Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Biblical Practice of Forgiveness - Part II in a Series

By Rev. Daniel Wilson

There you are, sitting in church, when you see that person coming over to talk to you. You know who I mean: that former friend who offended you a couple of months ago. He made that rude comment to you and NEVER apologised or said sorry or anything! Well, here he comes… and what do you know, he wants your help with a project he is working on around his house. He is acting as if nothing happened at all! Oh, the arrogance of some people! You politely (but somewhat coldly) reply that you are simply too busy to help him out. You know you have some free time, but you tell yourself that your time would be better spent with your family and your real friends. Over time, that person gets the message and stops bothering you, and you both learn to politely avoid one another at church functions. You both rationalise that you aren’t bitter or anything; you just aren’t as “close” as you once were. And in this way, Satan successfully drives a wedge between two brothers/sisters in Christ to the harm of many in the church – perhaps for generations to come.

Last time, we began this series by looking for God’s definition of forgiveness in His Word. In Ephesians 4:31-32 (and Colossians 3:13), God calls believers to forgive each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven us. As Christians, we know a good bit about how God has forgiven us in Christ. We know that while we were still His enemies, God loved us and sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins. We know that God offers forgiveness and salvation to ALL His enemies – none of whom deserve it! And we rejoice that God saves all those who repent of their sins and receive His gift of forgiveness through faith in Christ. God’s forgiveness shapes our understanding of human forgiveness, which we defined last time, as follows:

Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.[1]

Now, to some of you, that definition is about as clear as mud. So, think of it this way: Forgiveness is essentially an attitude that leads to action. We graciously offer forgiveness to all who offend us; promising to actually forgive those who repent. And our forgiveness is a four-fold promise not to bring the matter up again to yourself, to others, or to the offender – nor will you use it against them.

But wait a moment … Does this mean that I have to wait until someone repents before I can forgive him? What if I knew he didn’t mean to do it? Or, what if he now lives far away, or is even dead? There are many situations where someone might not have repented, and yet I want to forgive him and move on with my life… Are you saying that I can’t? No, I am not saying that. Rather, this is where God’s teaching on “covering in love” is so important.  Repeatedly in Proverbs, God gives principles of conflict resolution. Gossip and a vindictive spirit flow from hatred, but love covers sin and keeps offenses quiet (see Proverbs 10:12; 17:9). As Peter says in I Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Paul expands on this principle in I Corinthians 13,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (emphasis mine)

In these Scriptures, God is teaching us HOW we show the love of Christ to our neighbour. We love by overlooking small offenses. We love by not getting angry easily. We love by refusing to gossip about the offenses of others. We love by not keeping records of the sins of our friends and family. Covering over offenses in love is the fundamental expression of the attitude of forgiveness. If you have a heart willing to forgive all those who offend you, then you will cover many offenses in love. But recognise this: “covering an offense in love” means that you are making the same four-fold promise as forgiveness! You are promising to shove that offense under the blanket of love, never to bring it up again to yourself, to others, or to the offender – nor will you use it against them! It is very easy to tell yourself that you are covering an offense in love, when in reality, you are actually just writing it down on a ledger in your mind. And then you pull it out at the next fight or disagreement as a trump card, “Remember when you did this…?!” But God says that love keeps no record of wrongs. If you choose to cover or forgive some offense, make sure you truly throw the blanket of love over the whole incident.

However, what do you do when you try to cover an offense in love, but the memories of that incident just keep coming back to mind? Perhaps, you tried to overlook some rude comment a friend made, but you just can’t seem to help being upset about it. Whenever a particular incident continues to “throw off the covers” of love, you need to resolve it according to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 and Luke 17.[2] Keep in mind that the offense may not clearly be sin; it might just be your perception of another’s attitude or actions. But if you simply cannot keep the matter covered in your mind, then you must deal with it God’s way.

Jesus gave us the most basic principle of resolving these sorts of conflicts in Luke 17:3b, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.[3] Matthew 18:15-17 explains this more extensively, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The goal of confronting your brother is not to get even. It is not to rub his nose in his error. Jesus tells us to show our brother his fault, in a private way, in order to win him back as a friend. Furthermore, you rebuke him with the intention of forgiving him as soon as he repents.  Remember that you should have already tried to cover the offense in love. Therefore, your tone and words must reflect your desire to cover this offense under the blanket of loving forgiveness. Many minor disputes have been made worse by harsh words, when a soft answer would have led to reconciliation.

Did the situation described at the beginning of this article sound familiar? Perhaps that describes one or more of your relationships. How do you change those situations? Or, do you need to change them? In Romans 12:18 the Apostle Paul gives us this instruction, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men (emphasis mine). God went to great lengths to make peace with us in Christ. And His love constrains us to show that same love as we seek to live at peace with others. Biblical repentance and forgiveness is God’s appointed process for restoring broken relationships.  As far as it depends on you, don’t leave problems unresolved and relationships cold or distant. Simply put, you need to decide whether you should cover that past offense in love, or whether you should still go and speak to the other person about it. Either way, you may need to ask for forgiveness for the way you acted.

Practically, if you decide to cover the offense in love, you could say something like this, “Mike, a long time ago I got upset about something you said to me. Since then, I have decided that it wasn’t such a big deal. But, for a long time, I have sinfully held a grudge against you. I allowed my sinful reaction to affect our friendship. Will you please forgive me for the way I reacted?” Or, if you believe the offense still needs to be confronted, then you must preface your confrontation with your own confession of sin. “Alice, I need to ask your forgiveness for not coming to you about this sooner. I was offended by something you said to me back in April. I should have come and spoken to you about it then, but I didn’t. I have sinfully let that offense harm our friendship ever since. Will you please forgive me?” At that point, most friends will either know or will ask which comment was so offensive. And you can work matters out from there.

Now, some of you might be objecting in your mind, “No! I don’t have to go to them. They sinned against me. I know the Bible too, and Matthew 5 says that the offender has to come to me!” But that is the beauty of God’s commands! If believers obey Matthew 5:23 and Matthew 18:15, then the offender and the offended should meet each other halfway – both going to talk to the other. The reason Jesus spends so much more time explaining that the offended must go speak to his brother, is because the offender may not know he has done anything wrong! He may have said or done something without thinking it was offensive. One of my professors had a great saying to explain this concept: He who has the sore toes goes, because he is the one who always knows. If someone has “stepped on your toes” in some way, he may not know it. But the one with flat toes certainly knows. Therefore, he is the one who must cover the offense in love, or if that is not possible, he must go, confront his friend, and seek reconciliation.

If your friend doesn’t listen to you, you should let the situation and emotions cool down a bit and try again later. If he still does not listen to you, then you should choose one or two wise friends (that you both respect) to help you seek reconciliation. If possible, it is best to avoid choosing office-bearers at this point, in order to avoid escalating the conflict. The one or two friends’ job is not to side with you. They are to evaluate the entire situation. If you are in the wrong, they should tell you, so that you can go and repent to your brother. The witnesses are there to explain to you both where you are wrong and to help you reconcile. If you can’t resolve the matter at this point, then you may need to take it to the elders of the church for resolution. Much more could be said about this part of Matthew 18, but that would be better reserved for a series on church discipline. 

Last time, we defined God’s forgiveness, which helped us define how we are to forgive. This time, we have expanded on that definition to describe the basic practice of forgiveness: from covering in love to confronting our brother. But, what if you don’t feel like forgiving? What if your brother “repents,” but you doubt their sincerity? What actually is biblical repentance? We hope to address these matters next time.


[1] Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 55.
[2] Jay Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving, (Merrick, NY: Calvary Press, 1994), 34-35.
[3] We will deal more extensively with Luke 17:1-10 in the next article.