Redefining Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a topic discussed to pieces among believers, and especially abuse survivors. So much pain and hurt, both physical and emotional, is wrapped up in our decision to forgive or not to forgive. Some people claim to be set free from bitterness after they forgive an abuser, and others swear that they will never extend forgiveness to an abuser who can’t or won’t repent. In a strange twist, a victim is sometimes branded as sinful himself if he fails to forgive his abuser. The call to forgive is undoubtedly used as a means of control by the church and mission organizations, to keep the peace and keep undesirable things hidden away. Once you realize this, it is difficult to trust anyone who counsels forgiveness. You wonder what their motives are.

What exactly is forgiveness?  I think this word can have many different meanings, and that includes what it means to each of us on a personal level.

Just like there are several Greek words that refer to different kinds of love, there are also several Greek words in the New Testament, and several Hebrew words in the Old Testament, that are all translated as forgiveness. One word means to send away, another means to extend a favor or show kindness. Still another word means redemption, or buying back. With many different shades of meaning all being translated as forgive, it is no wonder there is a lot of confusion over forgiveness.

By forgiveness, some  people mean reconciliation. This would require both the victim and the abuser to come together and agree to put the past behind them, an unlikely scenario in many cases.

Some people believe forgiveness is a change of our own mind, where we release an offender of their debt to us even if they are not asking for pardon, or even acknowledging wrongdoing. I am sure this is a good and healthy attitude to take, but it seems too one-sided to really count as forgiveness. I would define it as acceptance.

The forgiveness that God offers is actually a redemption, a buying back of our lives, and only given to those that repent and believe. We are not capable of this level of forgiveness.  We don’t have the currency to redeem another human being.

The Bible has a lot to say about forgiving so we should look there for guidance. However I believe you could find a chapter and verse to justify every position on this subject.

Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Mark 11:25 “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

These are just a few of the many  passages urging us to forgive.  However consider the following.

John 20:23 “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”   Notice that there is a choice to forgive or not forgive.

Jeremiah 5: 28-31  “Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this? declares the Lord. Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority…”  This passage is talking about the Israelites, but it rings true for me today when I hear of the shocking abuse that happens on mission fields, to “fatherless” MKs, and I wonder what authority mission leaders are acting under.

And later in Jeremiah 18,  “But you, Lord, know all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger.” 

Luke 17: 1-3 “Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.  It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” This passage is a frequent flyer in discussions of child abuse, because of the powerful image of the abuser being cast into the sea with a millstone round their neck.  It’s important to note that you are first told to rebuke your offender, then IF they repent, forgive them.

Acts 8: 20-23  “Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord IN THE HOPE that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” This was Peter’s answer to Simon when he tried to buy the ability to lay hands on people. Again, a rebuke, and no guarantee of forgiveness.

A common theme in all of these scriptures is that forgiveness doesn’t come automatically, it requires a change of heart and repentance on the part of the offender. In the Old Testament we read about a jealous and angry God who loses patience with the Israelites continually. Frequently men have to beg God for compassion and even argue and debate why he should not destroy entire towns and nations. In the New Testament Jesus shows righteous anger against unrepentant people, such as the moneylenders in the temple, and the scheming Pharisees. He advises the disciples that if a town does not welcome them they are to leave it and “shake the dust off their feet.”

If we are to use the model “forgive as the Lord forgave you,” then an abuser should be held to accountability before we extend forgiveness. God doesn’t blanket all of mankind with forgiveness, we have to ask for it and accept it. Shouldn’t we hold our abusers to the same standard?

What does forgiveness mean to you?


10 thoughts on “Redefining Forgiveness

  1. This seems to be a most difficult issue. On the one hand you have those of us who were actually in situations such as abusive boarding schools and on the other you have those who have been raised in a protected environment and can only respond from that place. It is very difficult for a person to effectively see beyond their life experience. I was one of many who were at Mamou (not SIM) and so I lived it and know something about dealing with this issue on a personal level. Forgiveness is a word many who have come out of these situations have learned to hate. Many that I know personally simply turn off and can’t hear anything said past the word forgiveness in any conversation. What I have learneds for myself is that there is a principal here that some would term forgiveness and yet call it by any name you wish it is effective. The truth is simply this; No matter what anyone would have us believe, anyone who has endured an abusive past has a right to be angry bitter and resentful of those people and events. That said, what good comes from exercising those rights? I know some who have made it their lifes work to keep those old wounds fresh, open and festering. The simple reality is that in exercising our right to remain wounded we are not only dealing with old wounds from long ago but we are allowing those people who wounded us so badly so long ago to continue to increase our wounding at their hands every day that we open those wounds and continue to exercise our right to remain wounded. Even if the guilty were punished in the most painful of executions known to man our wounds would remain and the pain would continue because even the death of the guilty does nothing to remove the events of our lives. If the only way for us to get free of our wounding is for the abuser to confess and sincerely repent and ask for forgiveness then when one of them dies unrepentent does this mean we are therefore imprisoned for the rest of our lives to the wounding that we suffer? The reality is that whether you call it forgiveness or not there is only one way that I know of to heal. As long as I hold on to my right to remain wounded and in pain, captive to the past, I am going to suffer. Not only that but as long as I exercise the right to carry that wounding I allow those people to continue abusing me. It is like being chained by the neck to the abuser for life because I choose to remain chained to them. The answer then is to sever the chain that is holding me in bondage to the people and events of the past. I must choose to let go of my right to be wounded and let go of my right to hold them accountable to me. So then if you would call it forgiveness, as I do, it is not for their sake but for my own healing and freedom that I do it. I simply turn them over to the only one able to truly be just, Jesus.

    • Thanks for your perspective on forgiveness, Dennis. It’s a subject which as you said can stir up feelings of hate, or at the very least bring on a lot of eye-rolling. What you say makes perfect sense. No one wants to go through life emotionally chained to their abuser. It is putting it into practice that is hard. How do you sever that chain? How do you recover a life that went flying off down the wrong track years ago?

      • Liz, This issue is one about which I have been writing about for some time. What I am finding is that there are more broken abused people in this country than those who have lived above abuse. I believe that perhaps more than seventy five percent of women in this country have been sexually molested or abused when they were young. This then is a very significant issue reaching far beyond those of us who were in these mission boarding schools. Severing the chain which holds in bondage to the abuser, I believe, in short, is accomplished by the Grace of God. That is the short answer. That answer is often offensive to those who have been abused by Christian organizations or Churches however I believe it to be true. The difficulty for many is trying to see the organization, or individuals within a “Christian” organization as distinctly separate from who God is and recognize that the abuse suffered by a child grieved God and was in no way a true reflection on the character of God. Ultimately, the answer to healing for the wounded individual is to discover the intensity of Gods love for them individually. I have seen a young child receive a bunny for their birthday and they loved it so much they hugged it so tightly that they actually killed it. I know that the love of God is so intense that were He to reveal the fullness of that love, we would be physically unable to survive it. The difficulty for many is that they have rejected God and His love because they associate God with the painful experiences of the past. There are also many who may not have rejected God entirely but their view of who He is is seriously flawed. I ran from God for twenty years after returning to the U.S. from Africa and being left here to fend for myself while my parents returned to Africa. I tried to return to Africa to help my dad on building projects there cause I realized I was really in trouble here cause I didnt know how to deal with the drug culture of the seventies and I was trying so hard to fit in. I asked the head of the mission board to let me go and his response was “we dont want your kind over there. He said this cause everyone knew the trouble I was in. Another aspect of the wounding of those in boarding schools is the response of the organizations when the abuse was reported. I know many that say that the response of the organization was the worst abuse of all. The key to helping a victim of abuse is to BE a living example of the Love of God TO them. There is so much that needs to be said but there simply is not space here to cover it. Liz I would love to talk to you more about this subject There is so much need for healing of the wounds of abuse. I realize this was all over the place but I could write a book on this subject.

      • Dennis, It is so true that especially for an MK who grew up in a missionary boarding school, our idea of God is all wrapped up with the way we were treated by the teachers and dorm parents who had absolute authority over us for 9 months of the year and their legalistic system. Granted they did have to have rules in place to run a boarding school with that many kids, but there was no separation between KA rules and God’s rules. Therefore the harsh punishment that came from breaking the rules at the school – and it was often very harsh punishment for the offense, and for the age of the kid – was also God’s punishment. It gives a kid the idea of a very punishing God who is always keeping an eye on you and waiting for you to slip up. If you aren’t stressed out from always trying to be perfect, then you are full of guilt for the rules you know you are breaking. My particular view of God for many years was that if I give my life over to him completely he will try me and test me, probably by taking away things that I love. And by things I mean people, because I am not so much in love with my possessions or money. I learned early on that it is better not to be noticed, and there is something scary about the Creator zeroing in his attention on ME. Well, maybe that’s how the bunny felt!

        Your experience being in the US by yourself as a young adult is sadly very common for kids who graduated around my time frame, the 70s, and probably before that as well. I know SIM has all kinds of support today for kids at that age, but it wasn’t there at all when we graduated. I was lucky that my parents decided to take a leave from the mission for two years and I finished high school and started college while they were home. I never appreciated it at the time, in fact I resented it, but now I appreciate it. I have college age kids of my own now and my heart aches for you and all the others who struggled in that situation. Frankly I think it is something the mission and some parents should acknowledge, that those kids were neglected, and it made a huge impact on some lives.

        You say you have been writing for a long time. Do you have a blog, books? Please share if you do.

      • Liz, No I don’t have a blog and I don’t have any published books. I do feel that I have learned enough to help others but I don’t know where or how to start. Sometimes It seems that people cant understand anything I have to say anyway but I would like to believe I haven’t endured all that I have for no reason. It would be nice to think that some good can come from broken lives when they are healed. My experiences began long before the boarding school. the boarding school was simply my worst nightmare come true and was simply a continuation of what had come before it. You should hear the whole story, then maybe you could more fully understand just how far I have come.

      • Actually Writing is simply how I process things. I write my thoughts and then review them and change things as I work it all out. Currently I have 12 large loose leaf binders full and alot on my computer.

  2. Although I can’t blame victims for wanting revenge, I don’t believe that is our place, in fact the Bible is pretty clear on that point – “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19) However there is disagreement too over what exactly is revenge. Some people who try to bring their abuser to justice are accused of wanting revenge. I and other people who comment here have had people ask “what are you looking for, revenge?! I don’t believe that seeking justice is the same as seeking revenge, but it might be one of the alternatives you are speaking of, Jim.

  3. Perhaps we need to consider some alternatives that lie between the extremes of forgiveness and revenge.They could include anything from
    indifference to a wary kind of tolerance.We might feel that having judged
    the action it is beyond our jurisdiction to condemn or forgive the actors.

    • Jim, It is always within our “jurisdiction to forgive but it is never within our jurisdiction to condemn the person. We can however condemn the actions that harm others. We must always stand for truth. Abuse is wrong and we must stand firmly in that truth. The fact is that the abused have had their sense of value and worth stolen from them. They become irrelevent and dont matter at least as far as they can see. The answer is for true believers to rise up and be the true Church. When believers recognize that the way that Christ dealt with wounded people was to value them and make them relevant and important in His eyes. He was a living example of the love of God in their lives and this is what impacted them.

      • I did say that forgiveness is always within our “jurisdiction” but I should add that though this is true we may not feel able to forgive. Forgiveness can be a hurdle we simply do not feel able to get over at the present time but is is always within our jurisdiction to forgive.

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