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?