I remember seeing pictures in a news magazine of high school students holding up a banner that read something like, “Josh, we forgive you.” Josh (a fictitious name) was the murderer of several of their classmates in a school shooting many years ago.
The question the article asked was whether it was appropriate for the students to forgive Josh for his horrendous evil. Josh had never sought their forgiveness. Nor were they the actual victims of his violence.
Dr. Robert Burns and Michael Brissett, in a helpful book called, “The Adult Child of Divorce,” discuss forgiveness from a very practical and biblical perspective.
The authors begin their section on forgiveness with the statement:
Some encourage the offended to absorb their pain and release the offender. Others urge those who hurt to simply turn to God and confess it. Then, they are assured, God will resolve the pain, and everything will be fine. A third approach is to tell those unable to forgive to examine their own lives. They should see what mistakes they have made – even if the mistake is carrying pain toward those who harmed them – and seek forgiveness from the ones they can’t seem to forgive.
You have likely heard these responses.
One of the greatest struggles for Christians beat up by toxic leaders is how to fulfill God’s calling to forgive those who have hurt them. Frequently, they ask questions about what it means to forgive and whether they should even forgive the horrendous evil they have experienced.
Generally, there is no shortage of well-meaning Christian brothers and sisters who will come their aid in providing answers. “Of course, you must forgive them. The Bible tells you so!”
But take a look, as Burns and Brissett do in their book, at the passage on forgiveness in Ephesians:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
We are called to forgive one another….as God in Christ forgave you. It is that last clause that is often overlooked or not completely understood.
How did Jesus Christ forgive you?
The Legal Side of Forgiveness
The authors talk about “two sides of forgiveness.” As they note,
“If I break the law, that law says I must legally pay a penalty…We haven’t lived perfect lives. Because God is holy and perfect, He will legally accept only perfect people, and because we have broken His law, a penalty must be paid before he can accept us.”
Fortunately, for God’s created world and sinful man, Jesus Christ died on the cross to take the penalty for those sins. He provided the legal means of taking care of the judgment that was due to us, providing forgiveness from the perfect Judge, Almighty God.
He holds out that offer of forgiveness to all who have sinned…that happens to be everyone conceived in this world.
However, as those who know scripture realize, not everyone is forgiven. There is another side to the coin of forgiveness as the authors put it.
The Relational Side of Forgiveness
Peter preached to the household of Cornelius saying,
“To [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
[Acts 10:43 (ESV)]
The sins of those who believe in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross are forgiven. The sins of those who reject him are not.
Those who recognize they are “sinners,” in need of Jesus’ saving work and who camp at Jesus’ doorstep to seek his forgiveness are forgiven. Those who do not consider their failures worthy of judgment are not forgiven.
To come into “relationship” with Jesus we need forgiveness. He has offered it to all, but only those who receive that offer will be forgiven and be in relationship with the Lord.
How Does that Work Between People?
So, when do we forgive others according to Paul in Ephesians 4:32?
When our offender seeks forgiveness. When they recognize their sin against you and come to you asking for your forgiveness, you are to forgive them. In fact, Jesus said they should to be forgiven over and over should they ask. [Matthew 18:21-22]
This is what is taught in Luke 17:3-4. Jesus tells his disciples, if he repents, forgive him. “If he repents.”
This is the “relational” side of forgiveness of which Burns and Brissett speak.
So, when they “recognize [their] own failure” and acknowledge it to your face, you freely forgive just as Christ forgave you.
Forgiving the Toxic One
It just so happens that you find a rare abuser (in the workplace or the home) that will recognize their sin, acknowledge it, and accept their responsibility. They rarely darken your door humbly seeking forgiveness.
Though there may not be relational forgiveness between you and your tormentor, bringing reconciliation, there is still a need to forgive him (or her) nonetheless.
The authors point to Matthew 5:21-22 where Jesus teaches that when a brother harbors anger against another brother, he is a “murderer.”
It is important to note that there is a righteous anger that is taught in scripture [see blog], but where there is bitterness and seeking of revenge, we need to take a close look at our motives.
We need to have an attitude of forgiveness (legal) though there may never come a time when our abuser seeks our forgiveness (relational). We need to live in this “legal side of forgiveness” by making it available to our antagonist should he humble himself.
“Legally” forgiving those who sin against us does not necessarily release them from accountability however. It is still appropriate to seek legal, organizational, or corporate justice for the toxic individual.
But we need to recognize that Jesus’ forgiveness is ultimately the forgiveness he needs and we need to “release” him into the Lord’s hands that he may one day seek our and God’s forgiveness for their evil.
As the victims of our abuser’s violence, we can be like the servant in Jesus’ parable. The “wicked servant” received forgiveness from his master for all he owed him (which was boatloads of cash) and turned around to require the small debt from those who owed him. [Matthew 18:23-35]
Or, as Jesus teaches, we can pass on the forgiveness we received from our master to our abuser.
However, until he recognizes his own failure, acknowledges it before God and you, and accept God’s solution for the problem, there will not be relational forgiveness and no reconciliation, between he and God or with you.
Nor does God expect there to be.
You need not feel guilt about his. You need not think you ought to have done more. You need not say, “Everything is alright…I am over it.” It is okay to grieve the loss of that relationship and your brother’s failure.