The narrowest, most basic definition of forgiveness – to ‘recuse yourself’

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 12 – What it really meant by forgiving others, and what does it involve?

If you want to buy a car, you are well aware that you can get them at varying levels of specification, even for the same model. You can have a car which is at the bottom of the manufacturer’s range and is not much more than a chassis with wheels and an engine. Or, you can have the same model, but at the top of the range, with various extras such as air conditioning, alloy wheels, satellite navigation, leather seats etc. They are both a car. Indeed, they may even be the same model of car, but one is basic and the other has a number of extra features.

It is a little bit like that when we speak of forgiveness. In one situation we might mean basic forgiveness, at its narrowest definition. On another occasion we might mean an enlarged or wider definition, with extra features included. Our starting place, therefore, is to ask what is the narrowest or most basic definition of forgiveness, without any added features?

I would say that at its lowest and simplest level, forgiveness essentially means that we ‘step aside’ and ‘hand the person over to Jesus’. That is we leave their judgment to Him, so that He can judge them, and possibly even punish them, instead of us seeking to do any of that to them ourselves, which we are neither qualified, nor authorized, to do.

When writing this chapter I asked God to help me to explain the connection between the command not to judge others and the command to forgive people. I also asked for help in explaining this process of ‘stepping aside’ and ‘handing over’ to Jesus the judgment of someone who has wronged us. Finally, I asked Him to give me an analogy, so as to make clear exactly how it all works and what is the minimum that we have to do in order to ‘forgive’. I believe He gave me one and that it may be helpful.

The analogy is to think of a judge who realises that he is not the right person to hear a particular case. It could be because, for example, the defendant is a personal friend or even an enemy. Or, he could be a neighbour or colleague or a relative of his. That judge therefore realises that he cannot give that defendant a fair trial, or that it would be unsafe, or even corrupt, for him to try to involve himself in that man’s case.

When a judge is in that situation he will contact the court office and ask one of the clerks to remove that defendant’s case from his own list and put it onto the list of some other judge instead. When a judge does that, so as to prevent himself from hearing a case that is unsuitable for him to hear, we say that he has ‘recused himself’.

That means he has ‘rejected himself’ as the judge, due to being unsuitable to handle that case, or you could say that he has ‘objected to himself’ being the judge. By taking that sensible precautionary step he makes sure that he himself is not the judge of that particular case and that it is transferred to someone else, who is more suitable to deal with it.

I would suggest to you that when we are commanded to ‘forgive’ others, the Bible is often speaking of forgiveness in its narrowest sense. If so, then what we are being commanded to do is effectively to ‘recuse ourselves’. That is to stop seeing ourselves as the right person to judge and punish whoever it is that has wronged us. Then we are required to hand their ‘case’ over to Jesus and let Him judge, and perhaps punish, the wrongdoer while we play no further part in any of it.

Most of the time, unless the context, or the precise words used, indicate a wider or larger meaning, then that is all that we are being required to do. It should be a comfort to us to realise that, because when it is defined very narrowly in this way, forgiveness is exclusively a decision of the will and thus much easier to achieve.

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