Unpacking Forgiveness: Defining Forgiveness

Anyone who has had to suffer from repeated hurts inflicted by another person has learned that forgiveness is difficult to define. much less achieve. Does that sound like a Christian response, given what we are taught about forgiveness?

Often, in church, or by other believers, we are told that in order to make the pain go away we just need to do what Jesus' said and forgive - over and over, if necessary (Matthew 18: 21 - 35 ). This is true, of course. Our Master Jesus would not have said this if it were not the way to go, but how is this lived out? In order to do this, we must gain a more in depth understanding of forgiveness if we are going to be forgiving people. There is no simple 'how-to' in forgiveness. It can take time - even years - to work through the hurt and anxiety caused by others.

In his book "Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds," author Chris Brauns writes that "the Bible says far more how God forgives people than it does about how people should forgive people (p. 45)." So, in order to develop a more in depth working definition of forgiveness, we must study to scripture to find out how God forgives us.

Brauns defines forgiveness this way:

God's forgiveness: A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences (p. 51). 

In his book, Brauns offers an example of forgiveness from his own parenting experience. However, I would like to tell you one of my own so that I can go more in depth. I believe this is at the heart of what the chapter is discussing.

When my two oldest children were small -  Jonathan the youngest at the time of this event, about 16 to 18 months old - we lived in a parsonage that was connected to the church of which my husband was pastor. Our backyard stretched the length of the two buildings and was a nice place for the kids to play. The only drawback was that there was no fence between the street and our yard, so I had to be out there supervising the entire time they were outside. Jonathan, my fiery little redhead, loved to challenge me; he knew that he wasn't supposed to leave the yard and run out into the street. On this particular day, he and Andrew, the oldest, were playing with a ball. Jonathan did not catch it and it bounced past him. The next thing I knew, he was running full tilt toward the street. In his mind he thought he would just run out and bring the ball back. What he did not see, however, was a city bus heading in our direction.

Halfway across the yard, I yelled and ran after him as fast as I could, catching him at the curb. I grabbed his arm just as the bus reached our location. Fortunately, it was slowing down to stop in anticipation of what could have happened. I scooped Jonathan up into my arms and marched him inside with Andrew in tow. I then made the experience a little painful for him so that he would remember to never do that again. By the time the experience was over, I think Jonathan understood that what Mom said actually meant something and by that evening we were all well and happy. I had explained things as best I could and Jonathan said he was sorry. The ordeal was over and Jonathan never ran into the street again.

Now, I love my kids more than life itself, but I do not tolerate disobedience. It is for their own good. I did not spend all of those hours in painful labor to have them disobey me and get hurt or killed. I want them to grow into responsible adults who make a contribution to society and to the Kingdom of God - so I disciplined them. In the end we always talked about the situation so that I could make sure they knew that I loved them.

That's how God is with us. Brauns writes:

"God's forgiveness is gracious. He offers forgiveness freely. This is not because forgiveness is free in terms of cost. It is a very expensive gift that can be offered freely because, motivated by love, God sent his one and only Son to pay the price for it."  After disciplining my children, there was always a time of talk and forgiveness. Raising them is costly, in time, pain and expense so my forgiveness is not free, though it is offered freely.

"God's forgiveness is a commitment." When God forgives us, he makes a commitment that we are pardoned from our sin and that it is no longer counted against us." It would have been a lot easier at the moment not to discipline any of my children. I could have let them just run wild while I did something I enjoyed, but that is not what parenting is all about. When we have a child (or adopt one) we make a commitment to God and to that child to raise it in a healthy way. When our children disobey, we should be committed to disciplining them and forgiving. We should never hold what they did against them after the incident is over (unless it is a gentle reminder to not repeat the same action - "Do you remember what happened last time?").

"God's forgiveness lays the groundwork for and begins the process of reconciliation. When God forgives us, our relationship with him is restored." The talk after the discipline (usually when things had calmed down and we could sit in a quiet place) was the beginning of reconciliation between the offender (Jonathan in the above case) and the offended party (myself).

"Not all consequences are immediately eliminated. God disciplines his children as a father disciplines his children (Proverbs 3:12)." Just because I love my children doesn't mean that they don't need to suffer the consequences for their actions, even if they sincerely apologize after the offense. When they are little it means a time out or other consequence. As they grow the consequences change - some are contrived and some are natural. For instance, if one child were to say or do something that offended a sibling, that sibling may not be inclined to speak to the offender for a while. This is a natural consequence. I would expect, however, that once the situation calmed down that the relationship would be restored. Unfortuntely, I cannot protect my children from every consequence of their actions, especially as they enter the adult world. Life isn't like that. Forgiveness is not either.

So now we developed an understanding of how God forgives. Next week, we will define forgiveness for Christians. Please feel free to discuss this in the comment section and Happy Thanksgiving to those who are celebrating it.