Forgiving Our Offenders: Myths & Reality
by Keith Hinson,
I have found forgiveness to be one of the most misunderstood, unappreciated and underemployed assets of our spiritual life. Why do so many Christians miss out on the benefits of well being, freedom and power, which spring from this vital resource of God's Kingdom? I see two reasons for this critical neglect of a principle so central to the Gospel and our enjoyment of the abundant life promised by Jesus. First is a sad lack of understanding what true forgiveness is. Second is the need for a major attitude change of heart --- a paradigm shift in our belief about justice.
First of all, let's look at some prevalent myths about forgiveness of others:
- Forgiving means somehow minimizing what they did, excusing them, or explaining it away with, "They didn't know better" or "They did the best they could". This approach is a form of denial and doesn't deal with the real pain of a real injury.
- Forgiving means forgetting. This is like telling someone, "Don't think about pink elephants." Meanwhile what are they thinking about...? God didn't make our minds to work that way! And besides, if we were really able to manipulate ourselves into a state of amnesia, then how would there be the need to truly forgive?
- Forgiving means acquitting the offender. In a court of justice, there is a world of difference between acquittal and pardon. Acquittal means he didn't do the crime. A pardon first requires a trial and conviction before the judge can then release the convict from his obligation to pay the penalty. Real forgiveness is analogous to the granting of a pardon.
- Forgiving simply means giving up my right to punish the offender for the wrong done to me. Releasing the offender from my retribution is the central choice that must always be made, but that is not all that is involved in forgiveness. Besides being a decision to let the offender off my hook, forgiveness is a process of putting myself on the hook to take ownership of the injury and it's consequences in my life as my problem. (A rule of thumb about this process says that the greater injury requires a longer and more involved process of taking responsibility for the wound and all its effects in my life.)
This brings us to the second obstacle to our experience of the benefits of true forgiveness: a crucial change of attitude in our hearts. Our attitudes about forgiving are rooted in the belief systems we hold about justice. There are fundamentally only two systems of justice, which are referred to by Jesus in Matthew 6:14-15.
The economy of justice that the fallen world and our flesh labor under is what Scripture calls the "law of sin and death." This is a system of judgment and retaliation which consists of codes and regulations that are hostile to and stand opposed to all offenders (Colossians 2:13-14). If I choose to hold others under the condemnation and punishment of these codes, then I too am held under the same condemnation and punishment. This is a system which gives all the same impartial treatment --- a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. But, because we are all offenders and because only a perfect God is able to meet out vengeance perfectly, we enslave ourselves under this system of retaliation. We come under bondage to hatred, fear, and bitterness, which poison our hearts, bring loss of freedom, and give ground for demonic oppression (II Corinthians 2:10-11, Ephesians 4:26-27).
The other system of justice that we can choose to live under freely is one which God has initiated and which is also a double-edged sword. For that sword of forgiveness to cut me free from the debt, which I owe for my own offenses, it must also cut my offenders free from the debt they owe me. Receiving and giving forgiveness is a unified, inseparable package. In order to be just, the economy of forgiveness cannot work otherwise. If I want to allow God's undeserved grace to have real effect in my life, grace must be my response to all who hurt and disappoint me. In order for Him to cancel my huge debt which I owe Him so that He takes responsibility for the consequences of my injuries to Him, then I must also cancel the debts of others owed to me.
I must give up my demands for satisfaction from those who have sinned against me to fix the problems they have caused. I must take responsibility for the wounds inflicted on me as well as their consequences in my life. The act of forgiveness occurs when the giver substitutes herself or himself in place of the offender to pay any indebtedness that is owed. To live this way requires the work of grace in my heart to shift my attitude --- from entitlement to humility, from blame to repentance, from isolation to love. This is the essence of God's gracious good news: those who will give and receive forgiveness get well; those who will neither receive forgiveness nor give it get worse (Ephesians 4:32).
If you want to find out more about both the decision and process of forgiveness, please contact me or any of our other counselors for help and encouragement.
Also, some suggested books on the subject of forgiveness are:
To Forgive is Human, by Michael McCullough, Steven Sandage, & Everett Worthington Jr.
Forgiving Our Parents Forgiving Ourselves, by David Stoop & James Masteller
Caring Enough to Forgive--Caring Enough Not to Forgive, by David W. Augsburger