What is Forgiveness?

I think the best way to take questions of forgiveness is to begin by understanding the need for forgiveness. Forgiveness presupposes that two individuals have in the past had a relationship and that this relationship has been strained or broken. This principle holds true whether we talk of a relationship between humans or a relationship between God and a person (or humanity). Among the basic language of Scripture is the word righteousness; righteousness is the maintaining of a right relationship with another, either God or human.  Another way of saying this is that being a complete person is to treat everyone with the dignity that person deserves (see C. S. Lewis The Weight of Glory). Unfortunately, treating others with respect and dignity is often too much for us and relationships fracture (or we use “sin”language in our relationship with God). Forgiveness, then has to do with the restoration of the relationship to a state prior to the fracture. Forgiveness is not the restoration of the relationship, it is not even the offer of a restored relationship; forgiveness is the offer by the wronged party to begin the process of restoring the relationship.

In his book The Lord and His Prayer N. T. Wright discusses how our culture has traded forgiveness for tolerance.  Western culture seems to be content with understanding that “to err is human”, and we can overlook wrongs and sweep them under the rug.  We simply want to let sleeping dogs lie because that is easier.  Yet, the Hebrew word for one human forgiving another has the root meaning of “to carry”.  We understand the weight of sin and the burden it can place on one’s heart.  The Hebrew concept implies that in forgiving someone I am taking the burden for them.  Even God is asked to carry (not pardon or remove something God is able to do Ex. 34:9) Israel’s sin Exodus 32:32.  In this metaphor the offended party is saying,“I will carry the load of this relationship until you are able to take the weight”.  By forgiving the offended party understands that this relationship will not be even the offender will not be contributing as much to the relationship until the relationship is restored(see 2 Corinthians 2:7).  Rather than a tolerance of the offending person with distrust and fear permeating the relationship, the offended is agreeing to take on the potential of more pain in order for righteousness to be restored. Again, I do not want to imply that the relationship is whole or that it picks up from the same spot.  In cases where trust has been deeply fractured the one forgiving may be willing to carry the burden of the relationship, however, the relationship may have to start from the beginning.  A practical example is infidelity in a marriage.  Some couples choose to reconcile after an affair; yet, these relationships do not pick up from the same level of trust. Rather, the offending spouse must again prove trustworthy, must take the time to recommit to the relationship, and must be intention about correcting the personal flaws which led to the affair. In such a case forgiveness is the willingness by the hurt spouse to continue in an uneven relationship, being open to a person who has violated the trust previously and help that individual grow into a person worthy of a whole and loving marriage.  This is radically different from simply moving on, or burying the past, forgiveness requires that the offended person acknowledge the deep shortcomings and selfishness in the offender and commit to be willing to help that individual grow.  (This is why forgiveness is mentally helpful for the offended party because in forgiving he or she is acknowledging the wrong done and beginning the process of healing from the wrong.  Though it is wrong to say we should forgive for personal health, because to truly forgive one must have the healing of the relationship in mind not the healing of oneself.  I believe this is the further downgrading of forgiveness to tolerance, these individuals are saying tolerate the wrong and do not let it impede you and do not care about that person.) 

So, does forgiveness require repentance?  No. Forgiveness is about the offended party wishing the relationship to be restored and repentance is the offending party taking steps to restore the relationship.  The Hebrew concept of repentance is helpful for understanding this idea.  The Hebrew word for repentance has the primary meaning of turn around.  This means a person who repents is literally choosing a different path.  Within the context of relationships this means that the repenting person is choosing actions and attitudes which are opposite of those which caused the fractured relationship.  It is often difficult to remove the selfishness which caused the fractured relationship and requires the repenting party to become more disciplined to his or her devotion to the other person.  As forgiveness is offered a person is forgiven as forgiveness is accepted repentance happens and the relationship is restored, and both are righteous.  (This is true whether the offended party is a human or God since forgiveness and repentance in human relationships is essentially modeled, or imaged, on our relationship with God). 

Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:12, 14 “Forgive us our debts [sins] as we forgave our debtors” & “If you should forgive any person their sins then your Father in heaven will forgive yours.”  In these passages it is very easy to notice that we are uniting our ability to forgive with our desire to receive God’s forgiveness.  These are dangerous words,God if I am not willing to extend forgiveness do not forgive me.  Commentators often hit on this point, but notice the plural of Matthew 6:12 “forgive us”. Here we each as we pray the Lord’s prayer take on the sins of the community.  As I pray these words I am uniting myself to your sins and saying “god forgive this sin which impacts me,which I am bearing.”  It is a corporate call to bear each other up, to help one another deal with the selfishness in our lives and to restore relationships within the corporate humanity (also called justice).  This is why 1 Peter 4 links love and forgiveness; love is not an emotion, it is an intentional decision to be devoted to another person. This intentional devotion “covers over many sins”; Peter is used atonement language from Leviticus to imply that we forgive one another as God has forgiven us.  Our devotion to one another and our desire to see one another healed and restored leads us to work corporately for corporate restoration.

 I am reminded of a story, It comes from Chris Webb The God Soaked Life, of his encounter with a woman who is upset at because of the act of betrayal by an ex. Though not a believer she asks him (a priest) for help.  She is no position to forgive, brimming with the anger, frustration, and hatred of a fresh wound.  He tells her to read Psalm 55:12-15 as her daily prayer.  She does and at a certain point she recognizes that she cannot pray the raw emotion of the Psalm.  This is the first step to forgiveness, she recognized the anger and pain were gone, the next step would be to begin to recognize this man’s place as a child of God and how far short of that reality he had fallen.  Then as her ability to forgive grew in prayer she would long to see him achieve his potential and do what she could (which might be very little other than prayer) to help him grow to reach that potential.  This is forgiveness.  This is what God has done for us, God has overcome the anger, frustration, and other emotions God has felt at our betrayal of our relationship with God.  God has sought to make contact with us (the Incarnation), and seeks to help us grow to reach our fullest potential as humans(rulers over creation with Jesus).  This is the process of restored relationship.

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