Forgiveness: What it isn’t & what it is – Brad Jersak

“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:34-35

For those who find it easy to leave the streams of love, forgiveness, compassion and mercy behind,… you may not care to remain in those streams but, is your infinite debt something you can manage on your own? Be careful not to forget the unforgiving servant. Go back to the streams of God and be grateful for them. — Adit Gamble 

I’m feeling such a fear of the Lord these days about the dangers of withholding mercy and forgiveness. When it comes to responding to our offenders, I have come to believe that we really need to allow ourselves to feel EVERYTHING and to offer all of it to the Lord. Certainly those who lead others are to be reminded that we cannot LEAD from our offended feelings or get stuck in them. But it’s hard to address unforgiveness without sounding like I’m accusing or condemning those who endure actual feelings of deep hurt and anger. So many are tempted in these days to eat of the tree of judgment and I’m scared for them… for myself.

My belief is that beneath so much of our obvious sin is something more dangerous: spiritual arrogance. When we partake of the tree of judgment, we are committing that same sin, so I’m praying for those who are tempted by that fruit. The church at large is perpetually under a sword of judgment in our responses and reactions to the sins of others. In general, we the church have not passed the test.

Therefore, we may need to do some review regarding our teaching re: what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. Here are some thoughts. 

1. Forgiveness is NOT saying “It’s okay.” When someone truly sins against another, it is NOT okay. We don’t minimize the sin or the damage.
2. Forgiveness is NOT saying “I’m okay.” When someone sins against me, even if I forgive, I may need years to go through the healing process. I need to not skip ANY stages of healing.
3. Forgiveness is NOT saying “You’re okay.” Even when forgiven, the offender still may need to walk through a process of consequences, rehabilitation, restitution and restoration.
4. Forgiveness is NOT saying “We’re okay.” Reconciliation is a whole different issue and one can forgive without ever being reconciled. Certainly this is obvious in the case of strangers (e.g. a rapist and his victim). But even within a relationship, full reconciliation requires repentance by the offender and forgiveness by the offended (and probably repentance for sinful reactions to the initial hurt). 

So what is forgiveness then? Forgiveness IS letting go:

1. We send the person to Jesus, rather than dragging them around in our hearts. This is a process of continually sending them to God whenever their name or face comes to mind. This prevents us from becoming trapped in a cage of our own resentment.
2. We let our burdens of hurt, grief, anger, loss, sorrow go to Jesus, rather than stuffing them or fashioning them into weapons. We exchange them for his love, joy, peace, and healing mercy. This may come in waves and layers.
3. We let the debt of the other’s sin go into Jesus hands. Even if they repent and make restitution, they will never be able to pay back the debt of sin to us. We need to let Jesus carry that debt.
4. We let the responsibility for our healing go into Jesus’ hands. Neither their punishment nor their repentance will be sufficient to heal. Only Jesus can do that. We don’t want to put our healing in the hands of the one who has hurt us, or we’ll never be healed.

This process is not to be rushed, but does need to keep moving at the pace of the Spirit. Pastoring or counseling someone through the forgiveness process requires great wisdom that I don’t profess to have. Here’s the place where I think St. Moses the Black of Scete gave me to stand (4th century):

 Once a brother had been caught in a particular sin, and the Abbot asked St Moses to come to the church and render judgment. He came reluctantly, carrying on his back a leaking bag of sand. When he arrived, the brothers asked him why he was carrying such a thing. He simply said, “This sand is my sins which are trailing out behind me, while I go to judge the sins of another”. At that reply, the brothers forgave the offender and returned to focusing on their own salvation rather than the sins of their brother.

A revelation of the holiness of God stops short if it leads me to become either judgmental (because I haven’t yet seen my own infinite debt) or legalistic (because I still think I am good enough to make it). The holiness of God leads us to see our absolute need of mercy such that we become ultra-merciful. And yet, when we as leaders and church are truly called to render judgment, we do so knowing that we too will be judged according to the very same measure with which we judge. 

Hence the fear of the Lord.

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