Ecclesiastes 3:7 says there’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Unfortunately, many of us Christians find it difficult to remain silent. We seem to think that pontificating is our spiritual responsibility.
To speak about God’s forgiveness is always potentially problematic, because of its anthropomorphic portrayal of God’s attitude. What do we mean when we speak about God’s forgiveness? It cannot mean that God holds a grudge against those who do something wrong. It can only mean that he deprives those who have done wrong of salvation. But does he deprive those who have done wrong of salvation as a punishment extrinsic to their wrong actions? Or would it be more appropriate to say that the “punishment” for doing something wrong is intrinsic to the action itself?
Personally, I’m inclined to the latter position. If we say that God’s forgiveness depends on our confession and repentance, this can only mean that those who haven’t confessed and repented cannot experience the blessedness and peace of salvation, not because God doesn’t “want” them to, but because it is essential to the experience of salvation that a person should not have a guilty conscience.
It would be quite inconsistent for Jesus to preach unconditional forgiveness (Luke 6:27–36) while not forgiving his own enemies, the religious hypocrites.
The question we should ask is whether God’s forgiveness should be taken as the model of our own forgiveness of others. This is always the problem associated with conceiving God in an anthropomorphic sense: we project human attitudes (e.g. conditional forgiveness) onto God, then take this projection as the model for how we ought to act. Even if God’s “forgiveness” is conditional, we should aspire to something higher.
I agree with the conclusion. When considering others’ actions, we should do so from a position of understanding, not judgment. And in doing so, I believe we set the example for those who are struggling with forgiveness. After all, in my view, forgiveness is nothing other than the ability to dispassionately understand the reasons why others have offended or harmed us. It is not about excusing one’s behaviors, but about being able to explain them, for the purpose of finding peace in ourselves despite the offenses or harms perpetrated against us. It is about recognizing that the pathologies that affect our relationships with others are not often local to one individual. Rather, they are systemic in their causes.
Those who judge others are committing the same sin as those who have not forgiven others. Judgment does not proceed from a position of understanding—and much less from a willingness to help—but from a position of moralizing, i.e. of ascribing blame to one individual rather than recognizing that the entire web of causal relationships at work in the world are responsible for the harms that occur. If an individual does something wrong, there are likely all manner of psychological or social factors at work in their lives that have led them to engage in that action—even if their actions are done from a sense of entitlement or a lack of empathy. Understanding why a person is entitled or unempathetic, especially the ways in which social conditions have contributed to a situation which has enabled them to develop these traits, is crucial to understanding how to prevent further harms from occurring, if one is inclined to do so. And even if one is not inclined to solve these problems, this understanding can help them navigate or avoid similar situations in the future in which these actions may be perpetrated against them.
In my view, Christians are often the most judgmental and unforgiving people in the world because they do not want to recognize the web of causal relationships as responsible for the world’s problems, since God is the ultimate cause of this web; rather, they want to regard individuals as the culprits in order to absolve God of responsibility. But if Christians were to follow the spirit of Christ, who preached unconditional forgiveness, they would be less concerned to excuse God than they would be to help others, by educating them to not harm others and to know how to forgive those who’ve harmed them, when they are ready to process their emotions.
When Jesus delivered, what we call the Beatitudes, his focus was the individual. He took the OT commandments and drove them deeper and made them more difficult to “keep” than they were before - to the point of being impossible to fake, or possibly to actually obey. But wasn’t that the point… We can’t keep the commandments to the depths to which they need to be kept in order to qualify for any perks from God, including forgiveness and salvation.
The best way to make that clear is to the point where we can’t fake it and must face our human nature the way it is, is to make it personal, where it costs us something - mostly our egos. We can be nice - we can smile - we can even shed tears - shake hands - and be courteous, but when someone socks you in the face, who of us will turn the other cheek… and the requirements only get harder.
But there they are; and we, pretty much, ignore them.
There is another issue with all this. All this forgiveness is directed to the one who has been wronged or hurt. It’s our choice to forgive or not. To that, we are asked to forgive “seventy times seven,” presumably endlessly. But do we have the right to forgive on someone else’s behalf. Are we to forgive the kidnappers - the murderers - the terrorists who brutally slaughtered Jews on October 7. Do we have the right to forgive those crimes on behalf of the victims; or is it our right, as “those who mourn,” to fight evil… and why have we not heard anything about these world-shattering events here? Are we so wrapped up in our theologies that we don’t even notice? This is a big deal in our generation, and has far-reaching effects, and BTW, even on Seventh-day Adventists.
There is so much wisdom here. Thank you for it. My one observation which I hope will advance the discussion. In 2 Corinthian 5 is a remarkable passage which helps me stumble though this quagmire. See below:
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
Notice this last phrase again, one so different from 1 John 1:9.
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
“Not counting people’s sins against them. . .” While Jewish theology and philosophy require repentance and confession as a prerequisite to forgiveness, many Christian theologians will say that forgiveness is freely given no matter what, We are reconciled to God. Having said that, we should make no mistake. If we honestly and openly accept God’s reconciling, forgiving ministry in Christ, we cannot live as persons who live in rebellion. God’s offer of reconciliation, no preconditions, has many conditions if we wish that reconciliation to be living one that does not collapse and rebuild day after day. We must live as forgiven, reconciled people. If we do not, God’s offer remains unchanged; but we will also be unchanged. To live as people who are not forgiven is to live in chains. We have been given a get of jail free card, and like others who won’t take the leap and leave prison, we won’t accept the offer and remain stuck. Forgiveness/reconciliation is a gift, and as a gift honestly received, awakens a life-changing potential. It leads to a deepening repentance, not just a momentary one.
It appears that somethings never change as this is the most essential “take away” I received from a quarter century in Adventism.
To my mind, the preachers, teachers and parents-all at the behest of the NT and EGW-took it upon themselves as their god-given duty to constantly add new baggage to be borne, and ever more complex mazes to be negotiated, if I was to successfully emulate their version of a savior who had supposedly insisted his burden was light.
Well done. Thank you! I often thnk of forgiveness as being like pizza in that its content can be thin or thick. “Thin” and genuine pizza occurs when someone refuses to add to the pain that the individual has caused for himself or herself by acting wrongly. Vengefully adding to this pain does not help. But releasing a person from the pain he or she should feel for having harmed someone or something is enabling and encouraging more of the same. This kind of forgiveness, akin to thin pizza, would seem always to be possible. “Thick” forgiiveness means total reconciliation such that people move forward together hand-with-hand and heart -with -heart. This is not always possible and often it is wrong. We sometimes praise people who befriend those who have murdered their children and the like. In my view, making this the norm of genuine forgiveness is neither realistic nor right. Thanks again!
I have found it helpful to explore the function of forgiveness. For me, forgiveness has two main roles: to break cycles of violence/hatred and allow victims to no longer be defined by their trauma.
When people suggest forgiveness as a response, I believe many are trying to avoid the alternatives to forgiveness - violence and being emotionally trapped. Such an aim should not be criticised, even if the delivery could be improved. Although I heartily agree with Pr Coffin - the seasons of Ecclessisates’ poem must be respected.
It often takes me years or decades to truly access forgiveness. It can be a challenge to avoid secondary injury through harsh words or violent acts in the interim.
I have also learnt to forgive without forgetting. I can let go of injuries and eschew retribution, but I can’t trust that person again and won’t expose myself to recurrent trauma. To do so would make forgiveness meaningless.
Comments please on: Matt 6:14,15 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, you Father will not forgive your sins."
I’m glad to see this topic being discussed. It’s a big one in the abuse support groups, and the amount of guilting victims report receiving from fellow Christians is tantamount to spiritual abuse - on top of the abuse they’ve already experienced. Someone who is still traumatized by abuse is hardly in a position to forgive and will instead need therapy and healing to get to that point. One of the ideas frequently mentioned is that God doesn’t forgive the unrepentant, so why should we feel obligated to do so? There are conflicting ideas about what forgiveness even is or means. The church in general does a great job of promoting love and forgiveness but is not so great at teaching about recognizing evil, such as abuse, and removing it from our lives and the congregation as Jesus commanded. This unbalanced teaching leads to the attitude that wolves are simply lost sheep who can be rehabilitated instead of predators who need to be removed to protect the sheep - whether in a congregation or in a home. Forgiveness is a complex subject that isn’t examined enough, imo.
Not a commentary, but forgiveness is releasing someone from your desire for retribution and such type of vengeful judgment. The way the unforgiving servant sought to strangle and then imprison the one who owed him a finite sum of money.
This is not the same as re establishing trust, and genuine relationship. That may never happen if the offense was so deep. If it does, it may take a long healing process. As the saying goes, “Believe someone when they show you what they are like.” To not and to rush back into relationship in the name of forgiveness would usually be foolhardy.
This is true. Forgiveness is for the benefit of the forgiven. It releases them from the desire to revenge. It releases them to go on living, not being held in the grip of the past.
Some perpetrators want forgiveness because it (in their minds) absolves them. Likewise letting them move on. The perpetrator doesn’t need forgiveness to move on. They can move on through remorse and contrition. If someone is seeking forgiveness it is for their benefit.
Even at the God level, forgiveness by God is for their benefit. We seek forgiveness for our own benefit. God’s forgiveness allows them to save us.