One of the common things I see my congregants struggle with is the concept of forgiveness. Contrary to what I had assumed would be the case, I find congregants don’t struggle so much with giving forgiveness as they do living with forgiveness. I do not mean to imply that giving forgiveness is easy, as sometimes it can be the hardest of things to do, but on the whole, I find congregants discover it difficult to know what they really mean when they say, “I forgive you.”
For example, a woman who has been struggling years with an emotionally abusive husband, finds her voice and in an act of amazing empowerment forgives him. But what does this forgiveness look like as it is lived out? How kind must she be to this man? Does forgiveness mean she must forget the past abuses or ignore patterns and behaviors that now she understands are manipulative? If genuine abuse is present, does forgiveness mean she shouldn’t file for divorce?
Or take the man whose wife is killed by a drunk driver. Assuming the driver lives, what does it mean for the widower to offer him forgiveness? Does he have a right to be angry or does forgiveness mean his anger should be over? Is he to pursue a lawsuit or would this be an act of revenge?
These are important questions with profound answers because how we answer them gives us a window into how we understand forgiveness. Because the choice to forgive is always the beginning, not the end of the process, we need to think hard and deep of what essentially forgiveness is and what it is not. Doing so not only allows us to practice this virtue well, but gives us a window into understanding our own forgiven status proclaimed in the Gospel.
Let me start with what forgiveness is not: It is not forgetting. “Forgive and forget” is horrible advice, even if it is well meaning. Jesus himself bears the marks of the cross on his hands, feet and sides. Even in his resurrected body, the marks of the cross remain. He does not forget, and his body is eternally scared so that we do not either. Forgetting often is a technique to move past difficult emotions and bury the pain and the problems deeper inside; it’s a strategy of denial or obscuration. Instead of promoting forgiveness forgetting leads to attitudes of smug superiority masked as humility and resentment of the one supposedly forgiven. It turns anger from hot to cold, so that like a hibernating animal it can rage up in a hot explosive burst when the spring of discontent comes. It turns us into false martyrs and counterfeit saints And perhaps most obvious of all, it lacks any wisdom.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and again and expecting a different result. An exercise in forgive-forgetfulness only opens you up to more abuse, manipulation and a repeat of the problems. Ironically, this type of strategy makes it harder to forgive because with each continual, escalating trespass, you are forced to take the “higher ground” an ignore patterns. Unable to change your behavior because you are supposed to “forget” (and you certainly change other people’s behavior) the cycle repeats itself and most cope by becoming the aforesaid self-made martyr.
So let me give you some good news right now. Genuine forgiveness means you can still work through your anger, you can still be hurt, and you don’t have to forget. But that doesn’t make forgiveness easier. Indeed, it may make it harder.
Essentially forgiveness is the deference of justice. Justice is getting what we deserve, but forgiveness, because it is a manifestation of love, “covers over many sins” (I Peter 4:8). This can raise questions about litigious responses to crime etc. and what the Christian should do? I think those situations need to be handled on a case-by-case basis and with a through investigation into the plaintiff’s heart and motivation.
When the horrors of apartheid needed healing and South Africa sought unification the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (TRC) was established to heal the deep wounds of the past. The TRC was essentially a confession and absolution model where perpetrators of horrible crimes against humanity were confronted by their victims and subsequently forgiven and absolved of their crimes. Justice was deferred, neither ignored nor prosecuted, the TRC focused on healing wounds through non-violence and reconciliation. The tit-for-tat game of “eye-for-eye” was traded for confession and absolution.
Forgiveness defers justice by putting the matter into the hands of a just and loving God who warns us that, “we reap what we sow” (Gal. 6:7) but also that, “He gives us more grace” (James 4:6). In this sense forgiveness does not abrogate justice but hands it over to a just King. This not only frees us from the burden of revenge, but allows us to forgive knowing that in God’s hands justice will certainly be served. But, that mandate by which God ensures justice is achieved and accomplished by the sins of the perpetrator being placed on the Lamb of God. He takes upon Himself such sins and receives the justice we deserve. For others who despise the Lamb’s grace justice is mitigated in, “a place prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat 25:41). But God delivers justice either way.
The answer then, to the question how to live in forgiveness, is best understood in the context of the Lord’s Supper.
When I ask my congregation to examine themselves before they partake of bread and wine, I am asking them to do two things, one spiritual—concerned with them and God, and one physical—concerned with them and their neighbors. As per things spiritual, I ask them if they are trusting in Christ and his work, trusting in his performance over their own and if they find their confidence in God’s verdict of innocence instead of their own works? In regards to things physical I am asking them if they are holding a grudge against their neighbor? Do they seek their neighbor be punished, get what they deserve? Are they willing to let God be the giver of justice or do they seek revenge?
Christ says it this way, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24). The immediacy of the command is clear—forgiveness precedes gift. Because the giver is always the real recipient of the gift (it is better to give than receive) one must not be hypocritical. That is why we must forgive before we partake of the Supper. To receive the forgiveness of Christ as a sinner—but to withhold that same forgiveness from our brothers or sisters—is to be the ultimate hypocrite. For in our hands the bread and wine form the bloodied body of the Lamb of God. Such an act cannot allow our hearts to remain cold.
That is why the supper teaches us how to live with forgiveness. It does not ask to forget—in fact it calls us to remember. But in remembering we are instructed to “take, eat” and “do”. So what does it mean to forgive?
Ultimately it means being a recipient of the Body and Blood of Christ. Essentially it is to defer justice into God’s hands, practically it is to usurp the Kingdom of Sin with the grace of God. To live in forgiveness then, is to live as Christ did, to be a little Christ.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.