Originally posted in April 2012
Before moving on to discuss how certain spiritually abusive groups like the Shepherding Discipleship Churches and organizations like Peacemaker Ministries can misuse Scripture to bring harm to other Christians by demanding immediate forgiveness and unqualified reconciliation, a review of the concepts is in order.
What is Forgiveness?
In the context of the culture and the original language of the New Testament, the word forgiveness was a term that was usually applied to money. If someone owes you money and does not pay it to you, you have the right to go to them to demand that amount from them. If you forgive them that debt, you waive your rights to collect on the debt. The term aphiēmi and the related derivatives of the word refer only to leaving the matter alone, but the fact of the matter of the debt still exists. It is not necessarily forgotten, but a person makes a conscious choice to abandon or ignore the matter.
Jesus taught that we must forgive those who offend us, and we must possess an attitude of great willingness to forgive. Depending on how deeply we've been effected by the harm done to us, this may not be an immediate process, and though we should readily offer forgiveness the process may be a longer journey for us. Such situations call for discernment, and I tend to think of Joseph's response to his brothers who come to Egypt to buy food, many decades after they sold him into slavery because they were jealous of him. If you examine how the story unfolds (Genesis 39-46), he does not readily identify himself, and he tests his brothers to see if he can reveal himself to them without feeling threatened. He tries them to see if the are willing to receive them, anticipating how they may react to him. Their saga results in a grand reconciliation after many years, but Joseph does not offer forgiveness until he believes that it is prudent to do so and pursues reconciliation cautiously by exercising wisdom.
Forgiveness is Non-Optional
Learning new patterns in relationships poses one of the more difficult challenges in life, so we are called to keep forgiving readily, as many times as seventy times seven times (with seven representing the number of perfection, prompting Peter to choose this figure as an measure), a passage also included in Matthew Chapter 18. Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (vs 21-22). Following these verses, Jesus goes on to offer a parable about a slave that is forgiven a debt that he cannot pay, but then goes out to hound the people who owe him a debt. Rather than offering the person who owes the slave money the same measure of mercy and forgiveness in a generous spirit, the slave demands payment of the man. His master calls him wicked and hands him over for punishment. Matthew 6 warns that our own sins and trespasses will not be forgiven if we do not readily forgive others, as we will be measured as scrupulously as we measure others.
Other verses in the synoptic gospels note that forgiveness doesn't necessarily need to be offered to the person if they do not repent of the wrong that they've done. Reading nearly identically to the Matthew 18 passage, Luke adds the addition of a required repentance, suggesting that justice should not be ignored or forgone in order to offer forgiveness when it is not warranted. It is possible for people to offer “lip service,” just to go through the motions of repentance without it being genuine. And if a sinner is automatically offered forgiveness without requiring a change in behavior, this also does little good for him and for the person that he sins against. The same attitude of being favorable, ready, if not happy to forgive should be present, but it offers the additional qualification of repentance.
He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
What Does Forgiveness Look Like?
Recall that the language used to define forgiveness is the same language that is used to describe financial matters, and that Matthew was a tax collector. Consider that you go to market and pay $1 for a pound of meal. You get home, and you realize that you’ve only been given half of a pound. It is your right to go back to that vendor and demand that they either give you half of your money back or demand that you be given an additional half pound of meal. But what if you go back to the vendor, and he refuses to give you what he owes to you? What if he accuses you of trying to cheat him or states that if you didn't say something at the time of the transaction, then he no longer feels obligated to make good on the exchange? You have the option to harbor the right to collect, to take the matter to another party to arbitrate, or you can choose to overlook the matter, forgiving the debt.
When you forgive that debt, you agree to not demand anything of that vendor. You just let it go and accept that you didn't receive all that was due to you. You no longer seek what is owed to you, but the history of the matter doesn't dissolve. Wisdom and safety may call for the event to be recalled in the future, for it might become a matter of trouble which a wise man anticipates and avoids. The problem may be a chronic one, and it would not be prudent for a wise man to continue to use a vendor with a history of short-changing him unless he is comfortable with the idea that he will not always receive what is owed to him by that vendor.
Note that the deprived party can choose to automatically forgive the debt without ever consulting the vendor, though it is his burden to really abandon the debt without “keeping it” as cause to feel bitter. It may have been a simple error on the part of the vendor and seen as an insignificant matter in light of a long history of trust and good will between the parties. Proverbs 19:11 says, A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense, and in the context of a loving relationship and as a matter of wise discernment, “love can cover” the error.
**An upcoming post will deal with what a person can do when the offending party who has sinned against them will not repent, as well as the party who is believed to offer repentance but does not qualify it with contrition, and effort to stop repeating the behavior, and an effort to make restitution such as we saw in the example of Zaccheus.**
What is Reconciliation, and How Does it Differ from Forgiveness?
Reconciliation is a different word altogether, katallagē. This is also a term used to describe financial transactions, and it is very different from forgiving a debt. Reconciliation is a reckoning that the involved parties make together, essentially wiping away the history of the debt. The two parties write new books, and the offending party is restored to a place of trust and favor This far surpasses what mere forgiveness accomplishes alone. It is a statement of commitment that the past affairs will not pose an ongoing hindrance to the relationship between the two involved parties.
What does reconciliation look like in the context of a financial debt? Considering the example of the vendor who owes you a debt, when you go back to the vendor again, what happens if they repeat this error and fail to take responsibility for their error? You may again decide that you will forgive the vendor, releasing your right to go back to demand justice. But consider that when you need more meal, are you going to go back to this same vendor to do business, or are you going to take your business somewhere else?
If you were wronged and decided to reconcile with this vendor (above and beyond forgiveness of debt), that is a decision to forget that any wrong was ever done, and you affirm them as a legitimate party who has done right by you by repenting of the debt and making proper restitution to you, as much as is possible for them. You're satisfied with their efforts and believe that their intentions are good and honorable. You agree contractually to go do business with them, behaving as though they’d never cheated you before.
Gospel of Reconciliation
Paul did not declare the Gospel of Forgiveness to us in 2 Corinthians 5. He declared the Gospel of Reconciliation to us, a far more powerful act. 1 John 1:9 mentions both forgiveness (abandoning the debt we owe because of sin) and reconciliation (cleansing us from all unrighteousness) which is granted to us by God in response to our repentance. I propose that John mentioned both concepts specifically and separately because they were understood within the culture to be two distinctly different but related concepts. We're not only forgiven, but God reconciles the books so that no record of our debt interferes with our relationship with him. We get a new record because we follow a new standard – the standard of love, not the letter of the law.
Forgiveness means that we don’t have to pay the debt we owe directly to God for our transgressions. Reconciliation means that Jesus pays our debt and declares us righteous before God, and then He goes to prison for us, too. We get His righteousness and He gets our sin. By the power of His Blood and sacrifice, He wipes those sins off the books, and doesn't just merely relinquish the right to collect on the debt. That is far more than just forgiving a debt but is atonement, expiation, and a complete extinguishing of the wrong. When we stand before God, our status is that of righteousness, even though our actual personal history bears out something quite different.
Tendency for Pastors and Ministers to Merge the Two Concepts and for Psychologists to Separate Them
Long before I started reading any Christian books on forgiveness, I went to the Bible to discern what the Bible taught on the matter, and this perspective shaped my thinking on the matter. I believe that my first book specifically dealing with forgiveness was Christian psychologist Dr. David Stoop's book, Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves. I then sought out other titles on the subject, particularly the many books by Lewis Smedes. These books were wonderful, and I found Stoop's book to be life-changing, but my basic understanding of forgiveness came through my study of Scripture as I delved deep into my old Vine's Bible Dictionary.
In the course of my reading on this subject, I found that a survey demonstrated that pastors and ministers with theological training only tend to see forgiveness and reconciliation as one and the same process, but trained psychologists tend to view the processes as different ones. I suppose that as a nurse, it's not all surprising to me that I find myself in agreement with the Christian psychologists, but that doesn't explain how I arrived at my understanding of things if I arrived at those conclusions through Bible Study. Curious.
You can read the full research article which can be a bit dry if it's not your style, but I found the authors' findings and conclusions very noteworthy.
From Forgiveness and reconciliation: the differing perspectives of psychologists and Christian theologians.--> (by Frise and McMinn, published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology)
Among psychologists, forgiveness and reconciliation are typically viewed as separate constructs. This distinction is often adaptive, making it possible for a person to forgive a deceased offender or to forgive without entering back into a dangerous relationship. But to what extent does this privatized and secularized view of forgiveness conflict with the religious construct of forgiveness that many clients and their religious leaders may hold? Two survey studies are reported here. The first assessed the opinions of academic psychologists and Christian theologians regarding the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. The second survey assessed the opinions of expert psychologists and Christian theologians who have published books on the topic of forgiveness. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses revealed that psychologists are more inclined to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation than Christian theologians.
Continue reading the full research article, particularly the implications section HERE.
More to come concerning many aspects of forgiveness.