25 “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’[b] 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
In this post, I am going to give a sketch of an outline of some thoughts that have occurred to me about forgiveness. This is a huge subject, and I’m not sure what justice I can truly do to it in the context of a single blog post. Like a couple of topics before it, namely “Women in Christian Leadership” and “Capitalism and the Spirit of the Anti-Christ”, in all honesty I should have taken a couple of months to systematically go through the issue, carefully adding each point, rather than trying to rattle off a blog post in a couple of hours. For these previous topics, it is probably quite obvious that I did not give either one the necessary time and preparation that it deserved. (I’m going to try to be better organised about all this!)
So anyway here I will give a basic outline about forgiveness. I’ve been thinking about this subject for so long. I remember drafting out a post while sitting on a bus on a way to/fro a church service 3 years ago, just before I actually launched this blog. It is a subject that I have personally struggled with understanding, especially over the last few months.
It is something that people often say, that much of the difficulty we have as Christians and as people is not in understanding what we need to do, but rather in doing what we already understand. However, in this particular case, I genuinely have not understood what I’ve needed to do, and this confusion has proven to be fertile breeding ground for further anger which to my shame has often crossed over into hatred.
And yet now I believe that I do understand what I need to do, and by the grace of God I am doing it, and will continue to do it -although sometimes I do still struggle.
This is the crucial thing that I have struggled with regarding the whole forgiveness thing. It is not the actual forgiveness itself. Sincerely, it is not. By the grace of God, I can throw the memory of the incident away, and put it behind me, and pretend it never happened. So then, this is what I have struggled with. It is knowing that these people who did these things will do EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS AGAIN. Yes they will. Over and over and over and over again. It is knowing that it simply cannot correspond to common sense for me to put myself back into these situations so that they can endlessly treat me like this. This then has been my struggle. Trying to think of a way to deal positively with this, so that I can forgive them, but I do not have to make myself vulnerable. What exactly does this look like? And then while thinking about this, and feeling completely clueless, I will remember the things that they did, and then that will just fill my mind with anger all over again. And yet I do want to let it go, I do want to walk in forgiveness, I do want to walk in the love of Christ.
Being able to let it go: This is what would make it easy for me to completely forget it. If someone did something bad, but I knew that it was utterly uncharacteristic. In my mind I can write it off and think “It’s not going to happen again!” As I’m writing this, it is occurring to me that it might be easier to forgive uncharacteristic mistakes, if they are “small”. If someone did something bad, and it was huge, I might find it a lot harder to forgive, no matter how “uncharacteristic” it was. It is also occurring to me that this unforgiveness thing is a lot to do with fear, and with trying to anticipate the future, not wanting to get hurt again, by these same people, in these same ways.
And yet if I know that it is going to happen again, then I can’t write it off. In anticipating how these people are going to treat me, I can safely predict that they are going to do exactly the same things as they have always done, because this is the way they have consistently behaved in the last X years since I met them – why would anything suddenly change just now?! How can it possibly make sense for me to put myself back into these situations?! And yet Jesus says that we are to forgive.
On balance, I think I have come to see that Christian forgiveness is not primarily about re-accepting people into the same exact relationship that you had before, so that they can have licence to behave however they like. Rather it is about releasing and them from your anger, your bitterness, and your thirst for vengeance, turning from this to embrace a positive outlook towards this people.
This is an example that I would give. If someone steals a billion pounds GBP from your company, causing it to crash and go bankrupt, meaning that all your hard work disappears into thin air, and you lose all your life savings, (which you have invested into the company) and you have to start again from the beginning, when you would otherwise have been on the brink of retirement, then Christian forgiveness would mean that you uproot all your desire for vengeance from your heart, your anger, your bitterness, your murderous rage. You force yourself to remember that the person who did this is a human being, precious in the sight of God, considered worthy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Even though they have done this dreadful thing, you still wish to pray for their salvation, so that they might eventually make it to Heaven to be with Jesus for eternity. This is in itself all quite difficult. Even almost impossible!
However, Christian forgiveness does not mean that you reinstate this same person as the financial officer of your next company. And yet I have heard Christians preach this very thing, at which I mentally shook my head and thought “No! Just no!” And in my experience, it is the very people who are likely to trample on your head who will preach this. Perhaps they think that “Christian forgiveness” is carte blanche or a blank cheque to treat other people however they like without any repercussions whatsoever, as many people think “Grace” is a blank cheque to commit just whatever sins they like, then go back to God and say “I’m sorry!”
So while yes, I believe that we do have to release people from the anger or rage that would swell in our hearts, I don’t believe that we necessarily have to make ourselves vulnerable to them in the same ways as before. So in short I believe that we have to be gracious enough to release people from our anger, while still being wise enough to recognise the current limitations of their character, even as they desire to grow in Christ.
This one is an interesting question. If a Christian has treated you very badly, does that then mean that we are entitled to discard them from all fellowship whatsoever, in the name of “not making ourselves vulnerable”? Yes, the Bible does say that we are to forgive our brother “Seventy times seven” times. I believe that in that instance that goes beyond releasing them from anger, to reinstating them to Christian fellowship. However, what complicates this issue is that life in general and Church life in particular is so different in our days from how things were in Bible times, that it is sometimes difficult to map Bible examples onto our present day lives. One striking example. In New Testament times there would be a single expression of “Church” in one city. So back in those days it would have been hard to avoid someone who had offended you, if you both continued to go to Church. However in our days there are countless distinct gatherings in any one city, which all consider themselves “churches”. And then there is also the part of the Bible where Jesus gives the instructions for dealing with a sinning brother “If he won’t listen to you, then go and tell the church.” Well what if it is the “church” (that you attend) that is actually causing the issue in the first place – then what?! Then whom do you appeal to?! Complex!
On balance, I think that no, we should not necessarily discard a Christian brother or sister altogether from fellowship. However, that does not necessarily mean that we can continue our interaction or “fellowship” exactly as it was before. For instance, if someone is actually a male brother, and he has acted badly, then yes, I might not discard him altogether, but that would not necessarily mean that I would go ahead to marry him. By the same token, I might not discard a pastor altogether as a Christian, however I might no longer consider myself able to submit to their leadership. In practice, this would mean that I would have to leave their church. And then someone might say “Tosin, you’ve broken off fellowship!” or “Tosin you’re not walking in forgiveness!” In my experience, it is people who remain within these same churches who would say that, who clearly do not appreciate that there might be anything in the least bit inadequate about their pastors or the leadership they offer.
To be perfectly candid, in some situations, then yes, protecting myself might mean breaking off all visible or existing interaction between us, and relating to this person as a “brother” only within my heart. Many Christians have very poor character, so for the sake of protecting myself I find myself avoiding these same “many Christians”. Can it ever be acceptable to say what I’m about to say? As I certainly have said it in the past – that with many Christians I simply do not and cannot regard them as Christians, or as brothers or sisters. However, God still loves them desperately, and still sent Jesus to die for them. So even if I cannot currently regard them as brothers and sisters, I should still be able to look and work towards the day when they might be truly saved into a life-changing relationship with Christ, and I should look upon them with the same grace and patience with which I regard other non-Christians – and realising that one thing completely changed my attitude to these people.
Finally, in this quick outline, I would like to talk more about the heart as the true engine of forgiveness. I have noticed that I am so susceptible to bitterness regarding various incidents in the past – usually within churches, and the devil systematically capitalises on that by bringing up angry thoughts about those incidents to my heart time after time. This is what I have decided to embrace as a solution.
1. Recognise that people will always offend me.
2. Build forgiveness deliberately and systematically into my life and into my heart. The way I do this is by praying the loveliest prayers I can think of for people who have already hurt me, and people who might yet hurt me, and setting apart a consistent systematic time to do this everyday. That is, if people are going to offend me everyday, setting apart time to deal with these offences everyday, before they have time to take root in my heart to become forgiveness. That said, most of the anger in my heart is from incidents that happened years ago. To be honest, I resent the fact that I am still so angry about these incidents, and I resent the fact of having to spend my precious time still praying about these long gone issues. I just want to forget all about them and the people concerned. And yet I have to be patient until it is all thoroughly dealt with in my heart.
All of this works. Please trust me about this. However I have to admit that I have not done this for a couple of weeks because I’ve been too busy editing my other blog, and my prayer life has really suffered. That is not a good enough excuse of course. Something else that I have been meaning to do for a few months now, but I’ve been procrastinating about, is to note down all the angry/negative thoughts that occur to me on a daily basis, so I know what to focus on in prayer each day, until the issue has been conclusively dealt with.
14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
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