On Sunday, we preached through the biblical duty of Christians to forgive. Hear the sermon here. Forgiveness is a complex topic. It’s certainly not something we can fully exhaust within a 35-minute sermon. Since Sunday, I’ve had conversations with many of you and I thought it could be helpful to say some things we didn’t have time to say during the sermon.
Forgive Less. Forbear More.
As we said on Sunday, forgiveness is a logical outworking of what it means to be a Christian. And yet, there is another Christian virtue that is under-valued and rarely employed: forbearance. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:2: “Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” This almost quite literally means “put up with one another.” Before you run too quickly to forgive, consider this: “Should I instead forbear?” Simone Richardson writes:
“Forbearance is what is needed when we are confronted with the frailties of another human being: their annoying mannerisms, their forgetfulness, their inability to say the right thing in a certain situation, their incompetence at tasks we feel they ought to be able to manage, their frustrating messiness, the way that they do not live up to my standards. In these situations, we need to stop forgiving and start forbearing.
Many of the frustrations that we experience with our spouses, family, friends and colleagues are not directly caused by sin on their part. Often we think that they can do better, or ought to be able to do better if they tried, but forbearance remembers that they, like us, are human. Weakness is built into the core of our being.”
Is Forgiveness Conditional on Repentance?
Is forgiveness only possible when the person who wronged you is truly sorry and repentant? Since Sunday, I’ve thought and read more on this, so I’ll say two important things:
- Christians are to have a posture of forgiveness because of the forgiveness we have received by God. We must always be ready to forgive. In fact, as Jesus has said in Matthew 18:22, we are to forgive seventy-seven times – without limit!
- But forgiveness doesn’t actually happen unless the other person is repentant. As Chris Brauns puts it, “Forgiveness is a figurative handshake. You cannot shake hands alone.” This may not sound right, especially following Sunday’s sermon. Because it can sound like if we don’t forgive the other person, we can become bitter and allow the unforgiveness to eat away at us. But there’s a difference between forgiveness and Christian commitments to be eager to forgive, to love our enemies, to resist bitterness, to refuse vengeance and to trust in God’s providence. If our forgiveness is to mirror God’s, it can only be granted when there is repentance from the other person. This means, that in a broken world, Christians can, and likely will, have unforgiven relationships so far as it is up to them.
What’s the Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation?
Forgiveness is related to, but very different from reconciliation. In fact, it’s possible for us to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation – it could be a lengthy process. These words from Steve Cornell were helpful for me to read:
“Differing from forgiveness, reconciliation is often conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. While its aim is restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process. If they’re genuinely repentant, they will recognize and accept that the harm they’ve caused takes time to heal. In many cases, even if an offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” Even when God forgives our sins, he does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust.”
Though we are called to forgive, I can’t stress enough how difficult and vicious some of the sins done against us might be. All the more difficult it can be to reconcile a relationship. I am thankful that God is gracious and patient with us as we seek to forgive and pursue reconciliation.
I hope our consideration of The Unforgiving Servant on Sunday has brought you to a deeper, more stunning awareness of God’s forgiveness for you. And I pray that this awareness would move you to partake in the honor of practicing forgiveness towards one another. This is messy, ugly, in for the long-haul type of stuff. Even when we desire to forgive someone or desire to be forgiven by someone, it doesn’t always work out in neat and tidy ways. But whether it’s regarding those who have sinned against us, or those whom we have sinned against, hear Paul’s wise and practical words in Romans 12, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”