What does it mean to forgive someone? Before you read this blog, I want you to take a stab at answering that question with someone around you (it’ll be like a Bible study through the internet). I’m going to be one million percent honest, I thought I had a decent understanding of this topic until about a week ago, and then the entering of a thought shattered my entire universe. This thought came from a teen in a Bible study we were having, and it started a snowball effect that has reshaped my entire thinking about this particular topic. I’m not going to share that thought yet, but I build it up to say that this won’t be an easy read, so strap in and maybe grab someone to work through this with.
Let’s start with the simple reason I feel like this is important. In the Sermon on the Mount (go figure), Jesus says something absolutely profound. Matthew 6:14-15 – “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins.” SWEET MOTHER OF JEFFERSON DAVIS. I’m not desiring to use this as a scare tactic, but we have got to figure this out. I think the reason being, God’s grace is SO amazing and incredible – how dare we withhold that from others. Ok, let’s go.
Firstly – let’s get a graph going. On one side of the graph, you have forgiveness, the good side. Now, what’s on the opposite side? What is completely opposite of forgiveness? There are many things that may come to mind: holding a grudge, anger, distrust, etc. Let me propose this opposite – retaliation. Literally, they did something to me (sinned against me) and I do something back to them. RIGHT before this in this sermon, Jesus had a good deal to say about retaliation, He said don’t. That seems simple enough as a concept, but it’s harder practiced than said.
So we have what seems to be the opposite side – a negative action. Now let’s move in closer to forgiveness. How it works in my mind is that if you have a line graph with Forgiveness on one end and Retaliation on the other, pretty much dead center is the idea of “not being mad” anymore. It is simply neutral. There is no bad action towards that person, you have “turned the other cheek”. Jesus said that, that’s good, don’t retaliate, but He (unfortunately) said way more right after – he said “pray for those who persecute you.” In Luke’s account (6:27-28), a certain phrase actually reads “love your enemies, do good to those who curse you.” That should make perfect sense. Somehow, we’ve gotten away from the fact that loving someone means positive action, EVEN when we are loving our enemies and those who sin against us. If simply not being mad (lacking any positive action) and not retaliating are the neutral/middle ground, that simply won’t do. If you haven’t noticed, Jesus isn’t really cool about people straddling the fence. We LOVE to straddle the fence, one foot in the world, one foot in the Kingdom, but Jesus isn’t a fan. We are called to something more; we are called to forgiveness involving positive action.
Now for the phrase that started it all —– “Forgiving someone means putting your trust back in him or her.” BOOM. POW. WAM. Let that sink in for a second. I’m still letting it sink in. Maybe I’m of a select few (I don’t think I am), but I haven’t thought that way, nor have I really taught that. I tend to say something like this, “You have to forgive them, but you also have to learn not to trust them in certain ways and maybe not have as close a relationship.” I’ve taught that. I’ve DONE that. Remember when Peter came to Jesus in Matthew 18 and asked how many times he should forgive his brother? He even throws out a number all cocky like, “Up to seven times?” (No doubt having a smug grin for having a number higher than 2). Jesus answered him, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations render it “seventy times seven”, but such details are pointless because the number is not the point, it’s the idea. Jesus did not intend for you to be counting down how many times you forgive someone, he intended to freaking blow Peter’s mind by essentially saying “doooon’t stop…forgiiiiving” (probably singing it like Journey). How does this relate to the profound statement made by the teen in my youth group? How can you possibly expect to forgive someone more than once if you keep that person too far to hurt you again? If you don’t put your trust back in them enough to where they have the potential to hurt you again, how can your forgiveness of that person truly be unlimited?
I think that idea puts us on the road to positive-action-forgiveness. As discussions of this topic went on, new ideas were shared. At the heart of this whole “trust” idea lies the concept of relationship. My sin separates me from God. It hurts my relationship with God. God wipes that out completely, the slate is clean, and I am once again in relationship with God. For other people, we need to follow the example and examine what we can get rid of to put us back in proper relationship with the other person. One of the slight dangers in this thinking is something I know I’ve struggled with – If I don’t repent, God doesn’t forgive me, so if the other person doesn’t repent, I don’t have to forgive them – essentially, forgiveness is a two-way street. This is a solid counter point, but there are some holes in the absoluteness of it. God pursues us, sometimes even when we are not pursuing Him. If you don’t believe that, read Hosea. God allures Israel back to Him, DESIRING that relationship back. In the same way, if relationship is what we most strongly desire with the person who has wronged us, then we may need to be the first person to make a move to fix it.
An early church father wrote about how when someone has wronged us, we should be quick to go to them and point out their wrong, having the desire to forgive close at hand. I personally think that the forgiveness starts before you ever go to the person, for we are to love and do good to those who wrong us. There isn’t gratification in telling the person what they’ve done wrong, the motive is to remove those things that are hindering relationship with that person. Our motive is reaching out to them with the love of a God who forgave us. It is sometimes necessary to point out such wrongs for the sake of that person, and for the sake of ourselves. But we must do this with the proper motives. I think that when Jesus talks about confrontation, saying that after an initial discussion with the person to bring along a few extra people, those extra people are for accountability on all sides. Perhaps one of their primary functions might just be making sure your motives remain pure.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We also may have to take some initiative and make some sacrifices while the other person is still a “sinner” towards us. Jesus makes it clear that relationship and reconciliation is of great importance, even more than worship for we are to leave our gift at the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). Relationship trumps a great deal of commandments, for love is the greatest command.
As I work through this, I’m finding that in some ways, seeking to forgive is also seeking forgiveness. If you have been holding back true forgiveness from someone who has or has not asked for it, think of what some of your first words may be – “I’m sorry, I’ve been holding onto this, but I want to love you better and fix our relationship.” Your words almost have nothing to do with them; they have to do with your anger, bitterness, distrust, but also your desire for relationship and to show them God’s love.
What if they don’t want your forgiveness or your relationship? I don’t know exactly, but if we are to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and do good to those who hate us, I think we’re on our way to forgiving them despite what they’ve done. On that scale from forgiveness (positive action) to retaliation (negative action), there isn’t really anything about what the other person has to do. Maybe they won’t accept your desire for relationship or your forgiveness you seek to give them, but that is officially on them. We just have to keep doing good and loving them the way God loves those who do not even love Him back.
I’m not sure what this will specifically look like in your personal life, what methods and means you might have to take to get there. Something I do know, it probably won’t be comfortable. Believe me when I say that as I write all this, it’s AWFUL to think about what this all might truly mean. There’s going to be a lot of pride swallowing, praying, trusting, and risking involved. We may be hurt physically, emotionally, or any number of ways in between. But Jesus surely didn’t forgive us without it costing Him dearly.
So what would happen if we practiced radical forgiveness of people? We hear stories like the Amish community forgiving and reaching out in love to the man who willfully walked into one of their schoolrooms and killed their children. We hear these and it sounds almost ridiculous to us, like they shouldn’t do that. But we are not to fall into the patterns of this world, patterns of revenge and holding grudges. There’s a movie called Forgiving Dr. Mengele that recounts a Jewish woman’s decision to forgive Dr. Mengele, who’s experiments she was a victim of during the holocaust. Long after Mengele was dead, she decided that she needed to forgive him because until she did, she was giving him control over her life. There is amazing power in forgiveness. There is great freedom. But it is by no means easy, convenient, or comfortable, and the world can tend to tell you that it’s ridiculous to even consider. Though it is tough and pretty crazy (if not stupid) by the world’s standards, we are people of transformation, not conformation.
Don’t seek to forgive and forget, seek to forgive despite what has been done to you.
I dearly hope you don’t just read this blog and take it for what it says. This isn’t a comprehensive guide to forgiveness; this is a couple weeks’ worth of thoughts that I hope spurs further conversation between you and someone else. Like I said before, this is far too important to not challenge the norm or to simply write these difficult ideas off because they are unappealing. Believe me, they’re unappealing to me as well.
So who do you need to forgive? Who are those people who have done you wrong, maybe you were never friends, maybe you were, but you’ve never truly reached out to them with the love of Christ. Let these words of Paul soak into your heart and relieve you of some negative emotions so that the positive has room to move in.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31-32)
Spenser Wilson Bolte is a Youth Ministry graduate of Oklahoma Christian University and is currently pursuing a Marriage and Family Therapy degree at Abilene Christian University. He has interned at several churches in NW Arkansas and aspires to be a Youth & Family Minister wherever God may take him. He writes a personal blog called “The Mind of a Bearded Theologian” at spenserbolte.blogspot.com
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