Unpacking Forgiveness: Two Principles for Response

I hope you have learned a lot about forgiveness in our study of Chris Brauns' book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, because now we're getting down to the heart of the matter.

It's easy to define forgiveness and talk about it, but what about when it actually comes down to doing it? Well, that's another story. Forgiveness is difficult, especially when we are trying to practice it from a biblical perspective.

Today, our chapter is called 'How Should I Respond to the Unrepentant? Two Principles' (the third comes next week). This piqued my interest because that is exactly where my struggle lies. I'm definitely a Peter. "Lord, how many times shall I forgive? Up to seven?" I also like to back off and forgive from a distance. I may never speak to the person again, but I do not wish them any ill will. Can you identify with that?

According to biblical principles though, forgiveness is a lot more than not wishing someone ill will. It's an active process in which two people - the offender and the offended - are involved in reconciliation. But what if the offender could care less about what he or she did? What if he or she keeps repeating the offense? What if the offense is heinous, like murder, rape, molestation, genocide, and abuse in all of its forms? These are not easy issues that we can just get over by glibly saying "I forgive you." Remember, forgiveness is a process - not a magical formula.

As Christians, we dare not dismiss the awful things of this world by telling other people 'everything will be all right if you just forgive.' or by telling them that God had something to do with their pain by the way of punishment. "We must speak to these questions responsibly," Brauns writes. "For the Christian, this means reflecting deeply on what the Bible teaches and following through in obedience."

Consider Romans 12: 17 - 21:

      Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Bold phrases are from Brauns, 131).

Principle 1: Resolve Not to Take Revenge

Before I really dedicated my life to Christ, revenge was my weapon of choice. I liked to serve it cold, after the original offense was long passed. I enjoyed the look of shock on the face of the other person when I avenged the wrong that was done to me. I started to note the error of my ways, however, when my pastor's wife laughed about how I had taken revenge on an old boyfriend. At the time I didn't think it was revenge, but she knew it was. That gave me pause for thought. Later, as I grew more serious about Christ, I realized that revenge was not an option for me - and that was hard.

Many people go through much harder circumstances than anything I've gone through. Is it right for them to take revenge? No, it is not. Avenging oneself is even outlawed in certain circumstances. We cannot go out and kill someone who has harmed us, nor is it lawful to commit any crime in retaliation, no matter what has been done to us. However, there are other ways we take revenge. Brauns lists a few:

  • "A spouse is rude and insensitive. Affection is withheld, and the silent treatment is implemented.
  • "An insensitive cousin is greeted with an icy reception at a family dinner.
  • "A pastor behaves irresponsibly. Phone wires burn as the offended tells his or her story to others.
  • "A boss is harsh and unreasonable. Frustrated employees talk viciously about him to one another."
The list goes on, but those are just a few examples of how harsh we can be in a "socially acceptable" way. These methods, however, are vengeful and God has told us not to take revenge. We are not to be overcome by evil.

Principle #2: Proactively Show Love

The Amish community serves as an example in this regard. Do you remember the shootings that happened at the Amish school house back in 2006? Five girls died that day and more were injured after milk truck driver, Charles Carl Roberts, decided that he was going to take out his anger at God by hurting little girls. The man killed himself when law enforcement officers broke into the building.

Although the Amish community was suffering tremendous pain, their response was amazing. According to news reports, Amish people attended the Roberts' funeral. They also invited the Roberts family to attend the funerals of their daughters. When the community received funds, they gave some of the money to the Roberts family.

"Who will take care of their family?" Brauns quotes the Amish people as saying. "It's not right if we get $1,000 and they get $5. We must set something up for these children's education."

"Overwhelmed by such love and grace, Marie Roberts wrote to the Amish, 'Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing the world" (Brauns, 139).

When I heard about this through the news, I remembered thinking that I needed to be more like that.

"These principles are not simply for the Amish," Brauns writes. "All Christians are called to embody these. Revenge is never an option. We must resist the temptation to retaliate, even in small ways. And we must lovingly and proactively reach out to those who have injured us with the quality of grace that the Amish extended to the widow and children of Charles Roberts.

"But these two principles are not a complete answer to how Christians should respond to unrepentant offenders. One more important principle remains ..."

See you next week!