[This post follows a sermon titled "A Word Fitly Spoken". Click on the title to find the audio.]
Jay Adams has written a little booklet called "What Do You Do When Your Marriage Goes Sour?" Among the things written about in this helpful booklet, Adams addresses the issue of forgiveness. He says that, fundamentally speaking, forgiveness is a promise...a threefold promise.
He writes, "When you forgive...another...you are promising to do three things about his wrong doings. You promise: (1) I shall not use them against you in the future. (2) I shall not talk to others about them. (3) I shall not dwell on them myself." This is a helpful way to think about forgiveness, and today, I want to write about the fact that forgiveness is meant to be a path...not a destination.
You see, many people see forgiveness as the end. If someone wrongs you, you say you are willing to forgive the person...to let them off the hook...to not demand repayment for the wrong you have suffered. However, that's the end...literally. It's often the end of the relationship. It's as if one person is saying to the other, "I forgive you, but I don't want to see you anymore." Or, "I forgive you, but I will keep you at an arm's distance for the rest of our lives."
I want to suggest that this is not how biblical forgiveness is meant to function. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (4:31-32).
In other words, there are two different ways to handle conflict. On the one hand, there is bitterness, wrath, anger, and malice. On the other, there is kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. In Paul's mind, these two lists aren't meant to be mixed. The example of forgiveness as an end seem to try and mix the two...e.g., forgiveness and malice.
Now, I'm not trying to say that it's easy to keep the two lists unmixed...I'm saying it's necessary to keep them unmixed. You see, this falls in a section of Paul's letter which is explaining what it means to "put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt...and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:22, 24). Putting away bitterness, wrath, anger, and the rest of verse 31 is part of what it means to put off the old self. Being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving is part of what it means to put on the new self.
So, forgiveness is not meant to be an end...neither the end of the relationship nor the end of the conflict resolution process, really. The reason I believe that forgiveness is a path and not a destination is because of the end of Ephesians 4:32..."as God in Christ forgave you." How did God forgive you? Did He just say you're off the hook? Did He just relieve you of the guilt of your sin? Has He simply promised that you will not face eternal punishment?
Now, I do not make light of these things, for they are infinitely wonderful promises. Yet, they are not the end. They are a path to relationship. When God forgave us in Christ, it was so we might be brought near to Him...adopted as His sons...no longer enemies of God but reconciled. And this is how Paul says forgiveness should work in human relationships.
Let me give you an example from marriage. Let's say I sin against my wife, Susan. I go to her, I confess my sin, and I seek her forgiveness. Now, why is that forgiveness so precious? Is it just so I don't feel as guilty about my sin? No. Is it only for the purpose of obedience that Susan should desire to forgive? No. What I want more than anything is for the frigid atmosphere that sin creates to warm up again. I want to sit on the couch with her and not feel like we're miles apart. I want to know that we're not just operating as partners in a domestic household but as husband and wife. Namely, I want the relationship back! And if Susan loves me...which she does...then she will want the relationship back as well, even when my sin has messed up the relationship. And the path to that reconciled relationship is forgiveness.
Speaking words of forgiveness as an end in themselves does not fulfill the biblical injunction to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us. When we say "I forgive you" but want to break off that relationship forever, we sometimes just want to ease our own conscience. Some want to be able to say they did the "Christian" thing, while holding on to bitterness and malice in their hearts. This, too, is a path, but it is the prideful path to a feeling of moral superiority...a path we are never encouraged to walk.
One may object, "Yeah...that's okay for trivial stuff, but what about real, deep, painful conflicts? You don't know the pain I've endured from others." Look, I know how this must sound to some who read this, and I would never try to be reductionistic about your pain. I don't think I could cover every situation in one blog entry...specific cases are best handled in biblical counseling settings. The truth is that, in some ways, you're right...you have faced deeper hurts than I may ever face in my life. And though it sounds simplistic and unreasonable and even impossible right now, I would still say that forgiveness is meant to be a path to reconciliation. It is harder to walk in some instances than in others, but it is still the biblical path to walk.
Let me finish with a question: Is it possible for our problems to be so big, so life-shattering, so painful, so devastating that God cannot bring healing to those involved and to the relationship? In thinking about this answer, there are two things we could underestimate. First, we could underestimate the power of God. When we are in the middle of disastrous conflict, it seems like nothing will work...nothing will make this better. "I will never be able to reconcile with him or her," the hurt person thinks. "This relationship is as good as dead." What we fail to remember with these kinds of thoughts is the God we serve...He actually raises dead things to life, including relationships...including marriages. If I believe that I was dead in my sin until God made me alive in Christ, saying, "Toby, come forth," how can I not believe that He cannot do the same with my marriage? Let us not underestimate the power of God.
Second, we could underestimate the power of sin. Sin is deadly and dangerous and affects us more than we know. Relational conflict is not just born in sin, it is fed by sin. Just as God warned Cain that sin was crouching at his door, wanting to overtake him (Gen. 4:7), God warns us as well through the apostle Paul to "give no opportunity to the devil" (Eph. 4:27). Answering this question too quickly with a trite 'no' can be destructive...we must not underestimate the power of sin and its war against our reconciliation efforts.
Yet, in reality, 'no' is the right answer. There is no wound God cannot heal. Sure...we will have the scars of conflict afterward, but if we humble ourselves and fight to walk the biblical path of forgiveness toward reconciliation, then they will be scars of grace. They will be scars which taught us how to forgive...scars which taught us of reconciliation. They will be scars which reveal that we are being conformed to the image of our Savior, whose unjustly inflicted wounds left scars that testify of our forgiveness and reconciliation. Now, as God in Christ has forgiven us, may we likewise with one another.