Shedding Some Light on the Subject of Forgiveness

I am staring at four books written by well-known Christians, all on the topic of forgiveness. I have read three of them and surveyed the fourth. Many more have been written, as a search on Amazon will reveal.  I suspect, however, that a person could read them all and only be more in the fog about forgiveness than before. These books do not agree with one another. At least the ones I have looked at. As has been said, “a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” If Christian pastors and teachers are unclear what forgiveness is, well – the blind are leading the blind.

You may have had the unpleasant opportunity to see this fog work itself out in your own life or in your church. Someone sins. Grievously, let’s say. This blog is about abuse, so let’s assume the sin is classic domestic violence and abuse. The perpetrator has been caught. He says he is sorry. The discussion begins.  Those folks over there say he must be allowed to remain in the church (where his victim is a member too). Others say he cannot. Here is a group that insists the victim must reconcile with him in her marriage because forgiveness without reconciliation is not really forgiveness. God hates divorce (a phrase not in the Bible by the way). Forgive seventy times seven. Christ tells us we must forgive just as God in Christ has forgiven us. And since that includes reconciliation, then this fellow’s relationships with the church and with his victim must all be continued. The heat increases. When the dust clears, the victim has had to leave the church. There is division in the ranks and another party departs. Everyone else stares at one another – “What happened?”

What happened is the expected result of a church not having a firm, clear, biblical understanding of Christ’s Word on forgiveness. In fact, most professing Christians don’t even want to have a true understanding of forgiveness. That would cause them too much trouble. Isn’t it incredible? The most forgiven people in the world – Christians – don’t understand what forgiveness is. We are much like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – “Rabbi so and so says this….yes, but Rabbi such and such says something else.” Put into today’s terms – “Jay Adams says….but John MacArthur teaches….Ken Sande tells us….”. Something is really wrong with this scenario. Is it really that difficult to figure out how we are to forgive one another? I don’t think so.
Consider for instance this whole matter of reconciliation.  Very, very often when the subject of forgiveness comes up, you will find people quoting the following Scriptures (in addition to seventy times seven of Matthew 18)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:12-13
These verses are then very often absolutely and mechanistically applied so that forgiveness is something that, point-by-exact-point, must correspond to God’s forgiveness of the sinner. AND, this line of thought goes, since God reconciles the sinner to Himself in Christ, then forgiveness MUST include reconciliation with the offender in ALL cases, EVERY time OR ELSE we are guilty of unforgiveness.
Abuse serves as a very good test case for our interpretations and applications of Scripture. In this case, this interpretation causes all kinds of suffering and hardship for victims. They are told that unless they reconcile with the abuser, then they are still guilty of unforgiveness. But can you see that the Apostle Paul never intended these verses to be taken as absolute, rigid measures of the essence of forgiveness? What is he telling us? Simply – you are a forgiven people in Christ, so be a forgiving people. And notice the “one another.” He is not specifically teaching us here about forgiveness of enemies, but of the forgiveness that is to characterize our relationships with one another in the body of Christ, the church. 
This is a very large topic, and I do not intend to deal with it exhaustively here. But let me share with you my “theory” of what the essential elements of forgiveness are. In fact, there may be only one essential element.  Forgiveness is a decision made by the person offended (the victim) to not seek personal vengeance against the offender, thus not insisting that the debt incurred by the offender’s sin be paid. It is a resolve to not hate the offender, but to love him and do good to him when opportunity to do so arises. And that is ALL. It does not include in its essence, reconciliation. Once again, I would direct you to Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith. I think we can safely conclude that Paul treated Alexander in accordance with Christ’s (and Paul’s own) instruction. In other words, I think Paul was operating within the sphere of Christ’s command to love our enemies when he wrote this –
Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 2 Timothy 4:14-15
We may reconcile, but that is not part of the essential, basic definition of forgiveness. Paul was not going to reconcile with Alexander. Neither does forgiveness preclude requiring payment of temporal debts, or of requiring that certain temporal consequences happen (a jail term for example).
At this point in my study, I do not think that this kind of forgiveness (ie, not seeking personal vengeance) requires repentance on the part of the offender every time in every case; reconciliation, however, certainly does require it. This means then that –
  • A victim can divorce her abuser and still forgive him
  • A church can forgive an abuser and still not permit him to be in that particular church where the victim attends
  • I can forgive a person and yet, because  I deem them to be unsafe for relationship, choose not to have a relationship with them.
  • I can tell the molester of my children, when they repent, “I forgive you, but you can never be around my children again.”
  • I can choose to not have a relationship with a person who has hit me seventy times seven but who has said they are sorry every single time!
If I come across such a person I have forgiven and their car is broken down – I can stop and call a tow for them. If they are beaten up lying along the highway – I can be the Good Samaritan (and I should). I MUST forgive! It is Christ’s command. Forgiveness is a characteristic, in fact, of a truly regenerate, converted heart in Christ. This is why Christ says that if we are not a forgiving person, He will not forgive us. BUT we are laying an unduly heavy and unbiblical burden on one another when we turn the traditions of men into the Word of God, and I think that is what is happening with this subject of forgiveness.  We are making it out to be more than it is.
I have not addressed another important topic – namely, that God’s forgiveness of a repentant, believing sinner may well NOT be the entirely the same as the forgiveness we extend to one another. In fact, I don’t see how it can be exactly the same. But we seem to assume that it must be. Think about what differences might exist between my forgiveness of someone who has sinned against me, and God’s forgiveness in Christ of someone who calls out to Him for saving mercy.

18 thoughts on “Shedding Some Light on the Subject of Forgiveness

    1. Jeff Crippen

      We keep vows even if it is costly to do so in SOME cases. Like promising to help someone and it turns out that keeping the promise is going to be more inconvenient than you first thought. But applying that principle to a marriage vow where abuse is happening is worse than foolish. It is cruel and can get people killed.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Tina

    It is crucial to understand this concept of forgiveness!

    I was molested all throughout my childhood by my stepfather. When his actions came to light, I was told by the pastor of my church that I must stop talking about what happened, I should not seek to talk to law enforcement because that would be “taking a brother to court in front of unbelievers” and forgiveness meant to allow him to be an uninterrupted part of my life. For 27 more years I worked to get along with him, to include him in family gatherings, to allow him to be part of our lives. When my kids were little, they wanted to move next door. When I expressed my concern about them being so much closer, he took offense that I would even bring it up—that was not forgiving. So against my better judgement, I agreed. I set guidelines for my kids (without telling them why) that they could never be alone with him, that Grandma always had to be there too.

    Fast forward several years, and my daughter was struggling. I had been crying out to God for wisdom to help my child. And one day she told me. Someone had done something bad to her and she just couldn’t get past it. And then she said his name. My heart broke, but I knew this time would be different. My husband & I went to local police and filed our complaint. The detectives got to work and built an excellent case. He was arrested a couple of weeks later and is now serving a 25-40 year sentence. Because of his age, we don’t expect that he will ever get out.

    And I clearly understand now that forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation. It is not loving to allow someone to get away with sin. It would have been right for me to press charges as a teenager because he needed to be caught and stopped. Other kids needed protection from him. He had not changed who he was; he had only changed his methods.

    If this story can spare one child… I must end by thanking Jesus who has kept me and helped me every step of the way and will continue to go with me to the end. I have forgiven my abuser, but I am not a part of his life. My mom divorced him and that was the right thing for her to do. A person can forgive and walk in God’s freedom but not be bound in a relationship with their enemy. It is not unChristian to walk in reality, to realize that not every person intends good to you—not even people who played what should have been a trusted role in your life. I praise God for the truth!

    Thank you for your blog and the important topics you discuss!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Jeff Crippen

      Tina – Yours is a powerful, powerful story that says it all. How warped and twisted men make God’s good Word. That pastor and others who kept you in cruel bondage for years are accountable and accomplices in the evils of your stepfather. I suspect that, if they are typical, they still insist they “stood for the Lord” in telling you those lies. Your story also illustrates how so many pastors and churches and professing Christians are just like the Pharisees. They take the letter of Scripture and totally throw away its spirit. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. His Law does not preclude kindness and justice for the oppressed.

      Good for you! Good for you! You have been, and are, very courageous. You have seen justice effected. And you are free. Many blessings to you in Christ.

      I will be publishing your comment at both of my blogs as a stand-alone post so that the most people as possible can read it.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Tina

        Pastor Jeff,
        Thank you for your kind encouragement! I wish I could say that my childhood pastor had “seen the light” in regards to abusers claiming to be Christians, but the reply he sent to my letter telling him what had happened to my daughter indicated that he hasn’t changed. It just makes me sad for people in his congregation today who may face similar circumstances. He is well-known and influential in Baptist circles. But I know that God is interested in the truth, and He has been faithful to lead me into a clear understanding that was certainly hampered for so many years.

        I have had the privilege to sit under a pastor for the last 19 years or so who was not fooled by my abusers recent tears and stood compassionately by us as we walked through the storm. We still had two teenagers when the abuse came to light. CPS investigators got involved and my husband & I had to go to court regarding whether or not we were fit to be parents. I could have fallen apart, but God surrounded me with his love and peace. We came through everything stronger, able to truly rejoice at what God has done.

        I am so thankful for all He has done! I am not a victim! I am a conqueror because of Jesus. May God bless the sharing of my story! Only He can take these awful things and bring about beauty! It is possible to walk in joy and hope and peace!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. healinginhim

      Tina, Thank you for sharing. I am so sorry you endured such evil but so grateful that the Lord gave you the strength to survive and make sure your daughter’s integrity be protected.
      Praying for you and your family.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tina

        Me too!! I know I would not be able to feel such joy and beauty if I had not known such pain! But God did what only He can do and brought healing to my heart. I have a wonderful husband, lovely children, a caring church… a really extraordinary life! Thank you for your kind words!

        Liked by 2 people

    3. Praying Lady

      Tina, thank you for sharing your heart-breaking story. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon. As you now know, those who counseled you to keep quiet, keep forgiving and continue in relationship with the abuser were absolutely wrong! Thank God that the perpetrator is now where he belongs-in prison!!
      I once heard this statement, “Granting forgiveness without demanding a change in conduct/behavior makes the grace of God an accomplice to evil.” As an abuse survivor, I learned the hard way that continuing to forgive evil people without true repentance on their part only encourages them to continue their abusive behavior.
      Several years ago, I ministered to a woman who was in her late 70’s. Her family had noticed that she had become increasingly angry and unable to control outbursts of anger. During one ministry session, she revealed to me that she had been repeatedly molested by her father for years as a young child, but had never told anyone. She suffered in silence for over 7 decades! Through healing prayer, she received a lot of freedom and her family even commented on how much calmer she had become. (They never learned the reason for the anger that they had witnessed.)
      Forgiveness is a choice, but some people, especially those who have been sexually, physically, emotionally, or ritually abused, cannot forgive until the deep pain from the trauma is released by Jesus.
      May God bless you and your daughter with the healing and freedom that only He can provide!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Jeff Crippen

        And that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation with the unrepentant. Or even with one who repents but the sin was of such a nature that reconciliation of relationship would be damaging.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Tina

          Yes, I wish I had known that my struggle to continue to try to relate to him in a “normal” father-daughter relationship was not a sign that I was harboring unforgiveness but rather warning signals that were for my own protection. That being said, I am thankful that I did not stay in that confused state but came to see the situation for what it really was. I know not everyone experiences that level of resolution. The Lord is so good! Knowledge of the truth really does set us free. And our daughter is doing very well, and has demonstrated her desire to bring glory to God by sharing her testimony with others. It’s not a shift that happened overnight, but God has brought much healing to both of us. I’m thankful for clarity of thought and understanding of the situation. My prayer is certainly that anyone else hearing a false message of forgiveness would discern that and instead learn to walk in genuine forgiveness and truth. It can be so devastating to believe a lie!!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Deb

    Our daughter left her abuser at 8 months pregnant. His sexual and psychological abuse was extreme. He claims to be a Christian and used scripture to “keep her in line” for the 1.5 years of their marriage. There is a two year no contact order in place now.

    I’m interested in knowing the biblical mandate between confession/repentance/restitution. She really needs him to be able to say what he has done (confess) and repent. They had gone to 4 or 5 counselors but as soon as a counselor would press in, he would have some excuse and move on so we don’t have a lot of hope.

    Thank you,
    DB

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    1. Jeff Crippen

      Thank you Deb. There will be a post this Monday here on the subject of forgiveness and how it is wrongly taught so typically. I think it will help answer your questions. After years of helping abuse victims and seeing how their abusers think and act, especially the abusers who claim to be Christians, I am convinced that it is an error to wait for the abuser to repent. I tell victims two things: 1) Abusers don’t repent, and 2) A marriage to an abuser doesn’t need to be fixed, it needs to be ended. If the victims make their decisions based upon those two premises, they will make wise decisions. Genuine repentance is rarely, rarely, rarely seen in theses cases and in fact I have yet to see it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Norma

    Pastor Jeff, I read your blogs and have listened to your sermons on abuse. You are brave. This comment is long, but it is from the heart.

    I could expound on this topic of forgiving/forgiveness but will not. I want to go a different direction with my comment. The church has erred in prescribing simplistic answers to complex problems and with a lack of compassion in many respects. Part of it is blindness to the reality that some people sitting in our pews every Sunday are wounded but unable to voice their pain. I call them the “silent suffering.” I used to be one of them.

    Forgiving is an essential step in healing and recovery, releasing and letting it go, but it is just one step of many that one takes to health, healing, and freedom. For years I wondered why the pain remained when I had forgiven the offense and offender. God in his grace took me further still. I was able to see the sorrow in my heart that was continually grieving the pains of the past caused by my unmet needs, unhealed hurts, and unresolved issues. I was trying to do all the right things but they were never enough.

    I was an active leader in the church and a strong follower of Christ. I suffered in places people could not see, and I wore my facade well. There came a day, after a crushing experience, when I gave it all to God and asked him to change me. Over the process of a year’s time, a deep healing, through his ministrations and my willingness, became my joy and freeing. I came alive and emerged a new creature.

    Thank you Pastor Crippen for being an advocate for the silent suffering and being a caring leader that speaks truth in love as you expose wrong-doing and its destructive presence within the Christian community. I know it has cost you to do so. Our compassion compels us to offer hope and care to our sisters and brothers impacted by their deep woundings. I want them to know they are loved, prayed for, and cared for by many who may not know them.. Some of us see you and recognize the pain you carry by your expressions and isolation. I wish a new day for the wounded and for our communities of believers to awaken. It really is about love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff Crippen

      And thank YOU Norma! These lessons and truths you have learned are what so many need to grasp.

      Simplistic answers to complex problems. That is what I call ignorance paired with arrogance. Simplistic usually translates into “letter of the law” legalism produced by those who so often energetically think they are defending the inerrancy of the Word. In doing so they are blind to the real intent of the law, its real purpose, and for whom it is intended. Applying the law to the innocent and oppressed is akin to rubbing salt in wounds only worse.

      The healing you speak of is, I think, not necessarily incompatible with a desire for justice. But we must, by faith, ultimately turn that desire for justice over into the hands of the Lord who promises to effect it perfectly one Day. Otherwise we will live with that ongoing pain and continual grieving.

      I have a friend who is a sound counselor and Christian. She often says that her desire for abuse victims is that eventually they are able and empowered to move beyond being identified as a person who is a victim of abuse and instead come to full realization that they are more than conquerors in Jesus Christ.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Norma

        So true. More clarity is in order. For me, the healing was through seeking God, surrendering to him, and opening my life to his will and way without any set parameters or conditions. I was seeking God to know him. In the process he removed layer after layer of stuff, wrong thinking, lies I had believed, self-righteous attitudes, blame and so forth.. It was like God used a mirror to reveal the condition of my soul. The more I sought him, the more he showed me. I faced obstacles head-on as they were revealed one after another, that I acknowledged and then overcame with God’s help. It was a spiritual metamorphosis that required great intention on my part, but so worth it in the end. To God be the glory.

        (Editor’s note: Thank you, Norma, for the information. We will look at it.)

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Anon1

    When I had not yet been wounded and abused to the point of it being nearly life and death each time, forgiveness was readily given because I thought it was required of me, without even hearing a single “I’m sorry” or anything….

    Fast forward and now I feel as though I am on life support as so much abuse and victimization has damaged me to such a dire state and I don’t know about forgiveness anymore.

    The abusers and criminals don’t seek forgiveness but are eager to further harm. I cannot forgive and will not forgive. The Office of the Keys and whatever we bind here on earth is bound in heaven. My only consoling thoughts these days are that (1) someday I’ll get to die and no longer be plagued with a continued existence here in this wretched life and (2) the abusers, criminals, victimizers will burn in hell and eventually God will repay, He will avenge, and their privileged, rewarded existences here on earth will be no longer.

    I don’t know how to forgive. I feel too damaged to ever be able to do such. Perhaps that’s the devil’s plan — pulverize, torture, torment and abuse me to the point where the victimization has been too severe, too damaging, too painful, and I’ll be unable to forgive and therefore Christ will not forgive me……I’m not sure.

    But Christ died for me on the cross and I am baptized into Him, so I’m not sure where I stand. To the Bible I do cling.

    Perhaps some others reading this blog will see just how severe the effects of abuse are and risk almost anything to try and escape before it is too late.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Z

      Anon1,
      I’m so so sorry for what you’ve had to endure. I pray you are in a safe place where you at least aren’t in harm’s way for the criminal to further do damage to you.

      Please don’t succumb to despair. THAT is what satan wants. To steal the Peace God can and will give you.
      And don’t feel condemned that you feel you can’t forgive. As Pastor Crippen has written so much so far on the many false teachings about forgiveness when it applies to unrepentant abusers, it is an easily twisted teaching. Not even the “experts” can agree.

      But try to read all you can of Pastor Crippen’s in depth blogs about forgiveness doctrine. In my view, you have done what is required of you. You say you have given vengeance over to God (His Word says it will be burning in hell, so your prediction of his fate is in line with God’s Word, except if their VERY unlikely repentance in true godly sorrow happens). So you aren’t seeking to avenge your abuse yourself., but letting God avenge in His way. That’s obedience.

      As long as God is going to avenge the wrongs done to you, you can be free not to hate or keep bitterness to fester in your own heart and life. That keeps your abuser from continuing to hinder your walk with Jesus Who died for our FREEDOM. Total freedom from your abuser and all further thoughts of him “renting space for free in your heart and mind”. That’s toxic for you and Christ wants you walking in His freedom-not bondage of the mind or heart.

      So be gentle with yourself. Don’t bring undue condemnation on yourself when you are a Blood-bought baptized Child of the Most High God and co-heir of the Kingdom with Jesus! THAT is who you are! THAT is your identity! NOT what was done to you.

      I’ve been in your shoes. As bad as it gets-it was done to me. Let God love you. Let Him bring healing to those wounds. Only He can and WILL do that for you. He WANTS to make you whole and BETTER than before.

      I’ll be praying for you sister.

      Liked by 1 person

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