I spent a good portion of my last weekend in a conversation about forgiveness.
The conversation was with a group of young Christians asking about faith’s role in forgiveness and how we can live that out in reality. It tends to be a question that crops up now and again when people are being honest and vulnerable: “Why should I forgive those that have hurt me?”
When people ask a question about forgiveness, particularly in a Christian context, they can be thinking of several different things. Most of the New Testament teachings about forgiveness are pretty well known by those with a basic grasp of the Bible (seventy times seven, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, love your enemies etc). Most of those people have a decent grasp of the basic theology – that as we were forgiven (by God), we must forgive (others).
Where that theology can hit a roadblock can be in hypotheticals: if Ava Braun and Adolf Hitler gave their lives to Jesus, will they be forgiven? Would they spend eternity with him? Should we be forgiving murderers? Child molesters? Perpetrators of domestic violence?
Theologically – yes. It seems pretty clear.
Which is why asking about forgiveness in a Christian context often tends to really be asking not so much whether we should forgive and more how we should forgive.
I think it comes down to one of the following five scenarios.
When somebody seeks restitution, they are not just wanting to forgive someone else, they are wanting that person to come to them and offer a full apology.
This is highly unlikely to happen.
Most of the time we see restitution in our world, it involves forced statements from athletes who have just got in a bar fight or taken illicit substances and their handler has asked them to address the media. It’s rarely real. That’s because the real ones happen one-on-one, behind close doors. And they very rarely happen.
It’s not often that someone will be as aware of the pain they have caused you as the pain that you feel.
Restitution is about forgiveness, but it’s about forgiveness that comes fully from someone else to you.
Resolution is restitution’s baby brother.
In this scenario, it’s when we go to somebody and passive-aggressively tell them that we forgive them, possibly leaving them confused as to what they actually did and leaving them aggrieved at us!
Resolution is about us getting some personal closure, not about actual forgiveness. And our closure may often come at an unnecessary cost to the other person.
Note: there are rare cases where resolution can be the only sensible route of forgiveness (such as Holocaust survivors forgiving their persecutors)…but even then they lead to deeper forms of forgiveness in the long-term.
This is the first healthy form of forgiveness. It involves an honest conversation between two people, where the first is vulnerable enough to admit that they’ve been hurt and the second is honest enough to recognise they are responsible for the hurt. A dialogue occurs and two people walk away feeling that they have both been heard and understood.
Reconciliation is about both people being willing to offer forgiveness or an apology and to accept the other’s efforts. It is difficult and unlikely, but possible with hard work and honesty.
Matthew 5:23-24 puts it like this: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Restoration is a form of forgiveness where it stops being about what another person can offer us and instead becomes about what we need to survive and thrive in life: our own restoration.
Unforgiveness eats at us like a fatal wound. The old Alcoholics Anonymous quote, “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” serves well here.
When we seek restoration we no longer demand that somebody else make us feel better. Instead, we offer up our own pain and suffering to Jesus (Matt 11:28), who has already born our pain, sin and shame to the cross, and we forgive the other person. By doing this we not only release them from having any debt to us, we release ourselves from any unreasonable expectations – that we would only find hope, joy and peace through the actions of someone else
Mk 11:25 “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Note that Mark doesn’t ask you to receive someone’s apology first.
Restoration is all about what you have the capacity to do, through Christ, to release yourself from unforgiveness. This option is open to everyone who has been hurt, regardless of what the other person does.
I believe there is a fifth way, a way that seems almost impossible: redemption.
In the redemption stage, the hurt person receives restoration through Jesus, but then keeps moving. They move to a place where they are so thankful for the restoration, convinced of the hope that lies in Jesus and convicted to share that message, that they reach out to the perpetrator to help them be restored.
This is not like resolution, which is about feeling good. This is about a Christ-like redemptive process in which, with no more vested interest, no more need to receive an apology, the person who has been restored reaches out to help the person who hurt them. This is Christ, crying out on the cross to, “forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” This is the story of Mary Johnson & Oshea Israel. It is a process that lifts up both people and makes them stronger than they were before.
Our story of forgiveness is one where unrepentant and undeserving people were extended an olive branch of mercy that led not just to forgiveness and reconciliation, but new life in Christ.
It’s the same forgiveness that we are called to offer others.