I recently had a disturbing conversation with a friend, whom I shall call “Pat.” The long and the short of it is that Pat had been treated shabbily by a minister who had until that time been a trusted friend. The person in question had acted in a selfish and inappropriate way that left Pat feeling confused, hurt, and betrayed. The minister sorrowfully apologized to Pat, and confessed the behavior to his supervisor. But to Pat, something still seems missing. The emotional intensity of the original apology, for example, doesn’t seem to have been matched by a change in behavior.
A theological twist in that theme was the repeated refrain was that Pat needed to forgive and let go. There were indeed moments when Pat felt released from the lingering burden of betrayal, but others in which anger and doubt again gained the upper hand. People tired of hearing Pat’s story, and grew impatient, sending the implied message, “If you can’t just forgive him once and for all, experience healing, and then move on, then you have a spiritual problem.”
Were they right? Does Pat have a right to be angry? Does Pat have a right to expect more? (Pat, I’m still thinking about our conversation, and feel the need to think this out a little more carefully. So this one’s for you.)
There’s no question that forgiveness is of the utmost importance to God. In Matt 18:21-35, Jesus tells the story of a servant who managed to lose an incredible amount of the king’s money, a fortune that was far more than he would ever be able to repay. Astonishingly, the king had mercy on the man, canceling the entire debt. Instead of celebrating that miracle of grace, however, the clueless servant promptly commited the sin of trying to squeeze repayment out of another man who still owed money to him. When the news reached his ears, the king called the servant back in, thundered at him for his lack of mercy, and threw him into jail to be tortured. Jesus ends the parable with these chilling words: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:35, NIV). Yikes.
Jesus tells this parable in response to Peter’s question about how many times he had to forgive someone who offended him: “Up to seven times?” Peter probably thought he was being generous. But Jesus’ response, I think, was designed to provoke repentance, a change of heart: “No, Peter, you’re being miserly with your forgiveness. Do you understand how merciful the Father is? Because if you really understood that, you would treat others differently.”
We should not be surprised at this. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples ask their Master to teach them how to pray, and Jesus responds with what we call The Lord’s Prayer. Most of us have learned to recite that prayer by heart. But we may not remember what Jesus says at the end of the prayer, after the petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt 6:12, 14-15, NIV).
To ask God for forgiveness has both a present and future aspect. Just as we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray that at the consummation of that kingdom, God will find us in right standing with him, and at that time, we will receive the full pardon for our sins. But meanwhile, in anticipation of that day, we live as those who know the mercy of God, and therefore practice the forgiveness of others. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “You’d better get this right, or you’re going to be in big trouble.” He’s saying something like, “A person who hopes in future salvation should act like a saved person today.” Or as Eugene Peterson has translated it: “If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part” (Matt 6:15, The Message).
So yes, Pat needs to forgive the errant pastor, and do so with as much generosity as the Spirit makes possible. It starts with a deep recognition of our own need for divine mercy, and gratitude for the forgiveness of God. We need to imagine ourselves as those who walk with God through a broken world, wanting to be part of his solution and not part of the problem. Compassion for others, even those who have hurt us, shows that we get it.
But here’s the problem. Sometimes, when our Christian brothers and sisters are telling us to forgive and move on, they’re sending us confusing, mixed messages. On the one hand, they are rightly counseling the need to obey Jesus, lean into the mercy of God, and forgive the one who sins against us. On the other hand, their impatience sends another signal: “Hurry up and get over it already. Your unhappiness is making us uncomfortable.”
In Pat’s case, the minister is now being carefully watched, to make sure there are no further boundary violations. But when Pat tries to talk about the angry feelings that linger, the response seems to be, “He apologized. What more do you want?”
The answer to that question, in a word, is justice.
Not eye-for-eye, vigilante justice. When we forgive, we give up our right to take revenge, leaving the ultimate moral reckoning up to God alone (Rom 12:19). But anyone who is being formed in the ways of God’s kingdom should always want to see justice done. That is, I believe, the core of what Jesus meant in the Beatitudes when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6, NIV). “Righteousness” here is not merely personal moral goodness, but rightness, justice–and those who long for that are given the eschatological promise that one day, God will in fact make everything right.
We should long for justice, even when we are the ones to whom injustice has been done. With the psalmist, we cry out for a just God to work his righteous will upon a broken creation. A simple desire for revenge, to hurt back those who have hurt us, is selfish and not of God. But realistically, that is often where we begin. It’s all about us and what we’ve suffered. It is only the empowering grace of the Spirit that helps us beyond that self-centered perspective, such that we come to understand our own suffering as part of the very groaning of creation (Rom 8:22) that God is working even now to heal. We discover that fundamentally, it’s not about us, but about God and his gracious intentions, forming us in the ways of patient hope.
What all of us need to realize is that forgiveness is not merely a matter of individuals forgetting about the wrongs they’ve suffered at the hands of others. It’s also about holding one another in a community of hope that makes that forgiveness both plausible and possible.
That’s what’s wrong with the “Why don’t you just get on with it?” approach. Put simply, it perpetuates the offense. It continues to enshrine injustice by not asking for real repentance from the perpetrator, and by failing to offer true and patient compassion to the victim. It fails to deal honestly with sin, preferring at times to look the other way, or to take refuge in apologies that, even when heartfelt, offer no real change. It fails to recognize the way people in power abuse that power, sometimes without even recognizing that they are doing so.
Let me be clear: this is not about pastor-bashing. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about supporting and understanding pastors in their highly demanding roles. I’m sensitive to the possibility that some may read this as justification for continued criticism of their pastors. And because I’ve disguised the details of the case, you may wonder if this is just a one-sided overreaction. Fair enough. I can only ask you to trust that I believe there is a legitimate complaint here.
But really, the issue is this: how does the church respond when a less powerful member of the community is injured by someone more powerful or prominent? It’s right to counsel forgiveness. But it’s wrong to expect that forgiveness entails turning a blind eye to continued injustice. To push people into forgiveness without offering compassion is to treat them unjustly, and thus to create yet one more ongoing thing to forgive.
Can we, who think we understand better the need to forgive, be forgiving in turn? Can we be patient with those who seem unready to simply “move on”? Can we hold merciful compassion in trust for the one who is still struggling with the pain of betrayal? Unless we can, I fear that we will foster only the kind of superficial forgiveness that is grounded in law and social necessity–thou shalt not rock the boat–rather than a true miracle of grace.