We continue with our friend’s very helpful essay on forgiveness – what it really is, who actually forgives, and just what forgiveness requires. As you know, this is a subject which is so often twisted and misapplied, to the enablement of the wicked and the detriment of the oppressed. Many thanks once more to our sister in Christ:
The reason for the need for forgiveness is obviously guilt resulting from our rebellion. This tells us something that’s key here and which has an impact on the meaning and necessity for forgiveness. Sin puts a breach in relationships — which is why relationships get awkward when we are sinned against. Our sin against God cuts off our fellowship with God. In His justice, He must punish us, unless He has a way of forgiving us. But even then He must still hold His justice, which means someone has to be punished in our stead. There’s no way around this. Genuine forgiveness addresses genuine guilt. It is only because of Christ that God can be just and at the same time the justifier – of the one who has faith in Jesus.
If God cannot leave guilt unaddressed, then neither should we when we forgive. The guilty person needs forgiveness because he’s guilty. God does not forgive in a vacuum or because He “needs to heal”.
God has no need to forgive in order to feel better about Himself.
The guilty person needs something here. God’s forgiveness is for the sake of the offender – it is not self-focused on the part of the one who forgives.
The goal for forgiveness is “let [the sinner] return to the Lord”. So the ultimate purpose for forgiveness is restoration of the formerly broken relationship, or reconciliation, through repentance and justice being met.. While forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation, it is two sides of the same coin, just like faith and repentance are not the same, but you can’t have one without the other. This is something that gets tricky in human relationships, (because we can’t change people the way God can) but from God’s standpoint, when God forgives someone He also reconciles with that person. This does not mean that we need to reconcile with unsafe people. This raises the bar for what forgiveness should look like, but this also raises the bar for how we ought to deal with sin. If we take sin lightly, we will treat forgiveness lightly.
Which is why…another aspect we see in God’s forgiveness… is the prerequisite for it that must be met. The guilty person must forsake his sin, and return to the Lord. Repentance is a prerequisite, and especially genuine repentance, for that matter. We can’t fake it with God. There are no exceptions to this. Every single person who repents, God forgives, and essentially becomes a Christian. Every single person who does not repent ends up in hell, forever unforgiven. So the more correct way to say it is: when God forgives a sinner He reconciles with a CHANGED person.
God does reconciles with His FORMER enemy—but he’s an enemy no longer— and never with an unrepentant sinner. It’s repentance that makes forgiveness possible and that CHANGE of heart that makes reconciliation possible.
I love the statement – God has no need to forgive in order to feel better about Himself.
God is not sitting in heaven feeling guilty and wringing his hands over whether or not Adolf, Judas, Lou, or Lee is going to repent so that He can extend forgiveness to them. He knows exactly what’s going on, whether or not those who have broken his laws will get mercy or justice. He knows all of mankind by default deserves his justice. It is only in his love that he rescues his people from their sin so that he may extend grace to them in place of justice. That also means that the debt owed by God’s people must be paid in order to satisfy His wrath and bring for his perfect justice. That is where Christ’s life, death, and resurrection come in. He paid the penalty for our sin and took on the wrath that we deserved in our place so that in exchange we may receive God’s mercy and unfailing love. The debt is not ignored or swept under the rug, it is paid in full through Christ.
All who aren’t included in the people of God will be responsible for paying for their own sins. They will never get forgiveness extended to them for their sin, only eternal justice.
Too often we don’t take the time to really understand how miraculous true, genuine repentance is. Man in his nature is not drawn to repentance. He is consumed with his own desires which are rooted in sin, and which lead to death and eternal destruction.
Genuine repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of man. You and I can’t bring about genuine repentance in others. Only God can. This is where praying to God, asking him to inflict judgment on the wicked for the purpose of bringing forth genuine repentance is appropriate. Being showered with blessings (material possessions, influence, money, health…) will not bring forth genuine repentance. It may actually hinder it. It is only through deep pain and the work of the Holy Spirit that one realizes their need for repentance. That is why praying imprecatory prayers for those who’ve abused us is important. It will either bring about the perfect justice their actions deserve or bring about their genuine repentance if the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to the truth of their wicked behavior. Both are in the hands of God, not ours.
As Christians, and especially women, we are pressured to “forgive” without evidence of repentance under the misguided notion that by not doing so we are harboring bitterness and resentment against our abusers. God doesn’t forgive unrepentant people and neither should we. His anger remains kindled at them and only grows with each and every sin they commit over the course of their lives. There is a cup of judgment waiting for them if they do not repent and be made right with God. Forgiving an unrepentant person will not make you feel better about yourself. It is a form of self-gaslighting. It isn’t godly. It invites more abuse and validates the abuser’s deception that what they are doing isn’t that bad.
Learn to define what genuine repentance looks like. Look at Zaccheus. When he comes face to face with Christ, he is changed as evidenced by his actions. He voluntarily repays everyone he has cheated out of money. He changes his behavior. He invites Christ to dine with him and dwell with him.
Here is my checklist for what to look for when an abusive person claims to have repented.
CHECKLIST FOR REPENTANCE OF ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR
The guilty party will:
– Cease any and all blame-shifting
– Not blame the victim
– Not blame their childhood
– Not blame their parents or guardians
– Not blame the circumstances they were borne into
– Not blame the traumatic events that caused them pain
– Stop making excuses for their actions/choices
– Not seek vengeance or retribution if the victim speaks the truth about their experiences with the abuser to others
– By proxy
– Willingly learn how to change their negative behavior patterns
– Commit to seeking professional help and accountability to break negative behavioral patterns
– Actively works to not repeat harmful behavior
– Admit their guilt in their harmful behavior, confessing their harm with specific details
– They will say, “I was wrong to… [insert harmful action]”
– Demonstrate contrition (surrenders their rights in a relationship in order to bring about the change and healing the victim needs)
– Apologize specifically for the harm they inflicted, not a blanket I’m sorry statement
– After enough time has passed to demonstrate a change in their behavior, as specified by the victim, the guilty party will ask for forgiveness
– If this person is a public figure and the harm they inflicted on others has been made public, then the confession of sin and repentance must be public as well
– Accept responsibility for the full measure of their negative actions
– If their actions violate the law, they will willingly turn themselves over to the authorities and submit themselves to its consequences and punishment including jail time, prison, fines, and restitution
– Identify the thoughts and attitudes that drive their negative behavioral patterns resulting in harm to others and actively work to overcome them
– Let go of any and all attitudes and actions of entitlement including beliefs of superiority over others
– Accept all the consequences of their actions
– Abide by the conditions the victim and the law give as the consequences for their actions to evidence their repentance
– Resist self-pity when experiencing negative consequences for their behavior
– Tell the truth
– Cease manipulation of others
– Cease trying to control others
– Cultivate empathy for others
– Voluntarily offer restitution (financial compensation) for the harm their actions caused
– If theft or fraud is the action, the guilty party will repay all that is owed plus interest + whatever fines the law requires of them
– If the amount can’t all be paid back at once, the abuser will create a payment plan and faithfully honor it till the debt is paid, even if it takes the rest of his/her life
– Allow the innocent party as much time as they need to heal from the wound
– No pressuring, cajoling, or forcing reconciliation on the one they harmed
– Seek the what’s best for the innocent party and for their children (if applicable)
– If children are involved, they will voluntarily relinquish custody to the innocent party
– Only see their children in the safety of a supervised visit until enough trust has been restored with the innocent party to warrant that privilege
– Not use any of their attempts at demonstrating repentance as a bargaining chip with the victim
– Not coerce the victim back into the same type of relationship with them prior to the harm
– Not expect or demand credit from others – including the victim – if they demonstrate behavioral improvements for a period of time
– Manipulate children, family members, friends, co-workers or bosses into treating the victim(s) poorly
– Gladly carry their own weight in every area they hold responsibility for – e.g. parenting, work, chores, finances…
– Cultivate genuine kindness and compassion
– Change how they respond to others sharing their grievances and concerns with them
– Practice behaving respectfully
– Accept that a loss of the relationship is a valid consequence for the innocent party to make as a response to their negative behavioral patterns and actions
– Accept the process for demonstrating evidence of their repentance by overcoming their abusive behavior will be a lifelong endeavor, not something that is resolved quickly
As you can see, this checklist is something that takes time to implement and test. For most people, it is too much work, too much sacrifice, resulting in them failing to evidence the full and complete transformation. They don’t want to do all that work. They want their own way.
That is why the transformation has to come from God and not from us. We can’t do it on our own. Only through the power of the spirit of Christ is it possible to fully and genuinely repent.
When the spirit of God convicts you of sin, do not harden your hearts. Repent of the sin. Turn away from it, asking that the Holy Spirit help you break off any and all temptations to return back to your old ways.
Be blessed. For who the son sets free is free indeed.
Freedom under pressure…..
This was incredible, thank you for the well stated points, what you wrote is absolutely applicable to what we face when dealing with the abusers of all kinds.
In the first read through of checklist it seems like a lot, but in the second read through it didn’t seem like a lot – at all! I was picturing it from what if I had been in their shoes and from that perspective you would want to literally scramble and expeditiously accomplish all the items in the checklist to somehow start to right the wrong. In that lens the checklist seems very practical and common sense! Much like what you reminded of with Zaccheus – he ached to truly repent and make right what he had done.
As much as the Holy Spirit can convict and work with the repentant – he will also do the same for our wisdom, discernment and strength in standing strong against pressure by a divisive “leader”, or anyone else in the church body, that pressures into blindly forgiving an unrepentant abuser.
One of the things to remember is that forgiveness isn’t free. It is extremely costly. Someone has to pay the debt owed as a result of the harm caused. For Christians, that debt is paid by Christ. For non-Christians, they are responsible to pay their own debts. The debts they refuse to pay in this life will be paid in eternity. So in the process of forgiveness, if there is no repentance or false repentance (just words no actions), then it is not safe or wise for those who have experienced great harm to “forgive” their abuser.
The reason for the checklist being so detailed is for the victim to make sure that the repentance is genuine. It’s not a one-and-done thing. It is actions oriented, not words oriented. It is a series of actions that must be evidenced over time. Some abusers will fake it for a season in order to regain power and control over their victims, so making sure that the evidence of their repentance is genuine requires time and voluntary positive action by the abuser. For me, that is why voluntary restitution is such an important indicator. If they will not voluntarily restore and pay back what they owe to cover the financial harm they’ve caused, I know their repentance isn’t genuine. Abusers love money almost as much as they love themselves.
It is also why we see so few abusers and the institutions that protect them genuinely repent. The cost to them is super high, and they will refuse to pay it unless the Holy Spirit intervenes. I just don’t see evidence of that happening in today’s church. Abusers love themselves more than anyone or anything else. Nor are they willing to take the necessary steps to do whatever they can to make the situation right. That would violate the delusion that they are trapped in that insists on their own power and control over everything in their life. They will do everything in their power, including twisting scripture, to fit their warped worldview.
One of the marks of an abuser is their absolute insistence on being right. When confronted with the evidence of their sin, instead of falling to their knees in horror and sorrow over the pain they’ve inflicted on their victims, they double down. They blame shift. They attack their victims and anyone who supports them. They rally their minions to hurl accusations at the victim in order to inflict further damage and make themselves look good in the eyes of those who are important to the abuser.
Having a strong checklist that is action-oriented makes it easier to discern whether or not repentance is genuine and if forgiveness can take place. I’m glad it makes sense and is practical for you.