Are there limits to forgiveness?
Phil’s sermon to us this morning, on Matthew 18:21-24 was a powerful call to us to recognise the wonder of God’s forgiving love and grace in our lives, and having done so, to exercise the same grace and love in our relationships with other people. Having a forgiving spirit is the sign of having been truly open to God’s forgiveness. And we are healed as we let go, as far as we are able, of bitterness and grudge.
I’ve been thinking and reading a wee bit this afternoon about forgiveness, because I was aware of grey areas with forgiveness as with most moral teaching. Should Christians always forgive – even in cases where the offender shows no repentance and does not seek forgiveness? I’m conscious too of the bad pastoral advice which has sometimes given to women who have hinted at physical abuse in their marriage and have been told to ‘forgive and go back.’ Does forgiving someone mean that our relationship with them should continue as before? Surely not, I think.
I found this article by the late R.C. Sproul helpful in this respect. He considers Matthew 18:21-34, but he also quotes Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3-4:
‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying “I repent,” you must forgive them.’
- C. Sproul acknowledges the challenge to us in Matthew 18: that of recognising the wonder of God’s love, and reflecting it in our relationships. But he also notes Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:3-4 – ‘If they repent, forgive them.’
It is often taught in the Christian community that Christians are called to forgive those who sin against them unilaterally and universally. We see the example of Jesus on the cross, asking God to forgive those who were executing Him, even though they offered no visible indication of repentance. From that example of Jesus, it has been inferred that Christians must always forgive all offenses against them, even when repentance is not offered. However, the most that we can legitimately infer from Jesus’ actions on that occasion is that we have the right to forgive people unilaterally. Though that may be indeed a wonderful thing, it is not commanded.
If we look at the commandment that Jesus gives in Luke 17:3 He says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Notice that the first response to the offense is not forgiveness but rather rebuke. The Christian has the right to rebuke those who commit wrongdoing against him. That’s the basis for the whole procedure of church discipline in the New Testament. If we were commanded to give unilateral forgiveness to all, under all circumstances, then the whole action of church discipline to redress wrongs, would itself be wrong. But Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents…,” — here is where the command becomes obligatory — if the offender repents, then it is mandatory for the Christian to forgive the one who has offended him.
We acknowledge the wonderful example of Gordon Wilson whose daughter Marie died in the IRA Enniskillen bombing in November 1987 and who said later
I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. I shall pray for those people [the IRA bombers] tonight and every night. May God forgive them.
But as R. C. Sproul indicates it is not obligatory on Christians to forgive those who don’t repent. Perhaps we are struggling, trying to find it in us to forgive someone who has injured us grievously, and finding it impossible. We need to cut ourselves a bit of slack, I think.
And yet as Phil pointed out, it is beneficial for us to be able to forgive, to let go of the bitterness, the woundedness, the sense of victimhood we feel. Perhaps in time, even where there has been no repentance on the part of the offender, we will find the ability to let go, to find closure.
Let’s acknowledge the ‘grey areas’, and the folk who struggle with forgiveness. But let’s not forget our responsibility as Christians to recognise God’s great grace and forgiveness, and to forgive others freely. And when we are in the wrong, let’s face the challenge to repent, to admit our mistakes, to seek recognition with those we have hurt whether in our families, our Church family, or among the people we meet from day to day.
But there’s one last important thing to say – that sometimes we can say forgiving words to someone who has hurt us, but be using those words in a self-seeking way, rather than as an offer of free, unconditional forgiveness. We can weaponise forgiveness: ‘Yes, I forgive you, but I expect you in future to….’ and we make our forgiveness conditional on the person doing as we say in future; or we can say we forgive, but act and speak later in such a way that the person feels their offence is forever hanging between us. Genuine forgiveness is given freely, and in love.
No, there’s one more thing: and that is that we sometimes find it hardest of all to (a) believe that God really has forgiven us and (b) to forgive ourselves. We can burden ourselves with the memory of what we have done, and a sense of guilt which does not lift. But if we have repented, and sought forgiveness from God and those we have hurt then we are forgiven. Perhaps someone reading this is troubled by an obsessive sense of guilt despite having taken the steps to forgiveness. You are forgiven! You are free! Forgive yourself, as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.