What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

Note from Randy: Dan Darling has a new book out titled Agents of Grace: How to Bridge Divides and Love as Jesus Loved. I deeply appreciate Dan and wholeheartedly concur with his call for greater love and grace among Bible-believing Christians.

Like many, I watched Dan go through his public ordeal that in my opinion never should have happened in a Christian ministry. Dan's experience brought back memories of the criticism I received from many believers when over thirty years ago I did what I believed to be right in God's sight, through intervention to save the lives of the unborn. “Friendly fire” doesn't seem very friendly when it leaves casualties in its wake.

This book is about our need to love God and in the process learn to love our fellow believers, including those we disagree with in secondary areas. I highly recommend Agents of Grace as a tool for fostering a more conciliatory spirit, and I hope you find this excerpt from the book helpful.

I often talk about the importance of forgiveness in my own life, and over the deep hurts I’ve endured. But inevitable questions about biblical forgiveness arise. Does forgiveness imply we ignore issues of justice and restitution? Does forgiveness absolve the guilt of the perpetrator? Does forgiveness imply reconciliation?

It’s important for us to understand what is demanded of us in forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation, which requires two parties willing to come together.

Consider the story of Joseph. For a long time, when I read the narrative in Genesis, I could never understand why Joseph, as prime minister, put his brothers through what often seems a cruel series of tests. If, as he says in Genesis 50:20, he held no bitterness against them, why make them go through the paces of going back and forth from Egypt to Canaan? Why hide the cup in the brother’s bag? Why hold one of the brothers back as collateral? What is going on here?

In this example, I think we see in Joseph the difference between forgiveness—which releases our own souls from bitterness—and reconciliation. Before Joseph could truly be reconciled with his brothers, he had to see that they had shed the petty jealousies and rage that had motivated them to commit their heinous acts of violence in the first place.

Were his brothers remorseful for their treatment? Listen to the way they talk amongst themselves, with Joseph overhearing:

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter (Genesis 42:21-23).

Clearly, the guilt they had carried for decades, the dirty secret that had hung over their hearts like a weighted blanket, was now being exposed in the light of day. They understood that God was forcing them to confront their sin and appeal for forgiveness and grace. Here are the seeds of reconciliation.

And yet Joseph had to continue to test them, to see if their remorse would lead to repentance and new patterns. Clearly it did. Instead of being brothers who cared only for their welfare, these men now plead on behalf of their youngest brother Benjamin. These were changed men to whom Joseph could trust his heart.

It’s important for us to understand there are levels of engagement when we’ve been seriously hurt, not all of which are possible to achieve in this life. Forgiveness is the first and most basic. Forgiveness is the act of being released from the bitterness of our pain and entrusting payback and vengeance to the one who fights for us. “Vengeance is mine” God tells us (Deuteronomy 32:25; Romans 12:17-19). James reminds us that the “wrath of man doesn’t bring about the righteousness God desires” (James 1:20).

Forgiveness means we refuse to let that other person live in our heads rent-free. Forgiveness means we refuse to work our hurt into every single conversation. Forgiveness means we don’t let bitterness cloud our judgement. This is why my friend Rich told me I had to forgive. He was telling me this for my own spiritual and physical health.

I’ve seen too many people destroyed by bitterness. And here’s the thing: unforgiveness not only affects our own souls, its acid also splashes onto our families, our friends, and our coworkers. Years ago, I had to make a decision. Would I model forgiveness for my family and for the small church I was called to lead, or would I let bitterness color my life? I’ve been up close and personal with too many leaders—powerful, gifted, brilliant leaders—who never got over their hurts. It hamstrung their leadership, making them fearful, isolated, and untrusting. Then they unwittingly inflicted it on others.

And yet, forgiveness is only the first level of engagement with those who have hurt us. The next level, I believe, is reconciliation. But this is often more complicated. In Joseph’s case, it happened because his brothers also engaged and were willing to embrace repentance and restitution. This is not always possible. Romans 12:18 says “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If it is possible, as far as it depends on you.

Sometimes, many times, reconciliation is not available. I’ve had relationships where I’ve forgiven and there is a measure of peace that God has brought to my heart and soul over time, but full reconciliation was not yet possible because there was not a reciprocal effort to make peace.

Sometimes forgiveness is used as a weapon, for instance, to force victims to drop criminal charges against their abusers. But this isn’t what forgiveness is at all. Forgiveness doesn’t erase the demands of justice, it merely takes the instruments of vengeance out of our hands and releases our perpetrators to “the judge of the earth who deals justly” (Genesis 18:25).

I also believe there is a third level of engagement beyond reconciliation that is even harder to achieve. This is trust. You can forgive and even be reconciled in the relationship, but it takes a lot to earn back trust. This happens in broken marriages, where one partner has violated the marriage covenant. The offended spouse should forgive her husband, she might even be reconciled, after counseling and repentance on his part. But trust—the ability to know that you won’t be hurt again by the one who hurt you—that takes a lot of years and patience.

Consider when Joseph’s brothers addressed him in Genesis 50. This was decades after he’d forgiven them, after they were reconciled and living side-by-side in Egypt. Yet they still wondered if, after their father Jacob died, he was just waiting to enact his vengeance on them. They repeated their father’s deathbed wish, that Joseph would forgive them of their sins against him.  In response, Joseph not only promised he would not take action against them, he also pledged to take care of them financially and materially. He even entrusted them to carry out his dying wish: to take his bones back to the land of his father.

This level of trust, beyond forgiveness, beyond reconciliation, is the fruit of years of faithful actions by both parties to restore confidence. Too often we collapse these three concepts into one. But while forgiveness can happen in any situation, we can’t force reconciliation where it’s not possible, and we should be wise with whom we place our trust.

If the church treasurer steals money from the church coffers, the church should forgive him.  That doesn’t mean he should be restored to his former position when he hasn’t yet earned the trust to handle the people’s money again. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean people who have abused authority or committed moral failures should automatically be restored to their former positions. Sometimes, after years of restitution, people deserve a second chance. But we should be careful who we put in positions of power again. Again, God’s grace is free and unlimited for our failures, but God never guarantees a return to the stage.

I can say today that I’ve forgiven and am at peace with those in my life who have deeply hurt me. That is the fruit of God’s gracious work in my heart. I carry no bitterness or ill will. And I can say that almost all of my relationships are restored. But there are some folks whom I still have a hard time trusting….and that’s OK.

Photo by Bro Takes Photos on Unsplash

Daniel Darling is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a regular columnist for World and a contributor to USA Today. He is the author of several books, including Agents of Grace, The Characters of Christmas, The Dignity Revolution, and A Way With Words.