Christians generally recognize an idea that says they are commanded by God to forgive everyone who wrongs them, without any exceptions. I believe this creates a lot of theological gymnastics on ground level, where people end up with three choices of how to walk this out in difficult situations.
Let’s say Jenny’s husband Matt has brutally beaten her, and lied to everyone making Jenny look like the bad one, and Jenny had to get a restraining order and ultimately divorced him. This is unfortunately not as rare of a situation one might hope it to be…and thousands of other similarly horrendous situations (or even worse situations) which could be used as an example. Jenny now has a restraining order against her now ex-husband, for good reason, as he has often threatened her safety. But Jenny reads in her Bible that Jesus said if you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you.
There are actually three ways this could play out:
1) Take Jesus at face value of how He is usually interpreted as demanding forgiveness at all times, regardless of any extenuating circumstance, and completely forgive, no questions ask. (In this case, Jenny and her husband immediately make up and get back together.)
2) Pretend to take Jesus at face value, by changing the definition of forgiveness, and forgive only by using an altered, safer version of forgiveness which is completely inward, but has no practical effect on restoration of relationship with the person committing the crime, thus making one believe they have forgiven when actually they really haven’t. (In this case, Jenny says she has forgiven Matt but keeps her restraining order against him.)
3) Just simply refuse to forgive.
Christians may often be annoyed at the suggestion that they are doing option #2, or offended that anyone would say it is fake forgiveness, but be really horrified that anyone would suggest #3. I would propose however that option #3, “refusing to forgive”, is ACTUALLY the most honest, and also the most Biblically coherent option in many situations, even if most Christians squirm at the suggestion.
So let’s talk about what forgiveness is, and isn’t.
Just as James could say, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I’ll show you my faith BY my deeds,” forgiveness is one of those things we can also talk about as a merely inward, abstract thing (like faith) or something that has outward, immediate, solid ramifications.
The model of what forgiveness is or isn’t should be God. Whenever in the Bible someone was forgiven by God, they were immediately brought into a place of restored, or potentially restored, relationship with Him. We don’t ever see an example of God saying, “I forgive you, but we’re not going to have a relationship anymore.”
Forgiveness is restorative — it is the dropping of all walls in one’s heart in a way that is actually made visible and practical for the other person. Forgiveness is not about the person DOING the forgiving, it is about the person who is BEING forgiven. It is a gift to the person who is given a chance to be in a relationship they don’t deserve to be in, because they have formerly done damage to the other person — and yet, the debt is canceled, the offense is forgotten, and the way is clear again for the relationship to be restored.
In our very individualistic, self-focused society, we have instead concocted a version of forgiveness that is not about extending an opportunity of restoration to another person, but is a matter of restoring oneself after being wounded. Over and over people will talk about how forgiveness is about letting go of inner turmoil (bitterness, obsessive rehashing of wrongs, etc) so that they themselves can move on to inner healing. While letting go of bitterness is a really great thing to do for oneself, this in and of itself does not constitute Biblical forgiveness. It IS indeed a great step towards inner healing, but it is a mistake I believe to call it forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just about what goes on in one person, but it extends to the other person as well. To tell another person, “I forgive you, but stay away from me” is to malign what true forgiveness is and to misrepresent the forgiveness that God showed us in Christ.
It is non-sensical and illogical to say, “I cancel your debt (forgiveness) but if you ever show up here again I’ll have you arrested (because of what you’ve done to me you still can’t be around me.) We’re speaking out two sides of our mouth to say “I release what you’ve done wrong to me, but you still can’t have a relationship with me because of what you’ve done to me.” When God forgave us our sins, he forgot what they were. He didn’t say, “I forgive you but you can’t be with me in my Kingdom ever again.”
It might make us feel better about ourselves to say we’ve forgiven but won’t restore a relationship, and in some religious way make us feel religiously righteous and make us believe we’ve obeyed the command to “forgive”, but it falls short of what true forgiveness is. Unfortunately, entire “inner healing” scripts in the christian community continue to reinforce that this version of forgiveness is true forgiveness. (Jewish definitions of forgiveness would not agree, however — as Jewish understanding are much more holistic.)
So what, then? So does this mean that Jenny needs to go back to her abusive husband?
No, because there is option #3…Jenny can wisely choose to simply not forgive her ex-husband, while if it helps her heal, also doing the work of letting go of bitterness (which is a side issue and not really related to the subject of whether or not she has forgiven him.) This is actually Biblical. But it is important to call it what it truly is and to keep our definitions coherent.
It is always dangerous to make an entire doctrine out of one verse, removed from all context of other verses on the same subject in the Bible. While Jesus did say that if you don’t forgive others, your Father in Heaven will not forgive you, this is not the only time Jesus spoke on the matter. It’s also not the only thing that the Bible demonstrates overall on the matter.
For instance, there is the example of 70×7 — where Jesus told Peter that if his brother ASKS for his forgiveness 490 times, he should give it to him. Notice that Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “Your brother shouldn’t even have to ask forgiveness, Peter, you should forgive Him before he even asks.” No, Jesus made it clear that the “asking” was part of the key to forgiving the brother.
Should Jenny forgive her abusive, manipulative, ex-husband simply because he asks? Caution should be taken here. Part of the Christian inclination towards forgiveness is that no one should ever take the stance that no matter what, someone’s sins are so great that under no circumstance whatsoever would I ever be willing to forgive them. There should always be a willingness that somehow there is some way this person might one day be forgiven, if they have truly repented and changed.
However, Jesus also said we are to be wise as serpents, and I believe it is important to let that “serpent-wisdom” fit the crime that has been committed. Letting the wisdom fit the crime might not sound Biblical but there is an idea all over scripture of using “true weights and measurements.” We see this in the book of Genesis in how Joseph walked through the situation of forgiving his brothers, who had sold him into slavery with murder in their hearts towards him. He weighed them according to the measure of their wrong, and put them through a test that was appropriate to their crime (the cup placed in their sacks having them arrested) and waited until the Holy Spirit revealed that they were indeed truly repentant (when they gave him the reaction he was looking for.) Joseph wasn’t in a rush to judge them either way, he took his time, made them jump through his hoops (which is the right of the party being asked to forgive) and only when he was fully satisfied that their hearts were changed, did he forgive them.
Jenny, likewise, might require Matt to do some sort of treatment program. She might say something like, “You hurt me and broke my trust very badly, and if you ever want a chance to be back in a relationship with me again, you need to make restitution by taking steps to show me you understand the gravity of what you have done, the fact that you need serious help, and that you are laying down your pride and doing X, Y and Z programs for the next 3 years, twice, to show me you are doing everything you need to do to make good on all the harm you have caused. And then, and only then, will we talk about possibly trying to restore this marriage.”
When someone truly apologizes, they are saying they own what they have done wrong. Part of apologizing when one’s crimes have been particularly damaging is owning one’s responsibility for one’s actions truthfully. Matt’s apology in this case may need to be a whole lot of steps demonstrating he is bearing the weight of his own wrong. In a huge number of cases, people who have committed huge abusive sins against others will not be willing to truly own their responsibilities and thus make true (not fluffy, merely manipulative) apologies.
So what about the person who is not ready to own their wrongs? Jesus makes allowance to NOT always forgive:
When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” John 20:22-23 Berean Study Bible
He did not give us authority as the church to “retain” sins for no reason, as if this power was never to be used (because after all, if we are to forgive everyone, all the time, what’s the point of this authority?) But we are given this power to be used with discernment of men’s hearts. It also makes no sense to apply the verse, “If you don’t forgive, your Father won’t forgive you” to every situation, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense that Jesus gave the authority to the church to NOT forgive sins.
Yes, we should always be WILLING to forgive others — I hope my words are never used as an excuse to be hard-hearted people who refuse to restore relationships no matter how contrite and how much restitution the other party is willing to give. And yes, it doesn’t do us any good to walk around with bitterness in our souls, and we should always pray for our enemies partially as a discipline in order to keep ourselves free from bitterness, but also because we truly want to see God help our enemies, despite whatever things we still hold to their account! But forgiveness is not a mere release from our own inner turmoil as it if it is just a self-help therapy; forgiveness has teeth on it and is the power to extend true restoration, forgiveness turns enemies into friends.
We need to start being honest about what step in the process we are on, with no condemnation and all the freedom given to us in Christ to exercise our own discernment in these matters, owning it for what it is. It is part of wisdom, and getting real, that we keep our definitions coherent.
For further reading, please see this excellent article HERE about forgiveness as well.
Also, for a commentary on the therapeutic culture that says healing requires someone to let go of bitterness, read here.