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Sunday, September 30, 2007
I was listening to a lecture for a class I'm taking in seminary this week, and the teaching professor said something that totally threw me for a loop. He was talking about the difference between true peacemaking and appeasement, and he said that we have cheapened the concept of forgiveness. Referencing Luke 17:3-4, he said that we should listen again to what Jesus actually said:

"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him."

Which could imply that if he doesn't repent, you shouldn't forgive him.

I've been taught that forgiveness has two dimensions: 1) the actual act of forgiving someone - no longer holding them accountable for what they did to you (tho how this actually works in the context of some choices having consequences I don't always quite know) and 2) the emotional benefit that comes from forgiving someone. Bitterness and unforgiveness do as much - if not more - hurt and damage to our own hearts as they do to the person towards whom we hold them.... So shouldn't we forgive? At least in theory, even if practically our relationship with the person in question is altered by whatever fall-out there is from the situation? According to what Jesus says here, maybe not...

What do you think about this? I'm happy to say that I don't think there are any situations in my life that make this question pressing, but there have been in the past and there probably will be again someday, so I'm hoping to think this through a bit while I'm not emotional. :)

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posted by Happy at 7:42 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 9/30/2007 02:50:00 PM, Blogger Rachel

    It seems to me that there two different levels of forgiveness that we are talking about. One is letting go of the offense - releasing the bitterness, no longer holding one's trespass against them. Jesus warns us that if we do not forgive others their trepasses, God will not forgive us. And we know that harboring unforgiveness can eat us alive. As a wise woman once told me, "Bitterness is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die."

    But there is a second level to forgiveness and that is reconciliation - restored relationship with the offender. This seems to be the aspect that Jesus is talking about in Luke 17:3-4. IF the brother repents, then the fellowship can be restored. To choose to let go of bitterness and offense is a decision an individual can make on their own. But reconciliation requires both parties. It requires repentance and change on the part of the offender.

    I remember getting into a discussion about this with a woman had been molested as a child by her older brother. The brother still refused to acknowledge that the abuse had even occurred and this woman could not bear to be around him. She agonized over whether she was truly "forgiving" him. The conclusion we came to was that with God's help she could let go of the offense, so she would not harbor bitterness that would poison her. But she could not have a restored relationship with the brother as long as he was unrepentant and she would always need to protect her child from him.

    I wonder about the Greek words Jesus is using that are being translated "forgive" - in Luke 17 when he says "if he repents, forgive him" and in Matthew 6 when he says "forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us." Could they be different words in the Greek, perhaps with different connotations? It seems like one is speaking of reconciliation, while the other is speaking of the release of a debt. One is dependent upon the brother repenting and the other is dependent only upon my choice to forgive.

  • At 9/30/2007 06:54:00 PM, Blogger Lydia

    Good stuff, Rachel.

  • At 9/30/2007 09:27:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    I do find the similar verses in Matthew 18 interesting -

    15"If your brother sins against you,[b] go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'[c] 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

    If we are to treat them like pagans and tax collected, it puts a whole new spin on things when we take into account how Jesus treated such people...

  • At 10/01/2007 12:15:00 AM, Blogger Amy Beth

    A few things I'm thinking about here:

    First, the Greek words. As far as I have been able to determine, almost all of the words in the gospels that we translate "forgive" come from the same Greek word--aphieimi would be the transliteration, I think. The word has a huge range of meaning. The original meaning is "send away." My guess is that it started being applied to sins (as in "he has removed our transgressions from us") and then began being applied as what one does to the person whose sins or debts have been removed. So all that being said, I would say that even though it is the same word it can have different connotations, so we would need to look at the word in the context that it appears, which is a good idea in any case.

    Second, I don't think there is anything in that passage that suggests that we don't have any obligation to forgive if our brother doesn't repent. Jesus doesn't say "if and only if your brother repents." He is instructing us what to do in the case that our brother does repent. If our brother sins against us but later comes to us and desires that the relationship be restored, then we must forgive him, just as God forgives us when we repent.

    My third thought is along the same lines as what Rachel said. I think the dimensions of forgiveness that Happy mentions are ones that are very commonly taught. And they are there is scripture. Forgiveness in the legal, take away punishment, not expect repayment sense is all over the NT. And I think you can see hints of the second view in Jesus' equating of anger with murder in the Sermon on the Mount, the idea that the harboring and expressing hatred stains one's heart/soul/spirit just as murder would. I think that these two views seem primary to an individualistic culture--freeing the individual who has harmed me, not causing myself the inward harm that comes from bitterness and hatred. These are valid views of forgiveness and its effects, but I don't know if they are the ones that we see Jesus discussing.

    The people in Jesus' time were intimately connected in community. People who were angry with one another couldn't just avoid each other--the livelihood, even the very survival of the community might depend on them learning to work together in spite of their differences. I think Jesus' concern was that his followers never choose to be barriers to peace within the community. No matter how often a brother wronged them, Jesus told them to forgive, to do whatever they could to return the community to peace and harmony. If their brother didn't repent, then it would be beyond their power to restore peace to the community. But as followers of Jesus, if we need to ready to forgive in the face of any sign of repentance, no matter how or how often we have been wronged, then we do need to prepare our hearts by letting go of anger and being ready to embrace our brother if he should repent.

    The idea that we should treat another as God treats us is at the center of Jesus' teaching: we should forgive as we have been/are being/will be forgiven. Looking at the whole of Jesus' teaching, I think we need to do whatever is in our power to restore our relationship with the one who sins against us--like the shepherd, willing to leave the flock to find the lost sheep, like the woman, willing to search the house to find the lost coin. And then, like the father, ready to forget the past and run out to meet the one who was lost if he should he return to us.

  • At 10/01/2007 07:13:00 PM, Blogger Rachel

    I think Jesus' concern was that his followers never choose to be barriers to peace within the community.

    Well said, Amy Beth! That reminds me of the passage in Phillipians where Paul appeals to the church leaders Euodia and Syntyche to settle their argument. They needed to be reconciled, not just for their own benefit, but to restore peace in the community.

  • At 10/01/2007 08:52:00 PM, Anonymous chill24

    wow - i've really been pondering forgiveness for quite some time now. i've blogged a little about it wondering how it FEELS to forgive. what to do when you want to forgive but don't know what all that entails. all the comments and responses are different of course because God deals so individually with all of us.
    this post takes a more intellectual view instead of feeling and i appreciate the dialog along these lines. i realize God is in both...heart and brain.
    it's also helpful knowing others who love God and are longing to be closer to Him struggle.
    thank you so much for this post and i appreciate the comments.
    i'll have to think more on reconciliation being a part of forgiveness - right now i view them as separate...aways room to learn and grow though!

  • At 10/02/2007 09:48:00 AM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    I cannot believe there is a formula for forgiveness any more than there's a formula healing. Sometimes the calling is to reconcile; other times that would be harmful to both parties. Sometimes grace embraces us before we are able to come home, and sometimes it's not so much about being unwilling to reconcile as it is about refusing to tolerate behavior that has not yet done a 180 (ie true repentance.) We can have wide open arms but if someone is not ready to embrace in a healthy way, we may need to stand our ground and keep our arms open, but only for a healthy embrace that brings life.

  • At 10/02/2007 08:39:00 PM, Blogger Lori

    Julie, your comment about Jesus' treatment of pagans and tax collectors was a brilliant aside! Sort of puts a different spin on "church discipline", doesn't it? :)

    Forgiveness is such an intricate, unpredictable sort of intangible, profoundly real experience for us as humans. I'm very much looking forward to reading & discussing Miroslav Volf's book together next month, as he captures the essence of forgiveness in profound, experience-grounded ways--not to mention, exceptionally well articulated!

    In the meantime, however, I had a short forgiveness story to tell. As some of you have mentioned, it's so difficult to know if we have forgiven, or just how to forgive, and I so often find myself in that place. It seems like just saying "I forgive you" doesn't always seem to provide the heart-changing effects I'm after. Anyhow, a couple years back I was chatting with my mother-in-law (with whom I am fortunately very close) and I mentioned a long-standing issue with my husband (yes, that would be her son). It wasn't a huge thing, but for 5 or 6 years it had sort of simmered on the sidelines, and I kept having to come back to it and say "I forgive you"--then the weight of it would sneak away for a while, only to be brought back at some other inopportune time. I had prayed about it often, and it felt very much like I was failing at the forgiveness thing, despite my heartfelt desire to let go! So one evening a couple days later, Mom and I were watching the sunset over Lake Michigan together, in silence, and out of the blue I felt the weight of this silly thing just lift off me. I hadn't been thinking about it at all, it just all of a sudden appeared, and then vanished. I didn't say anything, but just sat in the silence and basked. A couple days later, I mentioned the experience to Mom, who smiled back at me--she had been praying for freedom for me from this thing at that very moment, and God had answered her prayer, in "real time". The weight has never returned, and sometimes we even joke about that thing that so used to bug me!

    This experience has led me to realize what a gift forgiveness often must be. There's much we can do to put our hearts in the right place, and Jesus obviously calls us to just that sort of discipline. But sometimes, it takes his hand reaching down to do the last bit of heavy lifting--sometimes with the help of our human sisters and brothers, too!

  • At 10/03/2007 08:10:00 AM, Blogger soldiermom

    I am a bit late getting in on this conversation. But I was wondering how you feel the passage from Matthew 6, fits into your recent thoughts on forgiveness?

    "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

  • At 10/07/2007 09:10:00 AM, Anonymous chill24

    a couple of weeks ago our "church" had our service outside in the grass where three different readers read the sermon on the mount. the matthew passage is actually the reason i really started examining what forgiveness is...how it feels...etc.
    made me realize how important it is how we deal with each other here on earth as humans and how we are to keep our hearts and minds in check.

  • At 10/07/2007 02:00:00 PM, Blogger Happy

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 10/07/2007 02:03:00 PM, Blogger Happy

    Rachel - thank you. Drawing the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation helped me get my head around this a little more.

    And Amy Beth - quite right. He doesn't say "if and only if" - I'd missed that. And it does make a difference.

    Julie - I love the way you make me rethink things! :) It's true - Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors in a way very contrary to the way society did... I wonder about the use of the word "church" in this passage, tho. Did the "church" as such exist at the time, or is this Matthew's edit later to explain what Jesus meant?

    chill24 - glad this has been helpful! :) and the church service sounds like it was a great experience. what a cool idea to read the sermon out like that. it always amazes me how HEARING God's word can help you hear things that you didn't/wouldn't have just reading it.

    Jemila - wise words and a gentle spirit as always. you are one of my favorite people. :) thanks.

    and Lori - GREAT story - thanks so much for sharing that. :)

    soldiermom - I think Rachel addressed this a little bit in her first comment, but i think the principle is one also found in the Golden Rule - "do unto others as you would have them do to you" - there's this sense of what goes around comes around, and vice versa... justice, i guess. but what turns it all upside down is grace.

    I think if you're really chasing Jesus, what happens is that as you spend more time with Him, you become more like Him - and I've definitely found in my own life that as I grow in my relationship with God and in my understanding of His love for me and His grace, it has become easier to forgive even the most hurtful things. So while this verse from Matthew 6 can sound harsh, the truth is God's grace is enough even so - not only does God forgive our sin but gives us the grace to learn how to - and even to want to - forgive others as well. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself - the two greatest commandments. As you learn to do that - by grace - everything else follows. "Seek first the kingdom of heaven" - and all else will be added.

  • At 10/08/2007 01:09:00 PM, Blogger Rob

    Hope y'all don't mind my dropping in on the discussion; but it seems to me that Amy Beth hit on the key point here. Essentially, I think the "if" is being misconstrued. It doesn't mean "if/if not," and thus that if the other person doesn't repent, we're free not to forgive them; as others have pointed out in this thread, that runs into some inconsistencies with the rest of Jesus' teaching. Rather, I think the point is this: if a fellow Christian sins, you need to rebuke them (which can be hard in its own right), and if they repent, forgive them whether you want to or not. I.e., we do not have the option to refuse to accept repentance; we do not have the option to maintain a rift in the community in the face of another's repentance.

    Which makes sense. After all, if God wouldn't let Jonah reject the repentance of a bunch of slave-impaling pagans (see Jonah 4), why would he let us reject the repentance of a fellow citizen of the Kingdom of God?

  • At 10/08/2007 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Rachel

    there's this sense of what goes around comes around, and vice versa... justice, i guess. but what turns it all upside down is grace.

    Happy, I love how the writer of James says it, "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (2:13).

    Thanks be to God!

  • At 10/08/2007 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    Happy, you make me happy :)

    I can relate personally to this issue.

    I am currently wrestling with the dynamic of anger and forgiveness. Are the two mutually exclusive? If one must be chosen is it better to reconcile and feel angry or to not reconcile and feel a sense of well-wishing?

  • At 10/09/2007 05:39:00 PM, Blogger Sara Harrison

    Okay, so I’ve been trying to answer this post all day. My response has grown into several different multi-tentacled monsters . . . but at least I’ve clarified some things for myself in my own mind.

    Jemila, no anger and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. They’re in fact two different things completely. Anger is an emotion. In many cases beyond our control. A symptom of pain, of real hurt in us. Forgiveness is a choice, an action. I think that often, making the choice to forgive is the only thing that can bring about the change in our feelings of anger. And reconciling is another thing altogether—a whole other level beyond forgiveness. It requires not just forgiveness on the one hand, but repentence on the other, and a commitment to the work involved in doing those things. One cannot reconcile and feel angry—the mere fact of feeling angry is an indicator that not enough healing has happened yet for true reconciliation to be possible. In other words, you may be committed to the work of reconciliation, you may be still feeling angry and working through forgiveness issues, but until the hurt has healed enough to dissipate the anger you will not be able to achieve reconciliation.

    As someone with significant anger issues, it’s been interesting to watch myself over the last year or so. My pastor husband is being unfairly driven out of our church by a small contingent of self serving and spiritually immature church elders (elders only by years). Not suprisingly, I’ve been more than a tad bitter. Anger mixed with fear and all stirred up with a healthy dose of panic by such things as whether we’ll be able to feed and house our three small children when his resignation becomes effective at the end of the year. I’ve always been someone who loves church, the liturgy, communion, etc. To have that all soured for me—to make Sunday morning worship more of a trial than a joy has made me very angry. And yet . . .
    It has been a strange sort of gift to be stuck here with people that I do not want to deal with, trying to worship God in this situation when all my instincts tell me to cradle my anger, to cut and run, to abandon these people and let them find out how sorry they’ll really be when we’re gone.
    But what if I got what I wanted? What if the church really fell apart after we left? This small town desperately needs Christ, his healing, his reconciliation. It needs our broken little church to be the Church here. My husband was really only hurt by a few. Do I want to take out my anger on the entire congregation? And what a shock to find that there are people who are even more angry than I am that we’re leaving! What do I want for those who have been faithful to us during this rocky time? To find that not only was I not the only one hurt out of this mess but that my hurts weren’t even the worst has been very perspective-adjusting.
    I’m not over being angry. I’m not to the point of forgiveness—especially since a couple of the people primarily responsible for this mess won’t even admit that they’ve done anything wrong. I’m not even to the point of wanting to forgive yet. Well, I don’t know. I sort of want to forgive, but I’m definitely after vindication too. But at least I’m coming to the point of remember that God loves those who have hurt me as much he loves me, and that their sin is no greater than my own. That it’s only by his impossible, incomprhensible, why-the-hell-should-he-have-done-anything-for-me GRACE that my forgiveness and redemption has been bought . . . and that it’s not mine to tell God who he can forgive—but that it is his to tell me to do what he has already done.

    For an over extended metaphor on anger, forgiveness and Christian maturity, see the following.

  • At 10/19/2007 05:10:00 PM, Blogger wit4life

    anger is just an expression of hurt, fear or frustration. All human. it's holding on to it that ferments it into poison.


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