“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”
— Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace
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If you think admitting wrong is hard, you may not have faced the power of resentment in yourself. Yet both confession and forgiveness are essential to mending a broken relationship.
What is forgiveness?
The root idea of the word is to “release from obligation.” Behind this definition is the profound insight that when we have been wronged, we believe that the other person owes us something as payment. People who have been wronged in conflict have a collection of demand notes they hold over the other person. Depending on the offense, the demand can be for anything from an apology to an arrest. Today, this demand is seen in calls for justice. Justice at its best is the satisfaction of the demand for payment that is suitable to a crime.
There is nothing wrong with this demand per se. It is part of how God made us. It can be distorted by our tendency to exaggerate the faults of the other person. Remember the words of Jesus we discussed in the previous page. This perversion of the need for payment is why God says, the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:20)
Forgiveness is not excusing
When someone admits to you the wrongs they have done before God — and the ways those wrongs have affected you — you are to respond. One of the ways we respond is to “excuse them.” That means we say something like, “We all make mistakes.” Saying “we all make mistakes” is what the Bible calls forbearance. Forbearance is accepting other people with their faults because you know your own so well. But that is not forgiveness.
When I tell someone who is admitting their wrongs , “It’s OK, we all make mistakes” I am both denying the seriousness of their behavior and contradicting my own sense that they owe me. If what they did is not a big deal, then why do I think they owe me? No, forgiveness is not excusing.
Forgiveness is not explaining
Forgiveness is also not explaining. According to the guidelines on how to confess our sins to others, explaining is not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable for us to “explain.” We explain when we say things like, “I understand. You had a difficult family growing up.” To explain is to minimize culpability and the seriousness of the wrong.
Forgiveness is not minimizing
This should go without saying. Minimizing (oh, it was not a big deal) is also forgiveness. If it wasn’t a big deal why didn’t you speak to them for 6 months? Maybe the big deal was that you were easily offended and bitter?
Forgiveness alone does not recreate trust
People worry that if they forgive they will have to trust the other person fully. That is not true. Forgiveness is the removal of the payment due. In some ways it brings the relationship back to a zero sum. But trust is built on years of making deposits of character into the relationship. Sometimes the other person has acted in a way that does not just bring them into a debt to pay, but they have erased their positive balance. In those cases trust must be rebuilt. I can forgive without putting myself at risk with a person who has done me great harm.
Forgiveness is a commitment not a feeling
Many times people say to me, “I don’t feel sorry, why should I confess?” or, “I don;t feel like forgiving, how can I forgive?” Both are engaged in the error of subjectivity. They are trapped in the myth of authenticity.
Subjectivity and authenticity are an illusion. They make my mood the defining rule of my life. But God’s word is the defining rule of my life. And God says:
31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)
In other words, forgiveness is an obligation grounded in God’s forgiveness of me in Christ’ death for me. This means forgiveness is a commitment. I use Ken Sande’s 4 Promise of Forgiveness to help people understand that forgiveness is a determination not to allow past offenses to take control of the relationship. A commitment to forgive, to release the person from obligation to pay, may be worked out in a thousand daily acts of keeping the 4 Promises.
We forgive even when they have not admitted their wrong
Here is the bottom line: whether or not the other person ever admits their wrongs, God calls me in Christ to forgive them. When the harm has been deep, this is a profoundly soul shaping exercise. I have witnessed people moving from fierce bitterness to a genuine desire to see good for the other person through a thousand acts of forgiveness. Indeed, God calls us to do good to those who mistreat us, because that is what God does every day.
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