I woke up at 3:30 this morning, and I was preaching a sermon. Or as I prefer to say, teaching a sermon. Yes, I was awake, watching myself, in a sense, creating an outline on a whiteboard and inviting the congregation to talk about repentance and forgiveness. It was a very strange experience, needless to say. At the time, I thought to my semi-aware self, “I hope I remember this in the morning to write it down, because I think it’s good stuff.”
Who knows though how good 3am theology really is? Also, as I’m writing this having been up since 3:30am, I make no guarantees on its quality, either.
I am writing it down. I believe that someone needs to hear it, whether that’s you, my congregation, me—I don’t know. It didn’t come to me for no reason though, so here, at least, is part of the forgiveness piece.
What Forgiveness Is–and Is Not
Many people in the church, especially women, are bullied into forgiveness rather than walked alongside toward it with grace. You don’t have to look far right now to find the double anguish of women who have spoken up about abuse seemingly helped along by the church. In too common practice, leadership then accuses them of trying to destroy their church/pastor/spouse by not engaging in “biblical” forgiveness.
What they mean, of course, is not being willing to pretend the abuse never happened, and if it did, to agree that they are mostly to blame.Tweet
So where do repentance and forgiveness belong in the cycle of church life and discipleship?
Forgiveness seems to me to have 3 steps.
(Yes, even in an odd awake dream, I apparently alliterate like a good preacher. The “repent” side was also 3 ‘R’s.’ Whatever.)
“Release” is what we typically see Jesus talking about when he mentions forgiveness. In Matthew 18.22, he uses a word that means to cast away or to let go. When Peter famously asks how many times we should forgive someone who has harmed us, Jesus answers with “seventy times seven”—a phrase known to mean “infinite.”
When someone harms you, continually release them from the debt they owe you. Let the account go. As Paul will later explain, “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” So forgiveness, to Jesus, means to free both people from the imprisonment of holding on to a wrong. He asks that we choose to toss away the accounting books that hold the debt.
This aligns with the parable with which he follows his statement to Peter. A rich man forgives the massive debt of another man. The second, however, chooses to hold on to a much smaller debt owed to him. This, Jesus makes clear, is an affront to the generosity he has had extended to him. As what we now call the Lord’s Prayer teachers us, true gratitude for our own forgiveness results in forgiveness extended to others.
In Jesus’ definition of forgiveness, books are wiped clean.Tweet
But what is not happening in this story? Debts are wiped clean, but does this mean the people in the story are to go forward pretending they had never been incurred? Do they allow the person to accumulate debt again in the same way? Jesus doesn’t demand that. The release is required—but the reconciliation and restoration are not necessarily a part of that equation.
That’s where we can fail, in an abusive situation, to teach forgiveness the way Jesus did. Forgiveness is a miracle and a sign of a heart alive to Christ’s deep love for them. It can never be marveled at enough. Downplaying its importance is to forget Jesus’ pretty serous words earlier in Mathew 6.14-15.
Yet forcing it, in a world where we know repentance is often false and peace a one-way street, feels like an abuse of the very concept. It appears to be mocking Jesus’ “490” proclamation, not endorsing it.
Full disclosure—I am a #metoo woman. I was abused by a relative from the ages of 8-14. I have quite a clear grasp on what it feels to demand forgiveness versus come to it by grace. I have forgiven. The release is complete for me. Nevertheless, restoration of the relationship was never on the table. The harm done continues to this day, and a demanded restoration of trust would have been a sham. Indeed, with three daughters of my own, trust would not ever be offered in any way. We both have freedom. We do not have a relationship.
This is why it’s helpful, I think, to look at this 3-step process for forgiveness. We can get through step one, and that truly is the forgiveness that Jesus asks of us. Steps 2 and 3 may happen, and they may not. Either one is OK.
A possible Step 2—reconciliation—is simply to say to another, “You’re part of the family again. You’re accepted back.” The person has repented, and the relationship is mended.
- It’s the church treasurer who stole money and repaid it reconciled to the body—but she is not necessarily given back a position at the till.
- It’s the person who has gossiped or lied about another being taken back into a group of friends or a church small group. The person lied about has received an apology, but he might never entrust that friend with vulnerable truths again.
- It’s the alcoholic parent being invited to Thanksgiving and the family vacation at the lake. His daughter, however, will continue to hide keys and perhaps credit cards.
Reconciliation is a move beyond release to acceptance, with caution. The release is done. The forgiveness part is over. The shalom has begun. It is not yet complete. In this place it might never be. We cannot force reconciliation nor should we, because we could be pushing someone who has already forgiven back into a relationship where there is no true repentance.
The abuse will continue, and it will be twice as damaging, because everyone will assume all is well when a happy face bandaid is put on a deep unhealed wound. There will be pressure for the wounded not to speak up again, and the abuser will take advantage of that.
Reconciliation is the choice of the victim, and it should never be assumed.Tweet
Restoration seems to take it one step farther in the sense that the relationship is restored completely. Terry returns to the equation.
This is the church treasurer not only being invited back to fellowship but to trust and leadership. It’s the spouse not only forgiven abuse or adultery but the repair of the relationship to a better state than before. It’s Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul while Ananias vouches for the man who would have killed him a month before, given the chance.
This is the kind of “as far as the east is from the west” forgiveness God extends. It’s not a human ability. When it happens, it’s a miracle of grace and God.
It doesn’t have to happen.
I believe it’s time we look at Jesus-taught forgiveness for what it is, not for the painless (for the perpetrator), “don’t make waves” conviction many church leaders fall into. Forgiveness is the release of debt. It can be done unilaterally, as in my case mentioned above.
Jesus emphasizes its importance because our unwillingness to wipe clean the slate of another shows a poor understanding and experience of God’s great love in clearing our own slates. Bitterness and resentment in the heart and soul of a believer set up a roadblock to our own intimacy with God. We lose our first love.
Reconciliation and restoration are never unilateral. They cannot be the work of one person. The image of either one requires two sides coming together. Thus while one offended party does the work of release, the offender must be doing the work of repentance. (Recognize the wrong, take responsibility for the wrong, and restore what was taken—if you want to know the 3 R’s in that half.)
The reconciliation and restoration are possible—but they are not required. This side of eternity, many things will be restored by the grace of God. Many, however, will not. This is the tension with which we live as believers. We believe and hope for God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. We recognize that this liminal occurrence isn’t common. We pray for grace. W repeat. Amen.