From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 13 – Some common errors and areas of confusion about what forgiveness is and how, and why, we are to do it
As we saw, people often confuse words like reconciliation with forgiveness, as if they were the same thing. There are other words as well which have their own separate and distinct definitions. Yet they are frequently assumed to be the same as forgiveness, or at least to be required, or implied, by forgiveness. We shall look at a few more of these words and examine what they do actually mean and how they are different from forgiveness, even if they often go together with forgiveness, or follow on afterwards.
It is by no means always necessary, in order to forgive a person, that you must also be at peace with them. Sometimes forgiveness will lead to peace, but sometimes it will not. The two things do not necessarily have to go together in order for forgiveness to be valid. Moreover, peace requires thevoluntary cooperation of both parties, not just the one doing the forgiving. We actually need to look more closely at the word ‘peace’ and distinguish between two of its definitions, because it has more than one:
This is a Greek word, from which we get the girls’ name, and is the basis for what most of us think of, at least in the West, when we hear the word peace. It means the absence of hostility or conflict, such that we are not at war, or actively engaged in a dispute, or otherwise struggling, against some other person or group. It is possible to have genuinely forgiven a person and yet not be at peace with them, in the sense of irene peace. You might still need to be a witness against them in a criminal trial, or give evidence against them in a workplace disciplinary hearing.
Or you might feel it necessary to contact the local council to pursue a complaint against them because of their abusive behaviour, or for parking across your driveway, and so on. The list of possibilities is endless. Yet, each of these things, which clearly show that we are not at peace (irene peace) are entirely consistent with us having truly forgiven the other person. There is no contradiction or inconsistency, because forgiveness does not necessarily require that we be at peace (irene) with the other person. It may lead to irene peace, or it may not. They, or you, might be unwilling or unable to be at irene peace. Nevertheless, you can still validly forgive them.
This is a Hebrew word which is also translated as ‘peace’ in English. However, it does not mean the same as the Greek word ‘irene’. Shalom peace is much deeper and wider than the mere absence of hostilities or conflict. Shalom means a complete wholesomeness, integrity, prosperity and sense of well-being at the deepest level. So, if a person does not forgive another person, and is holding a grudge and feeling vengeful, they will not have shalom peace within themselves.
However, a person may have genuinely forgiven the wrongdoer but still not be experiencing shalom peace (or not yet) because they are still grieving or feeling wounded, violated or traumatized. They may even feel righteous indignation or anger. Such feelings may be felt, such that there is no shalom type peace, but it does not necessarily mean that the injured party is disobeying Jesus’ command to forgive.
He might well have obeyed that command, and genuinely handed the whole matter over to God and/or to the civil or criminal authorities. However, he is still reeling from the shock of what happened, trying to come to terms with it, and gradually getting his emotions back under control.
That process of re-establishing your equilibrium may well take a long time, but it does not necessarily indicate that there is a lack of forgiveness. Of course, it could be that there is unforgiveness, but we cannot just assume it. The issue of whether we have recovered our shalom-type peace is an entirely separate question from the question of whether we have genuinely forgiven the wrongdoer.
I emphasize this because some people have felt guilt, or have been put under pressure, or falsely accused of being unforgiving, simply because they have not yet recovered their composure and their shalom-type peace. Such accusations come from one or more of the following sources:
- other people who don’t understand the true definition of forgiveness and wrongly assume that it requires us to be fully at peace etc. They might foolishly say that a person who has not yet calmed down and is “still going on about what happened to them” is a nuisance and is causing problems by being ‘unforgiving’.
- ourselves, because we too misunderstand, or wrongly define, forgiveness. Therefore we may feel convinced that we have not achieved it, or never can achieve it, because we still feel some emotional turmoil.
- demons, who whisper lies into our minds and tell us that we are being unforgiving and are disobeying what Jesus said. They don’t say that in order to induce you to become obedient to God’s Word. They just want to increase your wretchedness and misery by making you feel guilt, shame and hopelessness. The truth is that you could actually achieve real forgiveness if you only knew its correct definition. Indeed, you may already have done so, but the demons have convinced you that you haven’t.
The word mercy is obviously linked to forgiveness. However, it is not the same thing. Perhaps the simplest and best definition of mercy is that it is where person A (who is usually in a position of power, strength or authority) chooses not to do, or give, to person B what they deserve. The point, for our present purposes, is that even when we genuinely obey Jesus’ command to forgive, it does not necessarily mean that we must also show mercy.
Mercy is a separate and additional step to take. It goes beyond forgiveness. So, person A might truly forgive person B by handing the matter over to God and/or leave it to the civil/criminal authorities to deal with, and he may seek no vengeance or retribution for himself. Yet, he might also, at the same time, choose not to show mercy.
For example, he would be doing nothing wrong if he chose to tell the Police that he wants person B to be prosecuted. Alternatively, person A might freely choose to say to the Police: “Please don’t press any charges against person B. I want to drop the matter and I don’t want to see his life blighted by receiving a criminal record.”
If person A said that, they would be showing mercy. Another word for that is clemency, although we mainly use that word in the context of a person who is in a position of authority and chooses not to exercise their power. Yet another word which we use for showing mercy is ‘magnanimity’. This is the kind of mercy that is shown by the victor to the loser in a war, or indeed by the victor, or stronger party, in any kind of dispute.
Therefore, at the end of World War Two, Churchill’s advice to the Allies was that they should show magnanimity to the Germans, unlike what happened at the end of World War One. That war culminated in what most felt was a punitive, vengeful and even oppressive treaty. Magnanimity is what we can choose to show when we have been wronged, but now have the upper hand, and the wrongdoer lies prostrate at our feet.
In those circumstances, to choose not to seek for justice, but instead to stay one’s hand and demand less than one is entitled to, is magnanimous. Magnanimity goes beyond forgiveness. Therefore a person can truly forgive, at least in the basic, narrow sense, without also choosing to be magnanimous in the way that they handle their victory.
It may, or may not, be right to show mercy, in any of its various forms, but the point is that it is something different from, and additional to, forgiveness. In other words, person A may have genuinely forgiven person B for the assault or theft or whatever, but still feel that it is necessary and appropriate for justice to take its course. Therefore they choose to go to the police rather than show mercy by not going to them.
Remember the crucial point about what forgiveness is at its most basic level. It primarily means handing the case over so that someone else can be the judge and carry out any sentence. One can do that completely sincerely without also being under a duty to refrain from helping the prosecution, or civil action, or workplace disciplinary action, which then follows.
If forgiveness involves handing the case over, which it does, then how can anybody say that in order to truly forgive we must choose not even to hand it over, but rather that we should feel obligated to drop the matter entirely? That would be to extend the meaning of forgiveness illegitimately and to turn it into something much bigger and wider than what the Bible means by the word.
Therefore, if person A merely hands the case over to the Police (and/or to God) and seeks no personal vengeance, then he has already fulfilled the basic meaning of forgiveness. God might, or might not, want person A to go even further and to show mercy as well. However, if that is what God wants, then God would be asking person A to show mercy, not to forgive, because he has already done that.
God does not get confused about the words He uses. Neither does He say one thing when He means another. Therefore, forgiveness means forgiveness. Mercy means mercy. Peace means peace and so on. They are all distinct words in their own right, with their own definitions, and are not inter-changeable synonyms. To do one of them does not necessarily require us to do any or all of the others as well.
We saw that mercy is “not giving people what they do deserve”. Grace is the other side of the same coin. It basically means “givingpeople what they don’t deserve”. Therefore, extending the points made above, we can imagine various factual situations where it would be right, and indeed essential, to forgive, but not necessarily appropriate to show grace.
So, if a person has wronged us, and we have genuinely forgiven them, God might, or might not, want us to go further and show grace to them. Or, God might want us to show grace in a particular way, butnot necessarily in some other way. Alternatively, God might want us to show grace up to a certain point, but not beyond that point.
Therefore, if we choose not to help a person who has wronged us, or choose not to give them a favour, or privilege or gift, it would not necessarily mean that we have not genuinely forgiven them. Showing such grace towards them might, or might not, be wise or appropriate. That is it may, or may not, be God’s will in those circumstances.
You cannot make a general rule. Even less can you equate forgiveness with grace and therefore accuse another person, or even yourself, of being unforgiving, merely for choosing not to go beyond forgiveness and show grace to a particular person in a particular situation. It does not necessarily follow.
However, what if a person was so full of bitterness and the desire for vengeance that they were reveling in their decision to withhold grace from the wrongdoer and taking pleasure from withholding it? If so, then their heart-attitude would obviously be wrong. It might even indicate that they had not truly forgiven the wrongdoer. Nevertheless, the point is that the giving, or withholding, of grace is a completely separate, stand-alone issue. Like mercy, it goes beyond the duty to forgive and is distinct from it.
By this I mean forgetting the wrong done to you, no longer feeling upset, and ceasing to think about the person who did the harm. ‘Forgetting’ is another much misunderstood word, which is frequently confused with forgiving. Therefore, if person A can’t, or can’t yet, forget what was done to him by person B, or the feelings it produced, it does not necessarily mean that he has not genuinely forgiven person B.
The command to forgive others does not extend to also forgetting what they did or how it made you feel. If Jesus had wanted to command that we forget all about the offence as well, then He would have said so, but He did not. One reason why God did not command us to forget all about the wrongs done to us, or to forget the way we felt as a result, is because He knows that we often aren’t capable of doing that. God can choose to forget, but we can’t necessarily manage to do that.
At any rate, we can’t do it purely as an exercise of our will. We sometimes need time for our feelings to heal and become less raw. That is very significant, because God never gives us any command to feel, or not feel, a particular emotion. He only gives commands in connection with the exercise of our will. It is always expressed in terms of what we should say or do, not how we should feel in our emotions.
You might respond to that by saying that He commands us not to be angry. However, when He makes that command, what God means is that we are not to speak or act, or react, towards other people with sinful, fleshly, unrighteous anger. Those are all things we can control and decide to do or not to do. He is referring to circumstances where the expression of anger would be carnal, and thus sinful. He is not referring to godly anger, or righteous indignation, such as Jesus demonstrated when He expelled the money changers from the Temple.
At any rate, the point is that all of God’s commandments have to do with what we say, do and even think, as an exercise of our will. We are accountable for what we choose to do or say, but not necessarily for how we feel. Accordingly, we are never commanded not to feel grief, sadness, hurt or shock or not to feel that we have been violated. There is no sin in feeling any of those things.
Therefore our inability to forget the wrong done to us, or to alter our feelings, is not disobedience. It is not, in itself, even evidence, let alone proof, that we have not genuinely forgiven someone. That said, what if the real reason why we are failing to forget a wrong done to us, or to stop feeling as we do, is because we are deliberately, and repeatedly, choosing to remind ourselves of it?
We may even be reminding the wrongdoer of it, because we get pleasure from bringing it up in conversation and from making the other person feel guilty about it. Then, that would be a sign that we have not genuinely forgiven the person. As with everything else, we have to approach this difficult subject with balance. We also need to have regard to our real motives, which may not necessarily be what we say they are.
e) trusting the wrongdoer
It may, or may not, be appropriate to trust a person who has previously wronged you. It depends entirely on the circumstances and on the role, responsibility or property which you are considering entrusting or re-entrusting to them. It could be very unwise, or even dangerous, to trust them again.
It may also be impossible, or a breach of your professional duty to do so, because you have to bear in mind the needs of others who might be adversely affected if the wrongdoer was to act wrongly, or let you down, again. The point is that whether it is right or wrong to trust the person again is an entirely separate issue from the duty to forgive him.
It is perfectly valid to forgive and yet still not feel able to trust the person. Or, you might feel that it is possible, and appropriate, to do both. However, if that is the case, you are going beyond forgiving them and are adding a further dimension.
f) giving the wrongdoer another chance
This is linked to the issue of whether or not we feel able to trust the wrongdoer again. However, it is also a separate point in itself. It is possible to give a person another chance, even if we don’t yet trust them, and even if we actually expect them to let us down again. The point is that the issue of whether or not to give them another chance goes beyond forgiveness.
So we can genuinely forgive a person and yet not feel that it would be wise or safe to give them another chance. It is a matter of individual judgment, such that another Christian might be willing to give them another chance, whereas you are not. Yet, you could both be right.
A classic example of this is the crisis that arose in the Book of Acts when John Mark (better known to us as Mark, the writer of the second gospel) deserted apostle Paul and let him down when under pressure. Later on, Mark evidently said that he had repented and wanted to rejoin the team, but that led to an argument.
Paul’s personal stance was that he was not willing to give Mark another chance. However, Paul’s partner, Barnabas, felt that Mark should be allowed to have another go and to work with them again. They could not agree on this, so Paul and Barnabas split up and went their separate ways. Barnabas therefore took Mark with him and Paul took Silas:
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphyl′ia, and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cili′cia, strengthening the churches.Acts 15:36-41 (RSV)
That episode had a happy ending. Mark genuinely changed and turned into a mature, reliable worker. Indeed, in the end, God honoured him by allowing him to write the second gospel, for which he got the material from apostle Peter, with whom he became very close:
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.1 Peter 5:13 (RSV)
More to the point, Mark was eventually accepted, trusted and welcomed back by Paul to work alongside him:
Aristar′chus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, receive him),Colossians 4:10 (RSV)
Mark’s dramatic and total rehabilitation is an encouragement to us all to believe that even where people fail badly, or behave badly, there is always the chance to repent and change and eventually become a success. The question is who was right, Paul or Barnabas? The short answer is probably that they both were. At any rate, Paul did not act wrongly by refusing to let Mark rejoin the team. He clearly felt it would be unwise and even unsafe.
In making that decision, Paul was not failing to forgive Mark, or acting in a way that was inconsistent with genuine forgiveness. It was up to Paul to decide what was best and whether or not it would be wise to go beyond forgiving Mark, by choosing to give him another chance. Barnabas saw it differently and was willing to take the risk. That was his personal choice. Happily, it turned out to have been an inspired one.
That said, it may well have had more to do with the simple fact that Mark was a cousin of Barnabas and therefore he possibly chose to give him more leeway than he would have given to a non-relative. The point is that in choosing not to go as far as Barnabas was willing to go, Paul was not sinning. In particular, he was not failing to forgive.
g) being reconciled with the wrongdoer and starting or resuming a friendship with him
You will see the pattern by now and realise that this is going even further than trusting the wrongdoer and/or giving him another chance. To be reconciled maymean that we are resuming a full personal relationship involving trust, friendship, closeness and even intimacy and the sharing of confidences. Clearly, that goes way beyond merely forgiving the person. Therefore, whether to be reconciled is an even bigger decision.
The point, for our purposes, is that we have absolutely no duty to be reconciled to every wrongdoer. Reconciliation is not required in order for us to be able to say that we have genuinely forgiven them. I emphasize that because this issue has caused a great deal of confusion and stress for people who are trying hard to forgive a wrongdoer.
They may mistakenly assume that unless they are willing to be fully reconciled, and feel entirely comfortable about resuming a close personal relationship, then they have not genuinely forgiven the person and are even being disobedient to Jesus’ command to forgive.
That is plainly wrong and is a particularly unhelpful thing to say to a person who is struggling to deal with a wrong done to them. Reconciliation may, or may not, be achieved at some later point. It depends on a host of circumstances, in particular the attitude and subsequent conduct of the wrongdoer and whether he has genuinely repented, apologized and changed.
If he hasn’t done all of those things, then there would be no valid or meaningful basis for reconciliation. It could even be foolish to attempt it. So, as with all the other words, we need to see reconciliation as another separate, stand-alone issue, over and above forgiveness. It may or may not be appropriate, or possible, even in the long term.