Unpacking Forgiveness: A Definition for Christians

When I worked as a newspaper reporter our staff had frequent meetings to decide what topics we wanted to write about in the coming weeks. During the holiday season we tried to run special articles about gift giving, what there was to do around town and also articles about how to get along with family members. Why? Because this is the time of year when families get together. As we know, families don't always get along.

The holidays bring high expectations. Typical holiday specials on television and in movies usually show families getting together, fighting and then by the time Christmas morning rolls around everyone is happy and in love once again. Broken relationships are magically healed and everyone gets what they want. This is all well and good but it is just not realistic. Sometimes when families get together there is a palpable tension. Snide remarks are made, unpleasant memories resurface, people act selfishly. This can irritate others so much than they may even come to blows.

Forgiveness is truly an important ingredient for happy family gatherings.

As Christians, we are expected to forgive like God forgives. Last week I wrote about the definition that author Chris Brauns developed for forgiveness in his book "Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds" This definition is:

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).

"...We can adapt the above definition of God's forgiveness to a general definition for human forgiveness," Brauns writes. "Forgiveness: A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated."

The word "graciously" is important. As Christians, we should always be willing to forgive those who have offended us just as Jesus offered forgiveness when he was dying on the cross.

According to this definition, forgiveness is also a commitment, or, a "promise to pardon another," Brauns writes. He quotes Ken Sande, author of "The Peacemaker":

"...You promise not to dwell on or brood over the problem or to punish by holding the person at a distance. You clear the way for your relationship to develop unhindered by memories of past wrongs. This is exactly what God does for us, and it is what he calls us to do for others."

I think that the most important part of this definition is in the phrase "pardon graciously the repentant." In other words, forgiveness requires a two-party agreement. I cannot forgive someone who does not repent. I can choose to let things go and not hold things against people but true forgiveness does not happen unless the offender comes to terms with what he or she did and asks forgiveness.

So, offenders must repent. This means that they do not commit the offense again. Biblically speaking, "to repent means to change behavior as a result of a complete change of thinking and attitude" (p 57). As Christians we must always freely forgive the repentant because that is what God does for us.

Once we forgive, reconciliation follows, but this does not mean the offender will not suffer consequences, nor does it mean that the relationship between the offender and the offended will become as it was. Sometimes when we forgive in a difficult situation, the relationship with that person will not go back to its original state. For instance, when I wrote about my old boyfriend who asked for forgiveness this did not mean that we had to get back together. Far from it. There was a reason I broke off the relationship. That reason was not going to change even though I forgave him. Getting back together wasn't possible.

You may also be in a situation in which you are asked to forgive, but you just cannot bring yourself to do that. It is against all logic, at times, to forgive, yet  people have done so in unthinkable situations. One of my favorite stories is about Corrie ten Boom, who helped hide Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Corrie and her family were eventually sent to a concentration camp for this offense. After her release and the war ended, Corrie traveled around the world telling people about her experience about sharing God's love. Once when she was invited to speak in Germany, a man approached Corrie after her talk. She recognized him as one of the guards in the concentration camp who was particularly cruel. Remarkably, this man had met Jesus and asked Corrie's forgiveness. She paused for a bit because this was very difficult for her and then finally extended her hand to shake his as a gesture of forgiveness. She described how freeing the moment was in her book "The Hiding Place."

"Perhaps nothing is more glorifying to Christ than Christians forgiving others as God forgave them," Brauns writes. "...Graciously, willingly, and freely, they should offer a costly present to any who offend them. Those who do repent and unwrap the offered package will find forgiveness and reconciliation inside."

Next week we'll review chapter five, "More Than a Feeling."