|Book: Creating a Secure Church: BOOK TWO|
Part 1 : Objectives & Obstacles
Part 2 : Secure in Relationships
Part 3 : Secure in Ministry
Part 4 : When Things go Wrong
Part 5 : Concluding Thoughts
Chapter 17: Thinking about Forgiveness
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have
against one another”
17.1 Facing Forgiveness
In the last chapter we looked at the means of dealing with a Conflict situation. Christians so often seem to have difficulties over forgiveness and so this chapter is given over to that subject.
We seek to flee from people that we find difficult, whereas God wants to use them to bring us to the end of ourselves and so rely on Him for grace to cope with them. In that we become more and more like Jesus. Thus it is that the enemy will try to emphasise our differences and make us isolationists, especially isolating or pushing away those we feel are unlike us and lacking the grace we believe we have.
The tactics the enemy uses are either
Because we have already been thinking about the ‘differences' issue, we now move to consider the ‘hostility' issue which raises the whole question of forgiveness.
A Divine Imperative
Our Colossians 3:13 verse gives us no room for manoeuvre – we're TOLD to forgive. Part of our ‘putting up with people' is to be the thing we call forgiveness, and the reason we're to do it is twofold:
This unforgiveness may be ‘baggage' from the past or a present reality, but it's a power block to the life of an individual or the life of a church. Obviously if there is unforgiveness there is a blockage to forming a proper relationship. Many an individual's potential has been squashed because they have allowed unforgiveness to blight their life. Many a church has been rendered powerless because unresolved conflicts have raged and unforgiveness has prevailed.
Earlier in the book we were considering people-quirks or character blemishes that we've found difficult, but now we need to move on to consider how we respond to those who specifically offend us or, to be more precise, who sin against us.
Audrey gives the impression of being an ordinary, staid, faithful Christian who never seems to go anywhere with her faith, and she's a frustration to her leaders who see such potential in her. Inside she's locked up with guilt that comes from unforgiveness. Years ago she failed her daughter. The details don't matter. Just know that through it all she acknowledged her wrong and asked her daughter's forgiveness - but it was not forthcoming. The bitterness that had grown in her daughter spat out, “I'll never forgive you. I hate you!” That unforgiveness from her daughter acted like a heavy weight within Audrey. She did all the things Christians do, but inside was this weight that was unresolved guilt. Unforgiveness by another had locked up her life.
For Bob it was the other way around. In a previous church the leaders had made a promise to Bob which they had never kept, or so he believed. As a result Bob was harbouring resentment and unforgiveness, both of which acted like a brake on his life. The fact that the unforgiveness was based upon a misunderstanding didn't in any way diminish its impact. Bob was another one of those church members who are there – but not!
Others encouraged him to join in the life of the church but the grudge from the past somehow acted to dampen his whole life. The reality is that unforgiveness can be THE major stumbling block to creating a secure church, yet forgiveness is not an option, it is a divine command.
What happens in a bad relationship situation is that one person offends another person and the second person feels upset with them and harbours bad feelings against them. That's what we call unforgiveness. So how can we help one another deal with it?
17.2 The Shifting Sands of Offence
Before we look at this subject more fully, we need to clarify in our minds what we mean when we said above “we have been offended”, because it can mean many things to many people, and before we know where we are, what appeared to be simple and straight forward, becomes something quite different. So let's think about it slowly and carefully.
Let's start with that person who seems to ‘rub everybody up the wrong way'. The fact is that some people simply don't know how to say things without sounding threatening or offensive. In all honesty, I think I'm only starting to move out of that mode myself. People who are naturally forthright can be offensive while being quite unaware of it – oh yes, they're not being intentionally abrasive.
One of the problems in the church is that so often we are afraid to pick someone up on the way they speak to us, because we ourselves lack the grace or the wisdom to do it in a way that will not in itself create offence.
I used to know someone who, bluntly, was always critical – often of me, simply because they were always critical! For a long period I took it without saying a thing, believing it was ‘servant-hearted' to take it on the chin – and anyway if I confronted them with it, they would leave, I believed, and I didn't want that to happen. So I tolerated their sin because I lacked the courage, the grace, the wisdom, call it what you will, to pick them up on the way they spoke.
Again, if I'm honest, in addition to my general inability to confront, another reason I didn't do it was because actually I wanted to tell them their fortune and really chop them to pieces. That's what we feel like ‘naturally' and so it's an effort to come to God, confess our own weakness and seek Him for the grace to be Jesus to this other person.
What I really want to be saying here is that I don't want you to get into a big “forgiveness meal” over fairly minor things that could be quickly dealt with by some gracious words from our mouths, coming from accepting, loving and caring hearts.
In what follows, when I am referring to you having been “offended”, I really want to deal with serious issues where you have been abused by another, verbally or physically, and you've been left marked as a result of it.
If it's a minor misunderstanding thing, then just get God's grace to talk it out gently, but if it's a time when you were totally devastated by someone abusing you, then that's what we're talking about!
17.3 The Basics of Biblical Forgiveness
A Common Misunderstanding
There is a common misunderstanding about forgiveness that you hear again and again, but which does NOT correspond with Scripture. The common version is, “You must forgive people regardless of whether or not they are repentant.” Now that is inaccurate in one specific way which is very important to God – it minimises the awfulness of sin. What it in fact says is, “It's all right that you have sinned against me, it doesn't matter.”
Biblical Forgiveness is based on God's forgiveness:
Col 3:13 Forgive as the Lord forgave you .
Now when we examine how God forgives, we see that it is ONLY after repentance. We mustn't confuse this with two things:
Now as we went to lengths to say in Book One, God loves us unconditionally, but don't let that become ‘God excuses our Sin'. He never does that, He has too serious a view about Sin, so serious that the only way to deal with it was with the life of His Son!
Yes, Jesus did die in our place, but it is very clear from Scripture that to receive the work of the Cross we have to believe it and come to God in repentance, specifically seeking his forgiveness. Throughout the Old Testament period the prophets preached repentance. When John the Baptist came he preached repentance (Mt 3:1,2). When Jesus came he preached repentance (Mt 4:17). When the Holy Spirit came on Peter on the day of Pentecost, he preached repentance (Acts 2:38), which would open the door for forgiveness (see that same verse).
Nowhere in Scripture does God forgive without there first being repentance, but the moment there is repentance, forgiveness is guaranteed.
Vine's Expository Dictionary says, "Human 'forgiveness' is to be strictly analogous to divine 'forgiveness,' e.g. Matt 6:12. If certain conditions are fulfilled, there is no limitation to Christ's law of 'forgiveness,' Matt 18:21,22, The conditions are repentance and confession, Matt 1815-17, Luke 17:3".
Love before Repentance
Now if we are to forgive as God forgives, it also means we are to love as He loves, and He loves before there is repentance. That's why we said we need to distinguish between love and forgiveness. You CAN love but not forgive, because forgiveness has to do more with a judicial proclamation than with feelings.
The Christian requirement from Jesus is that we love our enemies (Mt 5:44) which means holding a good attitude towards people who are clearly against us which may go even beyond your offender.
This sort of forgiveness process is much more onerous than the casual or cheap forgiveness so often expounded. This forgiveness calls a spade a spade while at the same time holding an open non-hostile heart towards the offender.
This sort of forgiveness confronts your offender (Mt 5:23,24) but works for reconciliation, approaching your offender with a gentle heart (Gal 6:1) looking for their good – because how can love do anything less than this!
To see a more full description of how this all works out, you may wish to go to our sister site which has a three part description of the process. If so, please CLICK HERE.
When Jesus was teaching, the ‘law' that he brought sought to counteract any desires for revenge by going much further and requiring is to do something positive by means of countering the offence (that was the purpose of ‘eye for eye' – Mt 5:38).
The Scriptural Strategy for Forgiveness
The following is the process that the Scriptures show us for properly dealing with offences:
That's how it is supposed to be! On occasion it may be that stage 2 is omitted because God convicts them before you have an opportunity to face them up with it.
But it's that stage 2 that most of us would prefer to avoid and simply say, “Oh, it's all right, I forgive them.” But that's not forgiveness, that's condoning sin. As we said above, it takes real grace to confront someone in such a way that you want their good as well as yours.
What happens if stage 3 doesn't happen? You do one of two things: you either leave it for the Lord to bring conviction, or you go to a leader in the church for it to be taken a stage further. We'll pick up the latter option in a later chapter where we focus more on correction.
You may have to leave it if the person is not in your church and having confronted them, there is nothing more you can do.
17.4 The Key to Biblical Forgiveness
Instead of seeing offence and forgiveness as an issue simply between two people, we need to see that it is between two people AND God. Where there is an unconfessed sin this is an open issue with God. It may not be something that affects our eternal destiny (although it can be) but unconfessed sin means you have an unresolved issue with God – sin is an offence against God! It is only resolved when you repent of it, and God doesn't bring judgement then, because Jesus already took that punishment.
The Biblical teaching is that it is possible to unintentionally sin and obviously action can only be taken when you become aware of it (see for example Lev 4:13,14). Similarly Paul shows us (Rom 5:12-14) that sin existed before the Law (knowledge of specific sins) but wasn't counted against the sinner – yet the effects of sin did operate, i.e. people still died.
So, as we said above, forgiveness is a judicial pronouncement on behalf of heaven when there has been repentance. Before the repentance and after it, the important thing for us, the offended person, is that we get the grace of God to cope and to hold a non-hostile attitude towards our offended, wanting them to come through to the good with God and with you.
Hold on, you may be thinking, surely the end outcome is the same as if I'd simply said, “It's all right I forgive you” even if they haven't repented? No, you wouldn't have been part of God's process of bringing them to the good – they still have a casual attitude about their sin, because you let them off. God wants them to come into a proper place before Him where they acknowledge what they have done is wrong and repent of it. In that way they are reconciled to God AND they are less likely to repeat it, which again is one of God's goals for them.
From your side of it all, the difficult thing, as we said before, is for you to hold a right attitude towards your offender
17.5 Helpful Factors
There are a number of factors that might enable us to receive the grace of God to cope well with the situation:
1. Realisation of Justice
Many people struggle with the question of forgiveness, and counsellors sometimes don't help because they do not follow the Scriptural pattern, because they are being asked to ignore injustice, and so the offended person says, “But she/he did me wrong!” and the correct answer is, “Yes, it was very wrong and God wants them to come to a place of repentance but in the meantime the important thing is for you to receive God's grace to heal up all you are feeling about what happened.”
We may subsequently go on to also suggest that they are to become God's means of bringing that other person to the good, and when that happens they can then pronounce forgiveness, but not until then. The focus of the counsel then moves to receiving grace for today without the need to ignore justice.
[You may be saying, but I didn't get justice when God forgave me. Oh yes you did, You repented and God forgave you on the basis that His Son had stepped in and taken the punishment for the Sin(s) you've just confessed. His work on the Cross only becomes operative in respect of clear, known sin, when there is repentance.]
2. Our own unworthiness
The truth is that we have no room to point fingers at other people. If an angel blew a horn from heaven every time we had less than a perfect thought or less than a perfect word or less than a perfect action, there would be a tired and exhausted angel in heaven! We have been forgiven by God despite what we were like. The parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35) is a strong warning.
Again and again in Scripture we are encouraged to act in a particular way because that is how God or Christ has acted towards us, e.g. in our Colossian verse it finishes, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you”. These sort of verses remind us that we are what we are by the mercy and grace of God and so we are to extend that same mercy and grace to others.
3. The condition of the other person
Sometimes when we've been counselling someone we've come up against the stumbling block of pain or anger which seems impossible to surmount. However what the Lord did was to show them the state of the person who offended them. One girl who had a major (and genuine) grievance against her father from her childhood days, found as she prayed that the Lord allowed her to see the state her father had been in at that time. Instead of anger against him, she wept with compassion and found it easy to release him to God (he had already died). Awareness of the state of that person as seen through the eyes of Christ enables grace to come much more freely.
4. The will of God in His command
The Scripture allows us no excuses. Too many times it commands us to forgive and indeed makes it a condition of receiving forgiveness (e.g. Mt 6:15 ). But it's not just a question of Law, for the Law is there to drive us into the arms of the Father. In that amazing Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says a number of things that are humanly impossible to do. So why does he say them? To drive us into the Father's arms where we acknowledge our own weakness and our own need, and receive through our relationship with Him the grace to do those things.
Grace in the face of hurt is one of those things, and if that wasn't bad enough, love for our enemies is another as we noted previously (Mt 5:44), so if you consider someone has abused or offended you and has become your enemy, the command is there: love them, pray for them, and you'll only do that with God's grace, but it isn't an option!
A Summing Up Verse
In Book One we noted Peter's security in Jesus' presence by reference to Mt 18:21 when Peter asks how many times he shall forgive his brother, but in Luke's teaching in Lk 17:3,4 we find Jesus saying, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent', forgive him.”
There it is all very clearly laid out – he sins, you rebuke him, he repents, and you forgive him. Those are all the ingredients. When Peter spoke about it in Matthew's Gospel, his emphasis was simply on how many times he needs to forgive. When Jesus spells it out, he gives all the ingredients for it to be true Scriptural forgiveness – and yet it has to keep on happening if the forgiveness-repentance cycle is repeated.
17.6 And So?
So, as we conclude this chapter on the matter of forgiveness, consider the following:
Are there people in my life who
If there is someone who has seriously offended me, what is it that stops me confronting them in love, seeking to bring a right resolution?
If there are people who are simply fractious, what do I need to be able to help them?
If you wish to check out the Biblical verses on forgiveness in a full study on what the Bible say about it, then please CLICK HERE.