A school shooting was just being reported, and I was disturbed to see bystanders with signs: “We forgive you.” Really? I wondered. So quickly? Without counting the cost? Without grieving the loss? Without the shooter’s repentance?
This knee-jerk “forgiveness” represents to me a basic unease with the messy struggle of our fallen state. It is an attempt, by those intensely uncomfortable with conflict or confrontation, to smooth things over—instead of facing the depth of evil that Jesus was not afraid to speak up about. [Matthew 12:34]
Unforgiveness is deadly, but so is premature forgiveness. Dr. Robert Karen states: “Many people hold onto a grudge because it offers the illusion of power and a perverse feeling of security. But in fact we are all held hostage by our anger. It is never too late to forgive, but we can forgive too soon. I am especially wary of what I call ‘saintly forgiveness.’ Premature forgiveness is common among people who avoid conflict. They are afraid of their own anger and the anger of others. But their forgiveness is false. Their anger goes underground.” [The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection]
All of us have issues. All of us should be thankful every day for the very idea of forgiveness, and we should be doubly thankful if someone in our life actually loves us and puts up with us. To keep no record of wrongs, we must walk in forgiveness, always ready to forgive, because we all need it. Regularly.
But we have trouble sorting out what forgiveness actually means. We can take forgiveness way too far and use it as a weapon, or we can take it not nearly far enough.
On the one hand, forgiveness is one of the three most powerful change agents of the human heart. Forgiveness is as powerful as turning a key to unlock our own jail cell. Forgiveness can set us free from the very toxins that would become cancer and ulcers and drain the life right out of us. Forgiveness can feel extremely unfair and we can justify to ourselves not forgiving, but the bible is clear that we who have been forgiven so much have no excuse not to forgive others. [Luke 7:36-50]
On the other hand, forgiveness can be used as a weapon, where we are told we must forgive instead of given a choice of our own free will, forgetting that forgiveness is voluntary, between God and the person wronged, that the emotions surrounding forgiveness can take time, and forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.
Forgiveness is unhooking someone from me, and hooking them to God. Forgiveness is saying that person doesn’t owe me a thing—that if they owe anyone, they owe God alone. Forgiveness is starting anew, with a heart as giving as if I’d never been hurt. Forgiving is giving as before. Forgiveness is voluntary, and while God may require me to forgive, others cannot. Remember that after David took Bathsheba to bed and then had her husband Uriah killed, he cried out to God: “It is against you and you alone that I have sinned.” [Psalm 51:4] Essentially, whether I forgive someone is between God and me. Yet God does tell me that if I am asked for forgiveness, I need to extend it. We have all had need of forgiveness, and to grant it is the least we can do, given how much forgiveness has been granted us.
But forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness is not enabling or saying what someone did is okay. Forgiveness is not fixing the situation to remove others’ discomfort with messy, grievous sin. Forgiveness is not overlooking sin, minimizing sin, or justifying sin. Sometimes forgiveness is extended regardless of the state of the offender, [Luke 23:34] while sometimes forgiveness seems to require repentance. [Luke 17:3-4] The bible says: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” It doesn’t say, “Vengeance is bad.” It says, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” [Romans 12:19] That is the same thing as unhooking the offender from us and hooking them onto God.
God alone is in a position to require us to forgive. I say this because many, many hurt spouses are being told to forgive regardless of the position of the offender. Jaycee’s husband beat her severely on multiple occasions. He said that as a Christian, she is required to forgive him. Then he would beat her again; in essence, he used her extracted forgiveness as a “clean slate” to offend again. But when he said “forgiveness,” he meant a clean slate.
We are asked to forgive freely, time after time after time, but we are not required to put ourselves in harm’s way. Reconciliation requires both parties. God offers to forgive our sins and reconcile our relationship with Him, but He requires our repentance. Otherwise, the relationship cannot be restored. [Matthew 18:22]