The Problem of Forgiveness

Why should we forgive? In our counseling center, I have had so many tell me, we should forgive because God tells us we MUST. You might think that is enough. But it really isn’t, because when we are given a rule that we don’t like we look to how close we can get to the boundary– how close we can be to bad (vengeful, bitter, unforgiving–where we want to be) while still being good (where we are supposed to be). More effectively, we look for moral loopholes.the-changing-face-of-horse-racing-171

Loophole #1.  Forgiveness is only to be given if there is repentance (and some add confession). This answer is given by some.  This view is expressed HERE. The passage  that views is based on is Luke 17:3-4.

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sistersins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.
                                                                                 -Luke 17:3-4
But is repentance an absolute requirement for forgiveness? There are three problems with this interpretation.
  • This passage appears to provide a loophole (if it is a loophole) that the rest of the Bible doesn’t.  That should, at a minimum, give one pause for concern as to its interpretation.
  • The context (Luke 17) is about the dangers of a person erring, and another being complicit in that erring. Within the context the emphasis is on the importance of restoration, NOT on how to avoid forgiving. That is supported by the fact that the passage says what to do if the other person repents. It, however, gives NO explicit guidance on what to do if there is no (or “inadequate” demonstration of) repentance.
  • The Greek word that is translated forgive is apheisis (the form of the word in verse 4, a different form in verse 3) only loosely translates as forgive. The general idea of the term is to release, remit, let loose. As such, it goes beyond the English term “forgive,” except in certain specific contexts– such as “to forgive a debt.” Rather, the term is more like. “Forgive and Forget (and release from consequences, if possible)”.

In counseling, when we tell people to forgive, we are not telling people to revoke all issues of justice, or telling people to forget wrongs. We are talking about releasing bitterness and bitterness. Forgiveness of this type is done for the benefit of the one who was harmed, not the one who did the harm.

Loophole #2.  Forgiveness should be withheld for the sake of justice. The argument would be that God is a God of Justice. It may be granted that God is also a God of mercy… but mercy does not negate justice… perhaps.

The problem with this is, I hope pretty obvious and built off of the answer to the first loophole:

  • Forgiveness, as we are here using it, the wronged conscious choice to release bitterness and vengeance. It is not necessarily to hold someone unaccountable. To forgive does not necessarily mean to forget or fail to set up appropriate safeguards/boundaries.
  • When the wronged hold bitterness/vengeance in his or her heart, it is likely that appropriate justice will not be carried out. Revenge or unfocused lashing out is more likely.

For me, though, the reason to forgive is not so much about ethics, Biblical interpretation, or issues of justice. The biggest issue is what unforgiveness does to the wronged. It creates a second harming. I deal with people who are unwilling to forgive and those who are dealing with unforgiving people. It really does destroy lives and relationships… and the epicenter of the destruction is in the unforgiving victim rather than the wrongdoer.

Sometimes I almost want to tell people to forgive just to make sure that the wrongdoer is miserable. With unforgiveness, the wrongdoer is likely to suffer, but often less than the victim. I have seen it too many times.