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Why is Forgiveness so Hard? Part 2

In my last article, I explored two potential factors that make forgiving someone who has hurt us so incredibly difficult. I argued, first, that forgiveness is a relational category in the Bible, which means that it is always unto the restoration of a relationship; and I said, second, that forgiveness is costly, insofar as it always involves the incurring of a debt that must be absolved. No doubt these two factors have raised several questions in your minds. Two stand out in my mind: “Do Christians have to forgive one another?” and, along with that, “Do Christians have to forgive non-Christians?” In what follows, I will add a third potential factor that can so often make forgiving other people difficult, and, after that, I will try to provide some answers to questions like the two I just raised.

Forgiveness is humbling

A third reason why forgiveness can be so challenging for us is because it is inherently humbling (and maybe even humiliating) work. It involves laying aside our pride, which is extremely hard for us to do, first, because we are all prideful people and, second, because pride is, as CS Lewis has so helpfully articulated, the “great sin” and the “essential vice.” It is the root sin that undergirds and leads to every other sin in our lives. Ever since the beginning it has expressed itself in the desire to “be like God” in determining for ourselves what is right and wrong (Gen. 3:5).

Pride affects each of us in different ways, to be sure, but the common denominator in all of our experiences is the “essentially competitive” nature of pride. It “gets no pleasure out of having something,” Lewis writes, “only out of having more of it than the next man.”* If everyone in the world is equally rich, beautiful, intelligent, or talented, then there is nothing for any of us to feel prideful about. We are not proud of being rich, beautiful, intelligent, or talented; we are proud of being richer, more beautiful, more intelligent, or more talented than someone else.

All of us struggle with pride to one degree or another, and we bring it into every relationship that we have. Sometimes our pride manifests itself in an over-sensitivity to criticism, and we get our feelings hurt far too easily. More frequently it manifests itself in a resistance to forgiveness. Pride makes it unlikely that we will humble ourselves and seek the forgiveness of others whom we have hurt and even more unlikely that we will let go of the perceived wrongs that are committed against us.

My mother used to always tell me that it takes two to fight. I remember not believing her as a child, because I was convinced that I was always in the right. No matter what the disagreement was—inevitably with my brother or my sister—it was always the other person’s fault. My actions, whatever they may have been, were justified because the other party was to blame. Looking back now, it is easy to see that I was motivated by pride, but it was not so easy to see in the moment. The point I am trying to make here is that, in most disagreements, the break in relationship is a two-way street. Both parties are usually to blame to some degree. Rarely do we get attacked for no reason whatsoever. Rarely does someone with whom we have a relationship hurt us without any provocation of any kind. It does happen. But the more common scenario is that we typically respond in kind. When we are hurt by someone, we usually strike back returning hurt for hurt and insult for insult. That kind of response is motivated by the competitiveness of our pride. We don’t want anyone to get the better of us; we don’t want to lose face. That is why pride makes the process of forgiveness and reconciliation so difficult. It makes it unlikely that we will walk away, allow someone else to have the last word, or let go of the anger we feel. It makes it unlikely that we will admit blame and humble ourselves, that we will let the other person win.

But pride also works against forgiveness and reconciliation in two other important ways. It makes it tough for us to confront someone Christianly when that person has hurt us, and it makes it tough to apologize and seek forgiveness from others when we have hurt them. The competitiveness of pride leads us to want to have the upper hand. It makes it unlikely that we will humble ourselves and admit wrongdoing or share our feelings of hurt with those who have injured us. It makes us want to strike back and to harm the one who has harmed us or to justify our actions. The result is that when we confront others, we tend to do so with anger, frustration, bitterness, or blame and vindication. We attack instead of confronting helpfully.

Pride is something that we all deal with, even if we live on a remote island in the Pacific. But because pride is competitive in its very nature it doesn’t manifest itself until and unless we are around other people. If we aren’t around others, there won’t ever be an occasion for us to feel proud. We won’t have anyone or anything to compare ourselves against. This means that every relationship we have is also an opportunity for pride to manifest itself on both sides. And this makes every aspect of our relationships challenging, but especially conflict and disagreement and forgiveness and reconciliation.

Do Christians have to forgive one another?

Quite simply the answer to this question is, yes. Christians, as we indicated previously, are obligated to be in right relationship with one another. That is because we are all united to Christ through faith and, by virtue of that, we are all united to one another as well. We are members of the same body, the body of Christ. When we refuse to forgive and to pursue reconcile with a fellow believer, we introduce division and enmity into the body of Christ. We set “hands” against “feet” or “fingers” against “arms” or “eyes” against “ears” (see 1 Cor. 12:12-27). What is more, as Christians we are also members of the same family—which is “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15)—and are adopted as sons and daughters of the Most High (see, e.g., John 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14-17; Eph. 1:5; Heb. 12:4-11; 1 John 3:1-2). As a result, we are brothers and sisters with one another. And the family bond that we share is even stronger than that which exists in an earthly, biological family. As Christians, we are brothers and sisters not just for this lifetime but for all eternity. When we refuse to forgive and to pursue reconciliation with a fellow believer, we are acting like children who can’t get along with one another. And just as earthly parents must step in and bring forgiveness and reconciliation, so our heavenly Father must do the same. He will be as drastic as necessary and, yet, as gentle as possible in doing so.

This necessity to forgive is exemplified in Luke 17:3-4, for instance, when Jesus says that we “must” forgive the “brother” or sister who sins against us—even if he or she sins against us “seven times in the day.” It is also exemplified in Jesus’s prescription to “rebuke” the one who sins against us in order that he or she may be encouraged to “repent” and ask for forgiveness. The point is that both the one who sins and the one who is sinned against are “brothers” and, therefore, have an obligation to be in right relationship to each other. The one who is sinned against is obligated to confront the one who does the sinning against and to forgive if there is repentance. The one who does the sinning against is obligated to repent, to seek forgiveness when confronted, and to reconcile with the offended brother or sister when forgiveness has been granted.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35 also points to the necessity of forgiveness among Christians. The context for this parable is Peter’s question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” In asking this, no doubt Peter felt he was being magnanimous. After all, he wasn’t employing a three-strikes-and-you’re-out approach to forgiveness but something more than twice as generous. But Jesus responds by taking the two perfect numbers, ten and seven, and multiplying them together; and then multiplying the result by the number Peter had so magnanimously put forward. In doing so, Jesus is saying that forgiveness has no boundaries or limits when it involves a “brother” or sister. We forgive, and we keep on forgiving.

What about non-Christians or those with whom we don’t have any relationship?

Because forgiveness is a relational concept, it presumes the presence of a prior relationship which has been broken and is in need of being restored. This means that there can be no real forgiveness—at least as far as the Bible is concerned—if there is no prior relationship. Forgiveness is always a means to the end of restoring a relationship. It never functions as a stand-alone endeavor (see my article “Why is Forgiveness so Hard? Part 1” for more on this).

If we apply this idea to people with whom we have no relationship of any kind, we can conclude from what we have said that there cannot be genuine forgiveness if and when we are sinned against, at least not in the way the Bible speaks of forgiveness (which is always unto the restoration of a relationship). When a stranger cuts us off in traffic, we certainly need to let that offense go. We should not harbor ill will toward the stranger or allow his or her offense to embitter us or eat us up on the inside (we will say more about this later). If we want to call this a kind of forgiveness then I am fine with that. But it isn’t forgiveness as the Bible speaks of it. Forgiveness in the Bible is always unto the restoration of a relationship; and, when offenses involve someone with whom we have no relationship, there is obviously nothing to restore and, thus, there can be no genuine forgiveness in these kinds of situations. What is more, as this example shows, there is no opportunity for repentance and oftentimes no acknowledgement that a wrong has even been committed. These things are also necessary in order for genuine forgiveness—as the Bible speaks of it—to take place.

But what about non-Christians? Is it necessary for Christians to forgive non-Christians who sin against them? Well, if there is no relationship between the Christian and the non-Christian, then everything we said above would apply. If there is a prior relationship that has been broken, then there should be every effort made to forgive and reconcile. The chief relationship the Bible is concerned about in its teaching on forgiveness is the relationship that exists between believers. Everything we have said about forgiveness applies first and foremost to this relationship. But it also applies, by extension, to every relationship, even those with non-Christians friends or family members.

There is more to be said about these things, and so I invite you to stay tuned as we continue to post articles in the future. Forgiveness is an incredibly difficult subject. But it is also incredibly important, as we will see next.

*Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121-2.

2 replies on “Why is Forgiveness so Hard? Part 2”

So, is it a stretch to say that if a covenant may be defined as a relationship, at least at the bare minimum, when God forgives those he has redeemed, is he restoring a relationship? If he loved the elect from before the foundations of the world, is he restoring the relationship he had by the Covenant of Grace?

I would agree that a covenant is a relationship. It is more than this but certainly not less. But you and I are not actually members of the covenant until and unless we believe in Christ and receive His forgiveness. You can certainly speak about the elect being “in” the Covenant by way of God’s decree before the foundation of the world, but according to Eph. 1:4, even in this case, God doesn’t look at us apart from our being “in Christ” which means that He has an eye to our faith in Christ and our reception of forgiveness in time and space. Sin has broken the relationship. God has decreed that the relationship will be restored, but in order for that to happen, we have to be forgiven of our sins–which Christ has accomplished on the cross.

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