What comes after forgiveness? Depending on the nature of the offense, there may be a prolonged struggle. After all, forgiveness might not come all at once; it may be a daily struggle to forgive that other person. A number of years ago the nation of Rwanda was torn apart by tribal conflict and genocide—you may remember this from the film Hotel Rwanda. After it was all over, the healing had to begin. I say had to, because the nature of the conflict meant that individuals would return home, and literally move back in next to neighbors that had taken the lives of their family members. In her excellent book As We Forgive, Catherine Claire Lawson shares the real-life stories of many who came to understand forgiveness only through the workshops offered through Christian relief workers. One such story comes from “Monique:”
At the workshops, they read stories of forgiveness from the Bible. Monique remembered the stories from childhood, but the words came alive to her again as she heard how Jesus Christ had taken our sins and our sorrows to the cross. [The group leader] explained how this meant that Christ had taken both the sins of the genocidaires and the sorrows of the victims carried those with him to the cross. As an innocent victim, Christ identified with those like Monique who suffered wrongfully. But by laying upon him the sins of the world, Christ also took away the reproach of sinners who would look to him in faith. He forgives. ….Little by little, Monique felt she too could extend forgiveness to the people who had wronged her. (Catherine Claire Lawson, As We Forgive, p. 152-3)
In the ancient city of Ephesus, Paul likewise uses the sacrifice of Christ to describe how Jews and non-Jews could be united despite past cultural differences.
Read Ephesians 2:12-16:
“…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:12-16)
The New Testament describes reconciliation—a restored relationship—as the ideal. Why might this be so difficult to achieve?
In recent months, a nation expressed outrage over the deception of Brian Williams. But in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, David Brooks raises the possibility of forgiveness. He asks:
“…the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?” (David Brooks, “The Art of Rigorous Forgiveness,” in The New York Times, February 10, 2015)
Brooks goes on to describe a four-stage process of reconciliation:
- Pre-emptive mercy: the act of extending forgiveness before the offender does a single thing.
- Judgment: being willing to label the offense as wrong, and seeing it without exaggerating or minimizing the offense.
- Confession and repentance: when the offender recognizes and changes their attitude toward their wrongdoing.
- Reconciliation and re-trust: a restored relationship between myself and my offender.
Again, the New Testament ideal is to move us to stage 4. But let’s pause for a second—is this even possible in every situation? For some, reconciliation without confession and judgment only serves to enable my offender. It hasn’t healed the problem, only sugared over it. So there may be situations where the offender refuses—for whatever reason—to come to terms with their offense. In such situations, it may actually be unloving to pursue a relationship with that person until that offense has been dealt with.
We’ll return to this question in tomorrow’s post. For now we can simply recognize that for Christians, forgiveness is an extension of God’s love; but reconciliation is not always possible. What forgiveness means is that I no longer hold the past as a barrier to future relationship, though always recognizing that future relationships can be made possible through ongoing behavior.
The initial challenge, therefore, is to practice that “pre-emptive mercy” and to lay aside the anger we feel toward our offender. Only then can we be released from carrying a grudge and can extend a hand in love.