SERVING EACH OTHER THROUGH FORGIVENESS AND RECONCILIATION by TIM KELLER
On both a theological and a practical level, forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. True forgiveness comes at a cost and is pursued intentionally within a community of believers. The new human community that the Bible requires cuts across all cultures and temperaments. Put another way, it doesn’t fit any culture but challenges them all at some point.
Christians from more individualistic cultures love the Bible’s emphasis on affirming one another and sharing hurts and problems—but hate the idea of accountability and discipline. Christians from more traditional communal cultures love the emphasis on accountability for morals and beliefs but often chafe at the emphasis on racial reconciliation and being open about one’s personal hurts and financial needs.
But one could argue that the biblical teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation is so radical that there are no cultures or societies that are in accord with it. It may be here most of all that we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s statement, “Our community with one another [in Christ] consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality. In this, it differs from all other communities.”1
In its most basic and simple form, this teaching is that Christians in community are to never give up on one another, never give up on a relationship, and never write off another believer. We must never tire of forgiving (and repenting!) and seeking to repair our relationships. Matthew 5:23–26 tells us we should go to someone if we know they have something against us. Matthew 18:15–20 says we should approach someone if we have something against them. In short, if any relationship has cooled off or has weakened in any way, it is always your move. It doesn’t matter “who started it:” God always holds you responsible to reach out to repair a tattered relationship. A Christian is responsible to begin the process of reconciliation, regardless of how the distance or the alienation began.
WHAT FORGIVENESS IS
When speaking of forgiveness, Jesus uses the image of debts to describe the nature of sins (Matt. 6:12; 18:21–35). When someone seriously wrongs you, there is an absolutely unavoidable sense that the wrongdoer owes you. The wrong has incurred an obligation, a liability, a debt. Anyone who has been wronged feels a compulsion to make the other person pay down that debt. We do that by hurting them, yelling at them, making them
feel bad in some way, or just waiting and watching and hoping that something bad happens to them. Only after we see them suffer in some commensurate way do we sense that the debt has been paid and the sense of obligation is gone.
This sense of debt/liability and obligation is impossible to escape. Anyone who denies it exists has simply not been wronged or sinned against in any serious way.
What then is forgiveness? Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. But it must be recognized that forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering.
What does that mean? Think about how monetary debts work. If a friend breaks my lamp, and if the lamp costs fifty dollars to replace, then the act of lamp-breaking incurs a debt of fifty dollars. If I let him pay for and replace the lamp, I get my lamp back and he’s out fifty dollars. But if I forgive him for what he did, the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. When I forgive him, I absorb the cost and payment for the lamp: either I will pay the fifty dollars to replace it or I will lose the lighting in that room.
To forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. Someone always pays every debt.
This is the case in all situations of wrongdoing, even when no money is involved. When you are sinned against, you lose something—perhaps happiness, reputation, peace of mind, a relationship, or an opportunity. There are two things to do about a sin. Imagine for example that someone has hurt your reputation. You can try to restore it by paying the other person back, voicing public criticisms and ruining his or her reputation. Or you can forgive the one who wronged you, refuse payback, and absorb the damage to your reputation. (You will have to restore it over time.)
In all cases when wrong is done there is a debt, and there is no way to deal with it without suffering: either you make the perpetrator suffer for it or you forgive and suffer for it yourself. Forgiveness is always extremely costly. It is emotionally very expensive—it takes much blood, sweat, and tears. When you forgive, you pay the debt yourself in several ways.
- First, you refuse to hurt the person directly; you refuse vengeance, payback, or the infliction of pain. Instead, you are as cordial as possible. When forgiving you must beware of subtle ways to try to exact payment while assuring yourself that you aren’t. Here are specific things to avoid:
- making cutting remarks and dragging out past injuries repeatedly
- being far more demanding and controlling with the person than you are with others, all because you feel
deep down that they still owe you
- punishing them with self-righteous “mercy” that is really a way to make them feel small and to justify yourself
- avoiding them or being cold toward them
- Second, you refuse to employ innuendo or “spin” or hint or gossip or direct slander to diminish those who have hurt you in the eyes of others. You don’t run them down under the guise of warning people about them or under the guise of seeking sympathy and support and sharing your hurt.
Third, when forgiving you refuse to indulge in ill-will in your heart. That is, don’t continually replay the tapes of the wrong in your imagination, in order to keep the sense of loss and hurt fresh so you can stay actively hostile toward the person and feel virtuous by contrast. Don’t vilify or demonize the offender in your imagination. Rather, recognize the common sinful humanity you share with him or her. Don’t root for them to fail,
don’t hope for their pain. Instead, pray positively for their growth.
Forgiveness, then, is granted before it is felt. It is a promise to refrain from the three things above and pray for the perpetrator as you remind yourself of God’s grace to you. Though it is extremely difficult and painful (you are bearing the cost of the sin yourself!), forgiveness will deepen your character, free you to talk to and help the person, and lead to love and peace rather than bitterness. Further, by bearing the cost of the sin, you are walking in the path of your Master (Matt. 18:21–35; Col. 3:13).
It is typical for non-Christians today to say that the cross of Christ makes no sense. “Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God just forgive us?” Actually, no one who has been deeply wronged “just forgives”! If someone wrongs you, there are only two options:
(1) you make them suffer, or
(2) you refuse revenge and forgive them and then you suffer.
And if we can’t forgive without suffering, how much more must God suffer in order to forgive us? If we unavoidably sense the obligation and debt and injustice of sin in our soul, how much more does God know it? On the cross we see God forgiving us, and that was possible only if God suffered. On the cross God’s love satisfied his own justice by suffering, bearing the penalty for sin. There is never forgiveness without suffering, nails, thorns, sweat, blood. Never.
WHAT WE NEED TO FORGIVE
The experience of the gospel gives us the two prerequisites for a life of forgiveness: emotional humility and emotional wealth.
You can remain bitter toward someone only if you feel superior if you are sure that you “would never do anything like that!” To remain unforgiving means you are unaware of your own sinfulness and need for forgiveness. When Paul says he is the worst among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), he is not exaggerating. He is saying that he is as capable of sin as the worst criminals are. The gospel has equipped him with emotional humility.
At the same time, you can’t be gracious to someone if you are too needy and insecure. If you know God’s love and forgiveness, then there is a limit to how deeply another person can hurt you. He or she can’t touch your real identity, wealth, and significance. The more you rejoice in your own forgiveness, the quicker you will be to forgive others. You are rooted in emotional wealth.
Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself . . . and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.
Jesus says, “If you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:15). This does not mean we can earn God’s forgiveness through our own forgiving but that we can disqualify ourselves from it.
No heart that is truly repentant toward God could be unforgiving toward others. A lack of forgiveness toward others is the direct result of a lack of repentance toward God. And as we know, you must repent in order to be saved (Acts 2:38).
GOD’S FORGIVENESS AND OURS
When God reveals his glory to Moses, he says he forgives wickedness yet “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod. 34:6–7). Not until the coming of Jesus do we see how God can be both completely just and forgiving through his atonement (1 John 1:7–9). In the cross, God satisfies both justice and love.
God was so just and desirous to judge sin that Jesus had to die, but he was so loving and desirous of our salvation that Jesus was glad to die.
We too are commanded to forgive (“bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another,” Col 3:13–14) on the basis of Jesus’ atonement for our sins (“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. . . . If you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins,”
Matt. 6:14–15; cf. Luke 6:37).
But we are also required to forgive in a way that honors justice, just as God’s forgiveness does. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). “Christians are called to abandon bitterness, to be forbearing, to have a forgiving stance even where the repentance of the offending party is conspicuous by its absence; on the other hand, their God-centered passion for justice, their concern for God’s glory, ensure that the awful odium of sin is not glossed over.”
PURSUING TRUTH, LOVE, AND RELATIONSHIP
The gospel calls us, then, to keep an equal concern
(a) to speak the truth and honor what is right, yet
(b) to be endlessly forgiving as we do so and
(c) to never give up on the goal of a reconciled, warm relationship.
First, God requires forgiveness whether or not the offender has repented and has asked for forgiveness. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him” (Mark 11:25). This does not say “forgive him if he repents” but rather “forgive him right there—as you are praying.”
Second, God requires speaking the truth. That is why Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 17:3 to “rebuke” the wrongdoer and “if he repents, forgive him.” Is Jesus saying that we can hold a grudge if the person doesn’t repent? No, we must not read Luke 17 to contradict Mark 11. Jesus is calling us here both to practice inner forgiveness and to rebuke and correct.
We must completely surrender the right to pay back or get even, yet at
the same time, we must never overlook injustice and must require serious wrongdoings to be redressed. This is almost the very opposite of how we ordinarily operate. Ordinarily, we do not seek justice on the outside (we don’t confront or call people to change and make restitution), but we stay hateful and bitter on the inside. The Bible calls us to turn this completely around. We are to deeply forgive on the inside so as to have no desire for vengeance, but then we are to speak openly about what has happened with a desire to help the person see what was done wrong.
In reality, inner forgiveness and outward correction work well together.
+Only if you have forgiven inside can you correct unabusively—without trying to make the person feel terrible.
+Only if you have forgiven already can your motive be to correct the person for God’s sake, for justice’s sake, for the community’s sake, and for the person’s sake.
+And only if you forgive on the inside will your words have any hope of changing the perpetrator’s heart.
Otherwise, your speech will be so filled with disdain and hostility that he or she will not listen to you.
Ultimately, to forgive on the inside and to rebuke/correct on the outside are not incompatible, because they are both acts of love.
It is never loving to let a person just get away with sin. It is not loving to the perpetrator, who continues in the grip of the habit, nor to those who will be wronged in the future, nor to God, who is grieved.
This is difficult, for the line is very thin between a moral outrage for God’s sake and a self-righteous outrage because of hurt pride. Still, to refuse to confront is not loving but just selfish.
Third, as we “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), we are to pursue justice gently and humbly, in order to redress wrongs and yet maintain or restore the relationship (Gal. 6:1–5). There is a great deal of tension between these three things!
Almost always one is much more easily attained if you simply drop any concern for the other two. For example, it is easy to “speak the truth” if you’ve given up on any desire to maintain a warm relationship. But if you want both, you will have to be extremely careful with how you speak the truth!
Another example: it is possible to convince yourself that you have forgiven someone, but if afterward you still want nothing to do with them (you don’t pursue an ongoing relationship), then that is a sign that you spoke the truth without truly forgiving.
Of course, it is possible that you do keep these three things together in your heart and mind but the other person simply cannot.
There is no culture or personality type that holds these together. People tend to believe that if you are confronting me you don’t forgive or love me, or if you really loved me you wouldn’t be rebuking me. God recognizes that many people simply won’t let you pursue all these things together, and so tells us, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). That is, do your part and have as good and peaceful a relationship with people as they will let you have.
Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City. This article first appeared in The Gospel and Life conferences
of 2004 and 2005.