For the last couple of days, we’ve had a healthy, though difficult, discussion about whether forgiveness is meant to be conditional or unconditional. Not surprisingly, along the way, we’ve agreed and disagreed.
There are good reasons for the push and pull of our conversation. Sometimes the Bible, itself, calls for forgiveness based on a change of heart (Luke 17:2). Sometimes it speaks of the need to forgive without any mention of repentance (Mark 11:25-26).
Such two-sides-of-the-coin examples are not limited to these two texts. We’ve also noted that:
From his cross Jesus showed a desire that his Father would forgive those who were crucifying him when he prayed, “Father forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Then there’s the Apostle Paul who wrote to the church in Corinth urging them to separate themselves from a man living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife (1Cor 5:1-5). Paul only encourages the church to forgive the man in a second letter when it is apparent that the love-motivated correction had brought the brother to a change of heart (2Cor 2:1-8).
Other texts show that we are to be a forgiving people who forgive one another as God has forgiven us (Eph 4:32). Our conversation around that verse shows that we see it differently, depending on whether we are focusing on texts that show God forgiving us in conditional or unconditional ways.
But there’s one more thought. The complexity of our discussion the last few days also illustrates what many of us have experienced: The forgiveness the Bible calls us to is not just a “law of forgiveness.” It is a grace. We experience forgiveness, not just as a moral imperative– but as a gift from God.
As a grace and a gift– the process of asking for forgiveness cannot be forced anymore than giving it can be demanded of one another. As a result, both the forgiver and the forgiven often need to wait upon God for the grace that is needed to both give and receive mercy.
We may remember a parent or a church trying to force us to forgive after they compel a brother or sister to say, “I was wrong. Will you forgive me.”
In an “ideal broken world” all offenders would ask for forgiveness with an honest and sustained change of heart. In the same “ideal broken world,” the person who has been sinned against would immediately express complete and total forgiveness. But that’s not the kind of world we live in. We need the time and grace of God to work through issues that are as painful as what some of you have been expressing.
Whatever God asks us to do requires his Spirit and grace for the doing of it (1Thess 5:24). We need the grace of God to know when to lovingly hold one another accountable (Luke 17:2; Matt 18:15-17). We also need the work of God to be able to be a people who look for opportunities to forgive rather than to get even.
Even our conversation is a practical example of being patient with one another as we process the different sides and faces of love and forgiveness. It’s a reminder that following Christ is not a matter of controlling one another– but rather a process of helping one another to think through the question, “When it comes to forgiveness, what does love require.” Or in other words, “What kind of heart do we need from God to seek the highest good of one another?” That’s the “simple focus” we need to help us find our way through the complex hurts and memories of our lives.
Thank you for the grace and patience you have shown me as we’ve tried to wade into this complex issue of the heart together.