Solomon is remembered for saying that there is a time to be born and a time to die… a time to kill and a time to heal… a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecc. 3:1-8). But could he also have said there is a time to forgive, and a time to refrain from forgiving?
Until now, some of us have had issues with “conditional forgiveness.” We’ve said that, according to the Bible, anytime is the right time to forgive those who have harmed us. After all, we’ve asked, doesn’t God forgive us unconditionally, and didn’t Jesus say that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us?
But as we’ve seen in an earlier post, the Bible also seems to give us mixed signals on forgiveness. Sometimes the New Testament talks as if forgiveness is to be given to those who admit their wrong (Luke 17:1-4; Matthew 18:15-17). At other times there is no mention of repentance (Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 23:34).
So let’s test our assumptions. First, has God really forgiven us– unconditionally? And is it unconditional forgiveness that the Apostle Paul has in mind when he tells us to forgive one another as God has forgiven us (Eph 4:32)? Or would Paul say that God forgave us when we acknowledged our sin and trusted Christ as Savior (Acts 13:38-39; John 5:24)? And, regarding “family forgiveness”, doesn’t the Apostle John say, “If we confess our sin, he (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sin” (1John 1:9)?
So how do we explain what looks like a contradiction? It seems clear that the pattern of Scripture is that God forgives those who come to him for forgiveness. So if God has an issue with unforgiveness, it seems likely that his problem would be with those of us who will not forgive those who admit their wrong, and ask for our forgiveness. By withholding forgiveness from those who ask for it, we deny others a small amount of the immeasurable mercy that God has already shown to us (Matthew 18:21-35).
So, here’s what it looks like to me. The question is, “What does the love of Christ require?” Sometimes, doesn’t our love for others prompt us to overlook small offenses and irritations that really don’t require us to confront them? At other times, however, wrongs are so serious that it would be unfaithful of us not to lovingly withhold forgiveness until the wrong is acknowledged and forsaken (Matthew 18:15-17).
This same love will hold forgiven persons accountable to follow through on their confession– just as it will also allow for appropriate ongoing consequences that will not necessarily be wiped away by the forgiveness. But the issue of consequences is also another discussion.
So, what are you thinking? Before I tell you where I am when it comes to some other common problems– like forgiving ourselves, and forgiving God (without suggesting that he could or would ever sin)– what are you thinking? Do you agree or disagree that to love is not only more important than to forgive, but that there is a time to lovingly give and withhold forgiveness? I’d like to hear your thoughts one way or another.