry of reconciling people to God as a model for how they ought to interact with one another.
Let’s leave high-brow theology behind for a moment and state the obvious. Enmity is not good for anyone. It robs people of joy and tears at the fabric of organizations and other institutions. Jesus himself said that those who make peace will be blessed (Matthew 5:9), and so it would seem that restoring relationships ought to be a key part of every Christian’s vocation.
What does it take to reconcile people to one another? Certainly, the ability to help competing parties find ways for everyone to win will help, but it takes more than visionary leadership and good diplomacy. It takes a wholehearted commitment to the truth and a willingness to speak it even when it isn’t popular. It takes a tough-minded approach to forgiveness, both in one’s own life and in one’s teaching of others. It takes a willingness to be humble and merciful and a passion for teaching others to do the same. In other words, it requires us to be like Jesus.
Why does reconciliation take so much work? Why is it so complicated and so hard to achieve? In my experience, it is because the issues that we confront are so complicated, and everyone involved is touched by sin. Too often, those who have committed real wrongs are unwilling to admit their missteps, and those who have been affected by those wrongs are unwilling to accept anything less than vengeance as payment for their pain. And, of course, the situation gets even more complicated when both parties are, to a lesser or greater extent, in the wrong. They both want justice for the wrongs that have been done to them, but they are often unwilling to admit that they need to make amends for the things that they have done to contribute to the conflict.
The theme of restoration may not immediately come to mind when one thinks about the most important concepts in Christianity. But the language of restoration is found throughout both the Old Testament (see, for example, Psalm 51:12, 53:4, 85:4, 126:1; Isaiah 1:26, 49:6; Jeremiah 15:19, 30:3; Hosea 6:2; Amos 9:11; Zephaniah 2:7) and the New Testament (see, for example, Acts 3:21; 2 Corinthians 13:9-11; Galatians 6:1), and the idea is an essential component of the Christian hope (cf. Revelation 21:1-8; 22:1-5)) Restoration is certainly a corporate—and even a cosmic—reality, and it chiefly involves the relationship between God and God’s creation. But it is also a deeply personal reality, and it has implications for how people relate to one another.
Restoration is always the goal of God’s saving work. It does not necessarily mean that things return to the way that things were before sin and its punishment turned our world upside-down. Rather, it refers to the process of giving a person or group the opportunity and resources to move forward in their lives. There is usually a degree of continuity in this process, but there is sometimes a degree of discontinuity as well. And, it is a process that is clearly contingent on the offending person or group’s repentance and that often comes after a period of punishment.
The keen observer will immediately detect the implications that a robust theory of restoration could have for criminal justice, but it is also an important notion for individuals and churches who want to pursue God’s will in their own lives and relationships. Whenever possible, we want to bring the healing and renewing power of the gospel to bear in our families, friendships, and churches. We want to give people a new start and help them become all that god wants them to be. We need to help them understand that the process will be longer, and perhaps more painful, than they anticipate, and we need to put all of our best theological, philosophical, psychological, and sociological resources to work in our efforts to bring about restoration. But I am convinced that restoration is an essential part of the Christian witness, and so we cannot allow the difficulty of the work to discourage us from doing it.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Okay, I understand what you are trying to say, but it all seems so ethereal. How do we make all of this practical?” It is a very fair question. Everything that I have said up to this point may be true, but it will not help us if we do not know how to apply it in the everyday struggles of our lives.
Complicating this task is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer that I can give you. Every situation is different, and there are multiple factors that have to be considered as we seek to balance the need for justice with the Christian call to forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
So here is what I propose to do. Next week, I will lay out three or four case studies for us to consider. I will explain how I think we as Christians can work towards forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration in each case, and I will invite your feedback on what I propose. In the meantime, share your insights about what I have written in the “Comments” section below.