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I fear that the church in these days, especially in the West, has become shallow in our understanding and practice of forgiveness. We sometimes confuse forgiveness with overlooking sins. And agape* love in the church family certainly covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) But the depth of forgiveness in the church family must be more than putting up with one another's faults and weaknesses. Nor is forgiveness the same as understanding. I have heard someone say, “Well, I can forgive him because I understand why he did that.” Real forgiveness does not demand understanding. It can come while you still hurt. Such forgiveness is the key to true reconciliation that releases the power of God in our midst.

In the years that I was pastoring churches I always used the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 as a guide for church discipline when someone had sinned against the whole body. I believe that is justified to some extent. But that is really not the context in which Jesus spoke those words. They begin, “If your brother sins against you.” Because of the importance of this passage I want to present it here in its entirety including verses 18-20. And I encourage you to read it slowly and thoughtfully before I begin to unpack some of it.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

First, notice the goal of reconciliation. When someone wrongs you, you are not to go to them as the judge pointing out how wrong they are. Your goal is to heal the relationship. From the start you need to have worked through your willingness to forgive, and restore the relationship, possibly deeper than it ever had been before.

This requires humility produced by the Holy Spirit through time spent agonizing in prayer for the person. And that humility extends to a willingness to sit down with a person before an outside party. When you bring in another party, or failing that, go before the entire church, you have to be open for them to see things you haven't seen in the issue. And you have to be humble enough to submit to their authority over you for the sake of reconciliation. This will require nothing short of the agape* love that God is developing in our lives and in the fellowship of the church.

And even the judgment of the church, is to be carried out in heartbroken agape*. While treating people as non-believers does not mean we have no more contact with them, it does mean that the whole purpose of the body of Christ is broken. And seems to be very serious. Jesus says rather forcefully here, “Whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven.” He says identical words in John 20 where He breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit.

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

(John 20:22,23)

Finally we see the depth of agreeing together in prayer that can only come from forgiving from our very hearts. Peter comes to Jesus and asks how many times shall he keep on forgiving someone who has wronged him. Jesus tells the parable of the servant who has received great forgiveness, but won't forgive his fellow servant. And he concludes with verse 35.

“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

*Agape is the ultimate love of God poured out in our lives. The fullest description of agape in 1 Corinthians 13.

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Comment by David Young on June 7, 2018 at 10:03pm

You are right on, Andrew. This is great insight. And I am greatly encouraged because we are on the same page. As I read your first paragraph I was thinking, "There is still a process, sometimes painful, to forgiveness. Then I read the rest of what you said, and think you said it better than I thought it. 

I like the picture I got from Ralph Speas. Forgiveness is like cleaning all the puss out of and infected wound. While you are completely clean of any bitterness, tomorrow you will have to clean it out and press all the puss out again. As the wound heals you will have less and less bitterness to press out.. 

This does not fit all forgiveness, but it is a good picture.

Comment by Andrew R. Wheeler on June 7, 2018 at 8:48pm

David,

I quite agree that forgiveness is necessary for healing.  What I fear is that many believers get the order reversed.  We believe we need to experience healing before we can forgive.  Whether that healing is physical, emotional, or psychological - we sometimes make it a prerequisite for forgiving the other person.  In reality, we won't know that full healing until after we've made the decision to forgive.

One other thought that I remember from that message was that forgiveness isn't always an instantaneous response. Sometimes it can take a while.  Sometimes it's a process as much as it is a decision. The decision to forgive starts the process, but sometimes we need to do some work to get through that process.  I wish I could remember the rest - I'll see if I can dig out that message.

Comment by Malva Birch on June 4, 2018 at 9:50am

Andrew, this clarifies something I've been thinking about for years. As hard as it can be sometimes, we have to forgive in order to obey God - and He always knows best. The result is being set free, but that is not the main purpose, as Dave commented. 

I am very sure that Jesus forgave both murderers on the crosses beside His, because He prayed, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.' Yet only the repentent one received salvation.

Thank you both for this very wonderful discussion! 

Comment by David Young on June 3, 2018 at 9:24pm

Well said, Andrew. I think that is at the heart of forgiveness. Of course, this does not eleminate the struggle to forgive, but we need to start the struggle immediately. Actually, I do think forgiveness is necessary for healing, but healing is certainly not the main purpose. 

Comment by Andrew R. Wheeler on June 3, 2018 at 7:26pm

David,

I strongly agree with your comments about how we tend to excuse sin today rather than doing the deeper work of forgiveness.  Thanks for these thoughts!

I'd like to posit a slightly different take on forgiveness - one that is not original with me but that I heard at the Write-to-Publish conference several years ago.  I forget who the speaker was, but I sat in on one day of his continuing class and he happened to be talking about forgiveness.  It was an eye-opening and even life-changing talk, as he for the first time I've ever heard outlined a process for forgiveness (as opposed to simply saying it's important).

It was his contention that forgiveness has nothing to do with healing from the hurt, or with repentance on the other person's part, or with reconciliation.  He contended that the forgiveness required in Matthew 6 was different from the reconciliation described in Matthew 18 and that, while reconciliation depends on two people, forgiveness depends on only one - the one who needs to forgive.

His thinking was that we are commanded absolutely to forgive, regardless of whether there is repentance, reconciliation, etc.  And we're commanded to forgive even while we're still working through the hurt.  Making forgiveness dependent on all these things that are somewhat beyond our control is, in his thinking, putting barriers in the way of forgiveness that could lead us to fail to forgive and to live in the bitterness of unforgiveness.

I'd like to know your thoughts on that line of thinking.

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