Lessons in Christian Community

Christian Community (Part 6) - Forgive One Another

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Briefly review our subject (index of involvement in Christian community) and the base text (Jn. 13:34,35).  The apostles unpacked this in the "one another" imperatives, and this one clearly echoes Jesus (read Eph. 4:32).  Are you involved enough with some Christian friends that you get offended and need to extend forgiveness?  This is the only way to preserve closeness in relationships with sinful people. 

Before we look closely at what forgiveness is and how to practice it, let's consider the alternative to forgiveness (read Eph. 4:31).

The Alternative: Bitterness

DEFINITION: Bitterness is prolonged retributive anger toward another person because of an offense committed. 

The occasion of bitterness is always an offense.  There is an infinite variety here: PAST/RECENT; MAJOR/MINOR; TO SELF/TO OTHERS; ACTIVE/PASSIVE; REAL/IMAGINED.  Depending on many factors (temperament; seriousness of offense; intimacy of offender), the temptation to become bitter may be very slight or feel overwhelming.

But the real cause of bitterness is how you respond to the offense (your world-view and your choice to act consistently with your world-view).  This is why some people become deeply embittered over relatively minor offenses, while others who have been terribly offended are free from bitterness.  We'll take a closer look at this important issue a little later.

SYMPTOMS: How can you know if you are embittered?  While it is usually obvious in advanced stages, it can be very subtle in early stages.  Plus, Christians who know that bitterness is wrong become adept at denying it (ME).  The symptoms fall into two categories.

Justifying your retributive anger: replaying and/or exaggerating the offense; ruminating the negative effects of the offense; finding others to join you in these activities

Expressing your retributive anger: joy over offender's misfortune and outrage over his good fortune; withdrawal from the relationship (totally or partially through silent treatment, less vulnerability, etc.); rehearsing to yourself what you'd like to say or do to the offender; disproportionate anger over unrelated issues; plotting and/or taking revenge; gossiping and/or slandering the offender

CONSEQUENCES: Why do we do this?  Because we think that it will somehow take away the hurt we have sustained from the offense.  But before you decide to pay back, consider the price you will pay for doing this!

EMOTIONAL: Yes, anger is an "empowering emotion."  It feels good short-term.  But bitterness takes a long-term toll on your emotional life by draining your "emotional reserve."  As we focus on gratitude toward God and love toward others, we develop an emotional buffer in our lives that gives us resilience and hope.  But bitterness drains this reserve so that we become more vulnerable to depression and negativity (QUALIFY: not the only reason for depression).

RELATIONAL: We think we can localize a bitterness toward someone without it affecting our other relationships.  But it will eventually spread to affect our key relationships.

"FLOATING BITTERNESS" attaches itself to others who remind you of your offender (offense; position of authority; personality; appearance).
Long-term bitterness poisons your personality with a negativity (self-pity; cynicism; tone of voice; facial expression) which tends to repel other people--which then gives you more people to be embittered toward.
"YOU'RE JUST LIKE . . . " SYNDROME: Our offenders are often bitter people themselves.  If you become embittered toward them, although you may succeed in being unlike them superficially, you will become like them in the above way.  It is shocking to hear spouses or children say, "You're just like your father!"

SPIRITUAL: For Christians, this is the most disturbing consequence because we value relational closeness with God above all else.  While it is true that nothing (including bitterness) will cause God to reject you if you have received Christ, the Bible warns that unresolved bitterness will effectively block the transforming power of God's love in our lives.  Eph. 4:30 teaches both of these truths (EXPLAIN).  1 Jn. 2:9-11 warns us that it will plunge us into spiritual confusion.  If you are experiencing chronic distance from God, this is one of the first places to look.  We will examine why this happens in a few minutes . . . 

Bitterness may appear helpful, but it is counter-productive in the extreme.  As one author says, "Harboring bitterness is like shooting yourself in order to hit the offender with the recoil of the gun!"  Instead, we need to learn how to practice biblical forgiveness toward all of our offenders!

What does it mean to forgive?

I'm not going to give you a formula/recipe for how to forgive.  There are too many variables in this personal interchange.  If you ask God, he will show you what steps to take.  But I can hopefully speak to more foundational issues.  I find that there are usually two main reasons why people refuse to extend forgiveness.  The first is that they have misconceptions about what forgiveness involves.  The second is that they are simply unwilling.  I don't know what your reason is, so I'm going to expose some common misconceptions about forgiveness, and contrast them to elements of biblical forgiveness.  Note the points that strike you--and prayerfully determine to act on them.

Forgiveness is not denying the offense, the offender's responsibility, or the painful effects of the offense.  Victims of child sexual abuse often take on the responsibility for their abuse.  Others try to repress the issue by minimizing its effects.  This is not God's way because it denies the truth.

Biblical forgiveness acknowledges all of the above, including feeling the emotional pain of the offense.  But it also acknowledges other truths concerning the offense/offender.  Instead of totally villianizing the offender, it empathizes with him where appropriate.  It also considers the possibility of how you have exaggerated the offense, and of how you have offended your offender.

Forgiveness is not primarily a feeling.  If you wait until you are overwhelmed with feelings of compassion, pity, etc. to conclude that you can or have forgiven, you may wait forever.

Biblical forgiveness ultimately involves feelings, but it is primarily a crisis of the will--choice to lay down the right to pay your offender back.  And this choice is based on the biblically-informed conviction that refusing to do this is blasphemy and hypocrisy.

It is blasphemy because God and God alone has the legitimate right to pay people back for their sins.  Read Rom. 12:19 (this includes civil government [see Rom. 13:4] as well as God's final judgment).  When I insist on doing this myself, I am usurping God's role and calling him immoral or incompetent.  Forgiveness is not letting the offender off the hook; it is transferring the case to a higher court.
It is hypocrisy because God has forgiven me of far more and far greater offenses against him.  Read Eph. 4:32 and condense Matt. 18:21-35.  Who is the first debtor?  All of us--before God!  And who is the second debtor?  All of our offenders!  This is why receiving and remembering God's forgiveness is the key dynamic in forgiving others.  Only this can melt your heart and motivate you to forgive.  Have you received God's forgiveness through Christ?  If you haven't done this, don't put the cart before the horse--start here!  If you have, ask God to enable you to see yourself as the first debtor, instead as a hypocrite who wants God to accept you by grace--but wants the right to relate to your offender under law.

Forgiveness is often not a once-for-all event, after which the offense is forgotten.  If you believe that "to forgive is to forget," you may be unwilling to try to forgive, or you may wrongly conclude that you have not forgiven. 

Biblical forgiveness begins with an event/choice, but (especially with serious offenses) it often involves an ongoing affirmation of this choice as new memories arise, or as deeper levels of damage from the offense become apparent.  It doesn't mean that you eradicate the offense from your memory (it doesn't mean this with God toward you), but that you refuse to focus on the offense, or to use it against the offender by gossiping about it or reminding him of it.

Forgiveness is not passively tolerating future injury, or naively agreeing to trust an untrustworthy offender.  You don’t prove your forgiveness of a child molester by entrusting your children to him.  You don’t prove your forgiveness of your chronically lying teenager by choosing to believe him.  You don’t prove your forgiveness of violent person by continuing to let him beat you or your children.  You prove your own foolishness, and maybe your lack of love for them.  Forgiveness is something we extend freely for the above reasons.  Trust is something that is earned; that's why we speak of some people being "trustworthy."

Biblical forgiveness, though, accepts the injury of past offenses, trusting that God will sovereignly work through them in your life for good (JOSEPH).  It also applies disciplinary or protective measures (including legal prosecution) for redemptive rather than retaliatory reasons.  And it is willing to let the offender rebuild responsible trust when appropriate.

Forgiveness is not passive and negative only.  Of the secular authors who prescribe forgiveness, it is usually for solely selfish reasons: "Let them off your hook so you can get on with your life."

While the Bible recognizes the personal benefit of forgiveness, this is not primary.  The primary reasons are to represent God accurately and to redeem the other person if possible.  That's why biblical forgiveness is active and positive (read Rom. 12:14,20,21)--even if all you can do is pray for the other person.

Lastly, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  One author defines authentic forgiveness as "the mutual recognition that repentance is genuine and right relationships are achieved."[1]  This confuses two related but distinct things.  Forgiveness is the unilateral decision to lay down the right to pay back and reassume the responsibility to love.  Reconciliation is the bilateral agreement of both parties to come together again.  You must truly forgive someone to be reconciled, but you can forgive someone and remain unreconciled if they refuse to repent.

Biblical forgiveness, however, is willing to work toward appropriate reconciliation if the offender repents.  This is the ultimate goal of forgiveness, and it is beautiful to experience and behold. 


Resolve past bitternesses, and nip present ones in the bud!

NEXT WEEK, we will conclude this series with "Accept One Another."

[1] David W. Augsberger, The Freedom of Forgiveness (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), p. 28.