Forgiveness: Part 2—What is is really?

As we look at the New Testament, we find a term in Greek that is most consistently translated “to forgive.” That term is aphiēmi which communicates the idea of “letting go.” By way of illustration, if you remember in the movie Top Gun,
Tom Cruise’s character Maverick, feels guilt and responsibility for the death of his partner, Goose. He hangs onto Goose’s dog tags, which symbolize to him Goose’s presence. At the end of the movie we see him flinging Goose’s dog tags out to sea . . . he is letting go . . . letting go of Goose, letting go of the regret and the guilt. He is forgiving himself. In one sense, we can say this is a biblical picture of what forgiveness is. It is a letting go. In another sense, it is a vast oversimplification of what process of forgiveness looks like.

Several scriptural examples make it clear that the idea of forgiveness and consequences are not antithetical. Perhaps the most vivid is the example of David. The example of David in 2 Samuel may be instructive here. His affair with Bathsheba is legendary. David tried to cover his misdeed/sin going so far as to order a “hit” on her husband. He was able to keep up the appearances for over a year, but at great immediate spiritual cost as Psalm 51 testifies to. Finally he is confronted by Nathan the prophet, at which point he confesses his sin and is forgiven by God. The forgiveness was free and restored his existential relationship with God, but his actions were not without cost. He had brought dishonor upon himself, his office and God. The son born from that adulterous relationship died. But that was not the end of it. His reign which up to this point had been a Camelot type period for him and for Israel was beset from there on out with family trouble, treachery, betrayal. His son Absalom led a rebellion and usurped the throne. He took David’s harem and publicly went in and had sexual relations with his father’s wives. This too, God said was part of the ongoing consequences of David’s sin. Sowing to the wind, David reaped the whirlwind.

Rather than being a simple letting go a look at some of the scriptural passages speaking of forgiveness reveal what appear on the surface to be contradictions.

If we look at Colossians 3:13 and Mark: 11:25. We find that believers are commanded to forgive without qualification. But when we looked at Luke 17:3 (and by inference 2 Corinthians 2:7), forgiveness is contingent on the repentance of the offender.
Ephesians 4: 32, commands, unqualified forgiveness, following the example of God’s forgiveness of us. But if we look in the Old Testament at Hosea: 1:6 and Deuteronomy 9:20 God himself absolutely refuses to forgive.
Both Jesus and Stephen prayed that God would forgive their murders (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). Yet both Isaiah and Nehemiah prayed that God would not forgive evil men.
If we look at Matthew 18: 21 – 35, the disciples are taught to forgive without limit, again as an example of God’s mercy. But in the immediately preceding paragraph. Jesus says that those who refuse to repent of their sin are to be excommunicated and treated like Gentiles and tax collectors.
For those of us that accept the authority of Scripture, the option that there’s contradictory teaching in the scriptural narrative, is unacceptable. That leads to the conclusion that the term forgiveness is used in more than one way. Steven Tracy, in his book Mending The Soul suggests that Scripture speaks of forgiveness under three different categories: judicial forgiveness; psychological forgiveness; and relational forgiveness.

Judicial Forgiveness is something that can only come from God, and ultimately is based upon the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This forgiveness is the complete removal of guilt from which one suffers as a result of one’s sins. It is this judicial forgiveness that lies at the heart of the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is a forgiveness that is available to all, even the most wretched, most vile most violent, most worthless, and most odious of humanity. Even as Christians, there is often some part of us that is offended by the grace of God in his offer of forgiveness, for example a Hitler or Stalin or Mao or a Pol Pot or someone else whose crimes are so enormous that we cannot fathom them. On a level closer to home, we also would prefer to see abusers consigned to eternal torment.

Judicial forgiveness is available to all, but it is contingent upon confession and repentance. That is acknowledging one’s sin and adopting a radically different attitude toward one’s sins. (Just as a point of clarification, I am not adding something to the Gospel at this point. To trust Christ as Savior is to acknowledge at least implicitly that we stand under God’s judgment, and we cannot save ourselves.)

Steve Tracy observes that while we as mere human beings cannot offer people judicial forgiveness we can hinder the process of a sinner/abuser from finding forgiveness from God by not pressing them to take full ownership of their deeds. (It is scandalous that the church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, has a long history of blaming the victims of abuse, particularly when the abuser is a church leader.) Tracy goes on to observe that when churches or families press for premature reconciliation that they are abusing the victim. This posture also tends to solidify an offender’s denial of wrongdoing.

Psychological forgiveness, as opposed to judicial forgiveness, is in a very real sense personal and interior as opposed to relational. This aspect of forgiveness involves a letting go of the anger and hatred and the desire for revenge that is the natural response of one who is grievously sinned against. (Revenge and justice are two different concepts, which in the abstract can be clearly delineated.)

Revenge or vengeance involves unchecked retaliation for a wrong. In the movie The Untouchables, Sean Connery’s character in speaking of Al Capone tells Eliot Ness that to get Capone, he must use “the Chicago way.” If Capone puts one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his men in the morgue. “That’s how you get Capone.” Revenge involves an escalating cycle of violence, where each retaliation “ups the ante” from the previous offense.

Even in the Old Testament we see a divine command against revenge. This is expressed in the concept of “an eye for an eye quote.” The concept of an eye for an eye is the concept of equivalence, which places us into the realm of justice rather than revenge. Well we can’t look at length at this concept here. Miroslav Volf discusses it in his books, Free of Charge, and Exclusion and Embrace.

The interpersonal aspect of psychological forgiveness comes from the letting go aspect and is so that the victim of sin gives up his or her desire for revenge. It is out of this giving up or letting go that relationship can then re-established.

Relational Forgiveness involves the reestablishment of broken relationships. The theological term for this is reconciliation. This is the ultimate goal of our forgiveness, and in an ideal world we would be able to accomplish it. However, this is sadly not always possible. The late Stanley Grenz comments on the reconciling work of God in human history:

The vision of the Scriptures is clear: the final goal of the work of the triune God in salvation history is the establishment of the eschatological community – a redeemed people dwelling in a renewed earth, enjoying reconciliation with their God, fellowship with each other, and harmony with all creation. Consequently, the goal of community lies at the heart of God’s actions in history. (Revisioning Evangelical Theology, 158)

We have not, however obtained full redemption. We live in that ambiguous and uncomfortable space between time called the “already,” but the “not yet.” Full reconciliation cannot be accomplished by those who refuse the humbling and often painful work of repenting. Of this both Paul and Jesus speak unequivocally. In Luke 17:3 Jesus says: “if your brother sins, rebuked him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Similarly, Paul exhorts the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 to forgive the individual that he had in 1 Corinthians, ordered them to excommunicate. It seems that the excommunication had spurred this individual to repentance. The term used in the New Testament for repenting speaks of a radical definitive change of mind. This type of a change of mind would manifest itself in behavior. So John the Baptist can preach admonishing his hearers to bring forth the fruits of repentance.

A verbal confession of an apology should not automatically restore a relationship. As John the Baptist said, we need to see the fruits of repentance. Many individuals will confess and apologize, not because they are truly repentant, but because they have been found out or they have gotten caught.

Even when there is a relational forgiveness, we need to be wise. While this may sound unspiritual or even cynical, it really is not. It is wisdom that refuses to put a kleptomaniac in charge of money or to put a child molester in with children. Even in relational forgiveness, we need to be aware of appropriate boundaries to protect ourselves and those for whom we are responsible.

Parts of this entry are summarized from Steven Tracey’s, Mending the Soul chapt. 10.

Posted on Thursday, August 30, 2007 at 02:34PM by Registered CommenterJim Sawyer | CommentsPost a Comment