Forgiveness (Part 2)
True Friendship – Article Series
1. True Friendship (Part 1)
2. True Friendship (Part 2)
3. Friendship is hard
4. Why Friendship matters
5. What is distinctive about Christian Friends
6. Forgiveness (Part 1)
7. Forgiveness (Part 2)
3 So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. ~ Luke 17:3-6 (NIV)
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ~ Ephesians 4:31-5:2 (NIV)
Desiring to forgive
When we are wronged, we may be tempted to internalise our hurt because we don’t want to cause trouble or awkwardness by bringing something up. Or, we fear that in telling the person who has hurt us what they have done that we will be shot down. In these sorts of situations what happens is that fear becomes a dominating factor in our relationships. We would rather ‘keep the peace’ than talk about an issue. (However, this doesn’t stop us from sometimes speaking about it with other people). And what can happen is that the hurt we feel can fester, and grow, and multiply until the point where one day we explode at a person and unload all the stored up emotion that we have gathered. Or, we just shut down altogether and decide that the friendship isn’t worth the trouble. Then we really will have awkwardness, where the other person wonders where all this came from and why they weren’t told earlier. Does any of this resonate, or sound familiar?
Recall that friendship is a deliberate commitment to love another. And to love another, we have seen, our relationship must be grounded in grace and truth, and a commitment to seek the good of the other. That means that when we have been wronged, or we wrong others, we should seek forgiveness. The reason is that when something does come between two friends it can drive a wedge between them and affect their ability to love another. We should also do this because we are commanded to model the kindness and compassion of our Father. While we can choose to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11), if we are genuinely hurt by something or know that we have hurt someone then love should illuminate in us a desire to forgive.
A while back I said something to a friend and she told me that she found it to be quite hurtful and didn’t want to speak to me. I apologised profusely through phone call and a message. However, I didn’t hear back from her for a week. After a week, I sent her a message asking if she was ok, and repeated how I was sorry. She responded by saying that she was surprised I was still worried because she had forgiven me and was over it. She then said that she had been too busy to message me because she was busy with ministry commitments. I was confused and upset. For a week I had been filled with worry and sadness that I had hurt my friend. Although she said she forgave me, I didn’t know it. And I had felt ashamed to approach her or communicate with her, not knowing if doing so would be taken badly because she had said she didn’t want to talk to me.
The gift of forgiveness
Forgiveness, as I have tended to be taught, is letting go of hurt and bitterness against someone who has wronged you. It is an internal act of grace whereby you choose to let go of those feelings and choose to act towards someone in a loving manner despite what they have done. I am going to reason that this is not the biblical model of forgiveness. The reason why is that forgiveness is not something that can occur in isolation from the person who has done the wrong, but is an activity that must occur between two people (or more).
Miroslav Volf articulates this in an eloquent manner, and so I will quote from his book ‘Free of Charge’:
…forgiveness is a social affair. We forgive in order to take care of a wrongdoing, but a wrongdoing always happens between people, not just in the thoughts or actions of an individual. Unless we are wronging ourselves, we don’t just do bad things, unrelated to anyone else; we wrong others. That’s why it is insufficient if forgiveness happens just in someone’s mind and heart. It must happen also between people – between the offender and the offended. A person whom I’ve wronged doesn’t just forgive; she forgives me. Wrongdoers, and not just those who are wronged, are always involved in forgiveness…forgiveness is a social relationship.
What does this mean? It means that I can’t actually forgive someone without speaking to them. I can decide in my heart to let go of bitterness. I can prayerfully work towards getting rid of malicious thoughts in my mind. I can diligently seek to desire the best for another. But that is not forgiveness. Why? Because forgiveness is more than a mental and emotional activity, but is a social activity that means that we have condemned a wrong and chosen to show grace to one another in not letting it keep us apart.
Forgiveness, as we have seen as modeled by God, is the canceling of the debt and the removal of any further payment that someone owes us. It also involves forgetting the wrong that has been made against us and not letting it stand between us. And this is hard, isn’t it? In fact, to me this sounds close to impossible. How can I forget how someone has wronged me? Or how could I expect someone to forget how I wronged them? But as with many things in the Christian life, the difficulty in achieving what we have been commanded to do does not negate the importance of prayerfully seeking to fulfill God’s command. We will fall short, but we have hope that God will bring us to greater growth and godliness, and give us grace when we need it. Like the Apostles in Luke 17, let us cry out to God ‘increase our faith!’
Forgiveness leads to reconciliation, and there are many people who think they have forgiven someone, but want nothing to do with the person they have ‘forgiven’. Is that forgiving like God? Could God forgive us and then say ‘but I don’t want a relationship with you’? The answer is no, absolutely not. Forgiveness’ goal is reconciliation. We’ll come back to this shortly.
But for now, see that forgiveness has two dimensions: the offer and the receiving. This is because forgiveness is like a gift – it really must be given, and it really must be received. The first part necessitates the second part. Forgiveness must be offered and forgiveness must be received. If it is offered, but not received, then forgiveness has not actually occurred because one of the parties doesn’t accept that there is a wrongdoing, and so does not condemn it. It also means, though, that forgiveness cannot occur unless there is communication between the two parties. It cannot occur without both of you knowing it has occurred. Clarity is key, and confusion is not helpful.
In October of 2014, there was an incident where I was unkind and horrible towards a sister. She had wronged me and hurt me, and in response I struck back with harsh words that were intended to hurt. A few weeks later I called to apologise, but she told me that she had nothing to apologise for. And that stung immensely. We didn’t speak for 5 months and in that time I prayed daily that God would help me let go of bitterness and resentment. In April of 2015 I reached out to meet up because I wanted to pursue reconciliation. But I had no idea how we’d be able to achieve it. Even up until the moment I sat down there was a part of me that wanted nothing to do with her. But as soon as we sat down she thanked me for reaching out, and began a huge spiel apologising. I was dumbstruck. Then, I felt my heart melt, and I wanted nothing more than to put this all behind us. I apologised for my end as well, and we ended up forgiving each other and praying together. We’re not as close as we used to be, but we’ve put it behind us. I thank God for His grace in answering prayers for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The place of repentance
Remember that God, in Christ Jesus, has provided the offer of forgiveness to all people. This offer is free and is really made. Also, remember, that God loved us while we were still sinners. So His offer is given even while we are undeserving. But the forgiveness must also be received through repentance and trusting in Him. In fact, God’s kindness towards us is meant to lead us to repentance before Him. Similarly, when we are seeking forgiveness from someone whom we have wronged, we must repent and receive their offer of forgiveness.
If we seek forgiveness, but don’t repent, we are not confessing and condemning the wrong we did against another person. We want to be set free from all the consequences of what we did before someone, but we aren’t actually sorry and we have no desire to change our ways. In such a situation, this is where things get tricky. Let’s say that someone has said that they want to forgive me for how I have wronged them. But I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. I don’t repent. In doing so, I actually don’t accept their forgiveness. What does this mean for our relationship? Well, it means that the barrier that was between us is still there. My friend has offered love and grace, and is presumably no longer bitter and angry, but my refusal to accept his forgiveness means that I am not actually forgiven. We cannot actually put this wrong behind us, in the sense that he can’t act as if it didn’t happen. To do so would be unjust, and also communicates to me that it was ok for me to wrong him. So he can still speak with me, and he may still hang out with me, but as long as that wrong between us remains unforgiven, there is some sort of a barrier that lies between our relationship.
But recall that God’s love and offer of forgiveness precedes repentance, meaning that it is not right to wait until someone repents to decide that it’s ok to forgive them. We should pursue forgiveness before repentance is even given. And that may take some time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going away for a while, and praying for God’s grace in softening our hearts and giving us a desire to forgive, before coming back and speaking with a person. We want the forgiveness to be genuine. And we want to repentance to be genuine.
One of the reasons forgiveness is hard is because we may feel that it lets people ‘get off the hook for free’. There is a sense in which that is true. But there is a sense in which that is absolutely false. Forgiveness involves an acknowledgement of the wrong and a condemnation of the wrong, and repentance helps us to achieve that. This is why, by the way, if you say to someone you ‘forgive them’ if they don’t think they have done anything wrong they can be immensely offended.
A few months ago, I was rebuked about my tendency to gossip about a person. At first I was unaware of it. I reached out to ask what I had done, and upon being informed about it I was, at first, defensive. But after a few hours I realised how I had sinned against him. So I apologised and asked for his forgiveness, which he graciously gave. Are we best friends who hang out all the time? No. But we have been reconciled, as the barrier that was separating us has now been removed. And I know that I can contact him if I needed to.
The hope of reconciliation
The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, but to what extent is this possible between friends? I think that this sort of question depends on the sort of wrong that has occurred between them. Reconciliation does not necessarily mean a restoration back to the way your relationship was before. Remember that friendships are organic and can change over time.
But let’s say I was reconciled with a friend who I just found out was a struggling alcoholic, because he had wronged me during a drunken episode a week ago. To forgive him and be reconciled to him is not, then, to say that I forget that he struggles with alcohol. In fact, to love him would mean that I put away the alcohol and drink something else with him instead. Though I do not count the wrong against him anymore (and will prayerfully seek to forget it) wisdom can still dictate that I act in accordance with what has happened in order to love him. So perhaps reconciliation will mean changing an aspect of how we relate with each other. In other cases, two friends could grow closer after reconciling because they know they can trust each other more after going through that ordeal.
Sometimes, though, reconciliation doesn’t happen. This might be because one person doesn’t want to forgive. Or it might be because one person doesn’t want to repent. Or it might be both. It is in these circumstances, where a wrong has so divided two parties, where I think that a friendship may end because it is impossible for the two to remain committed to loving each other. But the Christian would pray for reconciliation and long for the relationship to be restored one day. And we should always be preparing our hearts to forgive if, and when, the other person is ready to communicate and offer/receive forgiveness.
In such cases, I have found myself wondering “why are Christians so complicated? Why can’t we just ‘get over it’?” Again quoting from Miroslav Volf’s book ‘Free of Charge’, about why we forgive:
…it’s not primarily to benefit ourselves. We also don’t forgive primarily to benefit the larger community…we forgive because we love – specifically, because we love our debtors, our offenders, and even our enemies. The same love that motivates forgiveness pushes forgiveness not just from exclusion to neutrality, but from neutrality to embrace. Forgiveness between human beings is one crucial step in a larger process whose final goal is the embrace of former enemies in a community of love.
The beauty of the Christian faith’s approach to all this is that we actually hold out the hope of love and healing to a world that seeks to move forward and forget the scars of the past. This is achieved because of the grace of Jesus Christ, and His death on the Cross, because it shows us how committed God is to forgiveness and reconciliation. It also assures us that there will be a day when we will live in perfect relationships with each other, when Christ returns. So we live in hope, as well, for reconciliation with all people. We love in a world that may tell us to give up on people because they’re not worth it. We embrace those who we should exclude. Why? Because our Father embraced us when we deserved exclusion.
A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend, and I said something as a joke. My intention was to amuse, but I received a message from him later in the day saying that he felt hurt by my words. Although my intention was not to offend, the impact of my words did offend. So I apologised for my words and he forgave me. Meanwhile, I took note of the fact that I should not speak about that issue in future with him.
The language of forgiveness
Discussions about hurts and wrongs can be difficult because we, too often, confuse the intent of actions with the impact of actions. Intention is what we are all familiar with – it is what we wanted to do, or what we tried to do, with our actions. And we know that our intentions should be pure and blameless before God. But impact is what is harder to judge, because we don’t get to judge what the impact of our actions are. The impact of our actions is how they affect other people. And from passages like 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 we see that God cares about impact.
One of the reasons we can get defensive and riled up when speaking about repentance and forgiveness is because we confuse intent and impact, and feel wronged when we are falsely assessed. But I can only ever speak authoritatively about my intentions (and, even then, we can deceive ourselves). I don’t know the impact of my actions. So if someone comes to me and says that they have been hurt by my actions, even though I may not have intended to hurt them, the reality is that they have been hurt. So I have wronged them and should apologise. If my friend extrapolates from the impact of my actions and asks why I wanted to hurt them, that’s when it is important for me to say “no, I didn’t intend to hurt you. I’m sorry that I did, though. I shouldn’t have done that.”
This is the sort of people we are – Christians care about intent and impact, and distinguishing between them will help us move forward in conversation about forgiveness. But what this also means is that there are people who we have actually wronged who are unaware of the impact of our actions. Inasmuch as possible, we should be people who seek to apologise and seek forgiveness even if that is the case. Why? Because God is aware. And our hearts should seek to forgive and be forgiven for our actions, to live at peace with all people.
In 2012 I began dating a wonderful Christian woman. Our relationship was mutually encouraging, at first. It grew unhealthy, and we ended it after several interactions that were discouraging and unhelpful. I honestly didn’t know if we’d ever be able to speak with each other again. But I prayed for it. I longed for it. I hoped for it. After about a year and a half, she reached out to me and we apologised, and assured each other that we had forgiven each other. I can’t adequately express the joy I felt that day. I had resigned myself to the thought that she may never wish to speak with me again. But here we were, God’s answer to my prayers, reconciled. And it refreshed my heart and brought me to tears as I saw a picture of the beauty of forgiveness and reconciliation in a world that had long since told me to forget her and move on.
So we have looked at why we would want to fix a broken relationship, and how to do it. We want to do it because we want to be people who are kind and compassionate like our Father in heaven, who has reconciled us to Him and calls us to be reconciled, inasmuch as possible, with all those around us. And we do so by pursuing the model of repentance and forgiveness that we see in Him. None of this is easy. All of this needs God’s gracious help. I hope that the personal stories I’ve shared have given you some insight as to where I have needed God’s grace in my life, and where I have seen His kindness in helping me to live out this picture of forgiveness. But I suspect that there are also many questions and contextual situations that you have in mind that I am unaware of. If you’d like, I warmly invite you to leave a comment, or message me, to ask about how this framework might apply to your context.
And when is it appropriate to end a friendship? Well, one instance may be where someone is unrepentant to the point where we are unable to deliberately commit to loving them. But even in such a case we should pray for reconciliation to be a reality one day.
And that brings us to the end of this series on friendship. As I said in the first post, this series will not be able to cover everything. And that is ok. It is my prayer that this has been as encouraging for you as it has been for me. Never forget that the ultimate friend, Jesus, laid down His life for us, and it is by His example that we can pursue friendship and forgiveness. Praise God for His kindness to us in giving us this amazing gift of friendship – first with Himself, and then with each other. Soli Deo Gloria.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. ~ Romans 11:33-36 (NIV)