Sunday, September 09, 2018

Misconceptions About Christian Forgiveness

From Psychology Today, on the subject of forgiveness:

“Most psychologists recommend mustering up genuine compassion for those who have wronged us and moving on from the past, instead of allowing bitterness and anger toward others to eat away at us.”

Read that quote carefully and consider: is that the way you think about forgiveness? Would you conclude forgiveness is complete when the person who has been wronged is finally able to feel the prescribed emotions about their victimizer?

If so, what happens if despite best efforts you are unable to “muster up” the appropriate emotions? What if your feelings absolutely refuse to play along?

I’ve Been Cheated, Been Mistreated ...

Victims of betrayal often find themselves in this uncomfortable position: told they must feel and act a certain way for their own good, or because it is what God demands of them. God forbid, sometimes they are told their very salvation is at stake. One young woman, for instance, had a number of Christian friends advise her to take back her cheating fiancé and trust him again because if she didn’t, she hadn’t truly forgiven him. And sexual abuse victims are sometimes told by secular psychologists that they may feel more empowered if they refuse to forgive their abusers.

Both sets of counselors have the wrong idea about what forgiveness really means. They need to have a closer look at the way the word is used in the New Testament.

 Christian Forgiveness is Not a Feeling

Forgiveness Defined

In Greek, the word “forgive” is aphiēmi, which means to “let go” or “leave alone”. There is nothing remotely emotional about the term. It is used of legal transactions, departures, and electing to allow something undesirable to occur. Feelings like compassion may certainly accompany forgiveness, but they are not the same thing at all.

Biblical forgiveness is the declaration that a debt or obligation has been satisfactorily discharged. It announces that the injured party will not longer seek recompense for the injury done, either through personal revenge, the court system, shunning, gossip, or any other method.

Feelings, frankly, don’t enter into it. In fact, it should be easy to see that the mustered-up compassion or assuaged anger of the injured party, however lovely and commendable, is wholly inadequate if it does not result in an actual, verbal declaration of forgiveness. Managed feelings may enable the victim to carry on without bitterness, but they do nothing whatsoever for the sinner.

An Objection

But what about the Lord’s command to “Forgive your brother from your heart”? Doesn’t that strongly suggest to us that forgiveness requires us to feel a certain way about the person who has done us harm?

The difficulty there is that we are reading back into the Greek text a meaning for “heart” that has more in common with the lyrics of Reba McEntire and Lionel Richie than it has with the way the writers of the New Testament use it.

The Greek word kardia is certainly associated with feelings on occasion, but it has far more to do with authenticity than it does with the subject matter of treacly ballads. The heart is the place where all a man’s secrets are kept. Throughout scripture, it is contrasted with the outward appearance. The real man is found in the heart, not necessarily in what he says. (See the use of “heart” in Matthew 15:8, 24:48, Mark 2:6, Luke 2:19 and a great many others.)

Therefore, to do something “from the heart” is to do it sincerely, honestly and without deception. In other words, there can be no secret plan to use a show of forgiveness as a ploy to get the injurer to let his guard down so you can turn the tables on him. When you say you will no longer pursue a remedy from him, you must absolutely mean it. That is a decision, a choice, an act of the will.

What this verse does not teach is that Christians must attempt to gin up affectionate feelings toward someone who has terribly wronged them before they can offer forgiveness to them. One of the most frequently cited excuses for refusing to forgive is “That would by hypocritical!” This is quite untrue. The appropriate emotions may or may not come in due course, but forgiveness can and should be extended to the repentant with or without them.

 Christian Forgiveness Requires Repentance and Confession

Forgive the Unrepentant?

Timothy Massaro argues in this article that forgiveness is “always necessary”, even toward the unrepentant. I met a Bible teacher this summer who makes the same argument. He reasons that we are called to forgive “as God has forgiven us”. Our forgiveness is patterned on his.

That latter statement is certainly true, and scripture bears it out. But he is conflating an attitude with a transaction. Being willing to forgive someone is not the same as actually forgiving him. It is possible to let go of anger or bitterness toward the sinner without the sinner repenting. In fact, to a certain subset of naturally passive-aggressive individuals, that may sound like an appealing option because it makes confrontation and a potentially messy scene unnecessary. But in the Bible, forgiveness is not simply about the state of mind of the forgiver. Forgiveness, in order to be complete, must be received as well as offered. That means engaging with the person who hurt you, even if that is uncomfortable.

Turn and Be Forgiven

Genuine forgiveness requires repentance, and that includes God’s forgiveness. See what God says about certain people in Israel whom he contrasts with his disciples:
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”
Here the word “turn” is epistrephō, meaning “return” or “come back”. In short, God would forgive Israel if only they would first repent.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is often quoted as the basis for forgiveness preceding repentance. It is claimed that the father saw the returning son afar off and ran toward him long before the son could demonstrate repentance.

But it is important that we read the parable carefully. The father’s forgiveness, enthusiastic as it is, is only extended BECAUSE the son has repented. He only sees his son in the first place because his son is already walking home. There would have been no fatherly display of gracious acceptance for us to talk about if the son had remained grumbling in the fields with the pigs or mulling over a possible career as a bandit. The real evidence of repentance is that the “son arose and came to his father”. The “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” is mere icing on the cake.

Chicken and Egg

The following verses show repentance and confession are preconditions for forgiveness, not results of it:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
How much clearer can it be that forgiveness is not the appropriate response in every situation? The Lord Jesus declares that Heaven itself withholds forgiveness when his apostles withhold it.

Some NOT-ty Caveats

Forgiveness does NOT minimize the injury. Psychologists who counsel their more emotionally-damaged patients to withhold forgiveness have constructed a subjective hierarchy of offenses. In doing so, they trivialize the “forgivable” offenses while refusing to apply the biblical solution to the “unforgivable” ones. But the value of forgiveness is that it rightly belongs to everyone who repents, serial offenders and the worst sort of moral reprobates included. Real forgiveness acknowledges that an offense may be truly terrible, but overcomes it anyway.

Forgiveness does NOT mean the person doing the forgiving will never again feel a surge of negative emotion about the injury. Forgiveness is a declaration of peace. It is a cessation of hostilities. Extending it does not mean you will never look back with an accurate, emotional estimate of the vileness of the injury done to you. We should not confuse the act of extending forgiveness with relief from the temptation to bitterness, angerharsh judgment or failing to love. There are verses about these too, and they need to be dealt with, but they are separate issues, and only the grace of God (and sometimes the passage of time) can bring them about. All the same, forgiveness should be extended to everyone who repents, regardless of our current feelings about them.

Forgiveness does NOT mean the legal consequences of criminal acts should be ignored. The parents of a rape or murder victim may elect to “forgive” the criminal who wronged them, but the State rightly goes ahead and prosecutes anyway. It has to consider things that extend beyond the state of mind of either criminal or victim; things like justice, deterrence and legal precedents. This is not an “unchristian” approach. Likewise, a criminal who asks for and receives forgiveness for crimes like theft still ought to make restitution where possible. Zacchaeus, for instance, said, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” It is not an act of greater forgiveness to waive such reparations as may be made; in fact, the impulse to offer them demonstrates repentance is genuine.

Forgiveness is NOT a magic reset button. Being forgiven does not mean your relationships automatically return to their pre-injury state. Depending on the sort of injury and the sort of relationship, they may or may not. The Old Testament teaches that there are some situations in which attempting to reestablish an old physical bond would be inappropriate. A husband may genuinely forgive his wife for her fling and even believe her protestations that “it will never happen again”, but nevertheless conclude that taking her back would be a bad idea. The Christian girl whose fiancé cheated ended up breaking off the engagement despite her friends’ protests. Hey, I’m with her. Such choices are not necessarily “unforgiving”. There are often factors in play that well-meaning onlookers are ill equipped to consider.

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