A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Christians are Very Confused About Forgiveness

I (Jeff) am sitting at my normal early morning post, latte in hand, staring at four books written by well-known Christians, all on the topic of forgiveness. I have read three of them and surveyed the fourth. Many more have been written, as a search on Amazon will reveal.  I suspect, however, that a person could read them all and only be more in the fog about forgiveness than before. These books do not agree with one another. At least the ones I have looked at. As has been said, “a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” If Christian pastors and teachers are unclear what forgiveness is, well – the blind are leading the blind.

You may have had the unpleasant opportunity to see this fog work itself out in your own life or in your church. Someone sins. Grievously, let’s say. This blog is about abuse, so let’s assume the sin is classic domestic violence and abuse. The perpetrator has been caught. He says he is sorry. Let’s say in this case he is actually genuinely repentant (very rare, of course). And then the discussion begins.  Those folks over there say he must be allowed to remain in the church (where his victim is a member too). Others say he cannot. Here is a group that insists the victim must reconcile with him in her marriage because forgiveness without reconciliation is not really forgiveness. God hates divorce. Forgive seventy times seven. Christ tells us we must forgive just as God in Christ has forgiven us. And since that includes reconciliation, then this fellow’s relationships with the church and with his victim must all be continued. The heat increases. When the dust clears, the victim has had to leave the church. There is division in the ranks and another party departs. Everyone else stares at one another – “What happened?”

What happened is the expected result of a church not having a firm, clear, biblical understanding of Christ’s Word on forgiveness. Isn’t it incredible? The most forgiven people in the world – Christians – don’t understand what forgiveness is. We are much like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – “Rabbi so and so says this….yes, but Rabbi such and such says something else.” Put into today’s terms – “Jay Adams says….but John MacArthur teaches….Ken Sande tells us….”. Something is really wrong with this scenario. Is it really that difficult to figure out how we are to forgive one another? I don’t think so.

Consider for instance this whole matter of reconciliation.  Very, very often when the subject of forgiveness comes up, you will find people quoting the following Scriptures (in addition to seventy times seven of Matthew 18)

Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Colossians 3:12-13 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

These verses are then very often absolutely and mechanistically applied so that forgiveness is something that, point-by-exact-point, must correspond to God’s forgiveness of the sinner. AND, this line of thought goes, since God reconciles the sinner to Himself in Christ, then forgiveness MUST include reconciliation with the offender in ALL cases, EVERY time OR ELSE we are guilty of unforgiveness.

As we have written in another article, abuse serves as a very good test case for our interpretations and applications of Scripture. In this case, this interpretation causes all kinds of suffering and hardship for victims. They are told that unless they reconcile with the abuser, then they are still guilty of unforgiveness. But can you see that the Apostle Paul never intended these verses to be taken as absolute, rigid measures of the essence of forgiveness? What is he telling us? Simply – you are a forgiven people in Christ, so be a forgiving people. And notice the “one another.” He is not specifically teaching us here about forgiveness of enemies, but of the forgiveness that is to characterize our relationships with one another in the body of Christ, the church. 

This is a very large topic, and I do not intend to deal with it exhaustively here. But let me share with you my “theory” of what the essential elements of forgiveness are. In fact, there may be only one essential element.  Forgiveness is a decision made by the person offended (the victim) to not seek personal vengeance against the offender, thus not insisting that the debt incurred by the offender’s sin be paid. It is a resolve to not hate the offender, but to love him and do good to him when opportunity to do so arises. And that is ALL. It does not include in its essence, reconciliation. Once again, I would direct you to Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith. I think we can safely conclude that Paul treated Alexander in accordance with Christ’s (and Paul’s own) instruction. In other words, I think Paul was operating within the sphere of Christ’s command to love our enemies when he wrote this –

2 Timothy 4:14-15 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.

We may reconcile, but that is not part of the essential, basic definition of forgiveness. Paul was not going to reconcile with Alexander. Neither does forgiveness preclude requiring payment of temporal debts, or of requiring that certain temporal consequences happen (a jail term for example).

At this point in my study, I do not think that forgiveness requires repentance on the part of the offender every time in every case; reconciliation, however, certainly does require it. This means then that –

  • A victim can divorce her abuser and still forgive him
  • A church can forgive an abuser and still not permit him to be in that particular church where the victim attends
  • I can forgive a person and yet, because  I deem them to be unsafe for relationship, choose not to have a relationship with them
  • I can tell the molester of my children, when they repent, “I forgive you, but you can never be around my children again.”
  • I can choose to not have a relationship with a person who has hit me seventy times seven but who has said they are sorry every single time!

If I come across such a person I have forgiven and their car is broken down – I can stop and call a tow for them. If they are beaten up lying along the highway – I can be the Good Samaritan (and I should). I MUST forgive! It is Christ’s command. Forgiveness is a characteristic, in fact, of a truly regenerate, converted heart in Christ. This is why Christ says that if we are not a forgiving person, He will not forgive us. BUT we are laying an unduly heavy and unbiblical burden on one another when we turn the traditions of men into the Word of God, and I think that is what is happening with this subject of forgiveness.  We are making it out to be more than it is.

I have not addressed another important topic – namely, that God’s forgiveness of a repentant, believing sinner may well NOT be the entirely the same as the forgiveness we extend to one another. In fact, I don’t see how it can be exactly the same. But we seem to assume that it must be. Think about what differences might exist between my forgiveness of someone who has sinned against me, and God’s forgiveness in Christ of someone who calls out to Him for saving mercy.

And with all of that said, it is time to end.

14 Comments

  1. Now Free

    Very well said Jeff. I have found that forgiving my husband (Whom I have been separated from over 3 months), has been a very healing gift. I asked God to help me forgive him, and by faith accepted that He would guide me to do so, even though I felt no “forgiving feeling” at that time. It wasn’t long before I did feel forgiveness towards him, and what a joyous release that was, and is! My spirit is joyful, I’m emotionally less anxious, and my body feels relaxed.
    He has become even more emotionally abusive towards me, even though I haven’t communicated with him in over 3 months. He has been slandering and libelling me, telling and writing to my family and the shelter house and crises centres here, pretending to be concerned about my welfare and warning them that I am not of sound mind…I could commit suicide, blaming me for breaking up the family. I am “not at all well in mind and body.” All blatant lies. He has been physically, verbally and emotionally abusive towards me in our 42 year marriage. Forgiving him is one of the best things that has happened to me since leaving him.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Yes, and it really doesn’t matter then if the person we forgive is repentant. WE are still set free. No, there cannot be reconciliation without repentance, but for so many abuse victims, there isn’t ever going to be repentance by their abuser. It is very rare. In your case, you would still be all tied up in knots and resisting forgiving him IF you were being told that you MUST reconcile with him to really forgive him.

      By the way, that is an interesting technique of discrediting by an abuser – phoning the women’s crisis centers! Somehow I don’t think that the staff at those places is going to be really quick to believe such a caller!

  2. Now Free

    Yes, I did just that. That same night I called the crises centre, spoke to the woman he had called (How accommodating of him, to name her in his letter…a letter he wrote to our son), and spoke to her for 25 minutes. She believed me, and I’m quite sure he won’t have credence with them again. I also called the shelter house and advised them likewise.

    Funny, when we were married, his abuse was mainly insidious, sneaky… passive-agressive. Now that he cant “get” to me, he has become very blatant and obvious, sort of desperate.

  3. Now Free

    Well, I erred..we are still married, but only in a legal sense.

  4. joepote01

    This is a good post, Jeff, on a poorly understood topic.

    “I can forgive a person and yet, because I deem them to be unsafe for relationship, choose not to have a relationship with them”

    So true! Yet, so difficult for many to understand…

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Jeff Crippen

      Thanks much. Yes, it is a hugely misunderstood topic. Pastors and churches need to get it straight. I hope we are making progress!

  5. I have a friend who had a conflict with another believer. My friend decided to take responsibility for her own actions and publically apologized for her hurtful words. She also extended the hand of friendship to the person she had a conflict with. The person never accepted the apology, nor did she accept the friendship offered. In fact, some of the person’s friends joked about what they would like to do to my friend’s body.

    Others saw this joking, and said nothing.

    Another friend has been talking to my friend about forgiving the wrong done to her. I say that my friend has already forgiven, and has already offered her opponent friendship. The other person was not interested. No more needs to be done.

    Am I right in saying that my friend has already forgiven? It will take some time for the emotions of the situation to calm down, but I am not sure why she has to be pressured to do something that she has already done.

    Am I missing something? Not sure.

    • Jeff Crippen

      She is being “should upon,” and that is wrong. She has indeed already forgiven the person (assuming of course that the sin she confessed and repented of is of such a nature that the person she wronged can trust her as a friend once again. Some sins, like sexual abuse, preclude ever trusting the person again in most cases). It sounds like the people who are telling her that she still hasn’t forgiven are wrapping forgiveness and reconciliation up in the same blanket, and that is very wrong. People selfishly want “the red, red, robin” to be merrily bobbin’ along in sunny green meadows. They want their own life circumstances to be totally conflict and trouble free. Your friend is rocking their world and they want things to go back to what they call “normal.” That is why victims so often are pressured to “forgive and forget.” So no one has to ever pay any cost for sin. When we properly draw boundaries, people like this get upset with us and tell us we are being unloving and unforgiving. We are not.

      • Yes! Thank you. It was a misunderstanding between the two that was escalating. It is now defused, at least.

  6. Jonathan Pote

    Well put, Jeff! I appreciate someone actually addressing this. I have had people in whom I have had absolute trust who betrayed that trust. I can forgive them, but I also must accept that I mis-judged their character, and that they are a different person from what I had thought. Accepting that, I can forgive them, I can even remain a friend, but I probably won’t put them in a position where trust is a critical issue. The thing I must do is overcome my own anger before it poisons my life. That is certainly burden enough.

  7. grace551

    This is a very helpful post, and has made my thinking clearer. Thank you.

  8. 3blossommom

    I am having a hard time with this. My narcissistic abuser has apologized so often and given false confessions to manipulate me so often and now will have nothing to do with truth. He has headed back to a church while still open with his latest mistress and is making me out to be the villain in our relationship as if I must seek his forgiveness. I uncover new deceptions every month.

    I have read Steven Tracy’s book. I have read much that says I must forgive, but how? Even the thought of offering yet another round of forgiveness is making me want to vomit. He walks away clear in his heart while still living like the devil? I am so confused. I understand all of this intellectually, but if this is the mark of a Spirit filled Christian, then maybe I’m fooling myself about my faith. Would a Spirit filled Christian want to vomit over having to forgive someone? And if I go after him for the maximum in the law as relates to our divorce, then what does that mean about me. Am I just doing it because I can’t find the ability to forgive? I understand I don’t have to reconcile and be his friend (though I’ll have to see him because of the children), but forgiving him is like a dead weight on my feet. I’m at a stand still.

    • Hi 3blossommom, which book by Steven Tracy are you referring to? I’ve read his book Mending the Soul and both Jeff and I have had contact with him by email over the years. If Tracy’s book has made you feel like forgiving your abuser is a dead weight on your feet, it is possible that you haven’t quite understood what Tracy said, because all the other stuff you’ve read about forgiveness (the BAD teaching you’ve read about it) has led you to hear Tracy’s words through that bad filter.

      Bear in mind that this post of Jeff’s was written in 2012, the year this blog was started. We’ve written many other posts on forgiveness since then. It think this one may help you:

      Three kinds of forgiveness

      And here is our tag for forgiveness. Currently it has nearly 50 posts.

  9. PEARL

    A relative, now dead, took indecent liberties with me. I told my parents and nothing was done, I was a minor at the time and I sought justice no further than them. The abuser’s evil character was later exposed in a big way and as the scripture said, “they were suddenly destroyed and that without remedy”.

    Years later I found out that one of my parents had been through an even worse experience than mine. They had told no one, they were not validated. I finally understood and was able to forgive them for not being able to help me when I needed it. When the abuser was dying, they wanted to talk to me when they were on their deathbed, I refused. I had forgiven them but they had never admitted their wrong and I had no desire to talk with them even though they were dying because I had no idea what they would say. I forgave, but there was no reconciliation, I believe there is a difference…

    My experience with those who say they are Christians but are vicious gossips. I have forgiven them for what they said or did, I have not sought revenge against them, however, I do not speak with them except when absolutely necessary nor share anything personal with them ever again as they have shown me what they are all about. They get angry and have tried to retaliate which only reinforces to me that I am on the right track.

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