Forgiveness is at the Heart of Every Redemptive Encounter in the Church

In prior posts we have noted the distinctions drawn by the Scriptures between the wisdom of this world and the wisdom that comes down from heaven. James 3:13 through 18 is one place where we see that distinction being drawn:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

There are other places in the Scriptures where God communicates that what passes for wise living in this world nowhere even comes near to what passes for holiness or wisdom from his eternal perspective. Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:20 through 25:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

One of the latest examples I came across of the difference between the truth of God’s wisdom and the deception of the wisdom of this world was written about in a Wall Street Journal article titled When Forgiveness Isn’t a Virtue (WSJ, October 30, 2012). In that article, the author does make some observations about forgiveness that are consistent with a biblical worldview:

Remember that you have likely hurt people, too, and reflect on what it felt like to be forgiven. It is best to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We sometimes judge intent when it wasn’t there. Often people did not intend to hurt you.

It’s important to be empathetic, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see why they did whatever they did. Is your spouse under a lot of pressure at work and that is why he or she blew up at you? Try to see your part in the situation.

But the main gist of the article is that forgiveness is best seen and best used as a tool of manipulation in order to get the other person to change:

A psychology professor has been studying the costs versus the benefits of forgiveness. The potential cost of forgiveness is that it doesn’t hold the partner [other person] accountable for the behavior.

Forgiveness always makes people feel good immediately, but the question is what does it do to the person I am forgiving?

Experts believe emotional hurt serves as an evolutionary defense. You feel sadness and fear so you don’t want to go back to the person and get hurt again. Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean you have to remain in the relationship. It is possible to forgive and leave.

Reading these quotes reminds me of what Ken Sande noted about biblical forgiveness in his book The Peacemaker:

Forgiveness can be extremely costly, but if you believe in Jesus, you have more than enough to make these payments. By going to the cross, he has already paid off the ultimate debt for sin and established an account of abundant grace in your name. As you draw on that grace through faith day by day, you will find that you have all you need to make the payments of forgiveness for those who have wronged you (page 208, The Peacemaker, Third Edition).

God’s wisdom is that we are to be expansive in acts of forgiveness just as he has been expansive in his forgiveness of us. That is the whole point of the parable of the unmerciful servant we find at Matthew 18:21 through 35. The king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants called before him one who owed an unimaginable sum of money. The man couldn’t pay and since he didn’t like the potential consequences (he and his family being sold into slavery) he begged the king for mercy. The king said “OK. Your debt is canceled.” This is truly unbelievable grace!

But then the servant who had been forgiven his huge debt (an amount so unrealistic it would be impossible for any person to amass such a debt) immediately goes out and harshly demands that a fellow servant who owes him a week’s wages pay up…now. Unable to pay, the previously forgiven servant has his fellow servant thrown into debtor’s prison.  The others seeing what has occurred report this action back to the king (the master) who becomes rather indignant that his act of compassion wasn’t likewise followed and confronts the ungrateful man by saying:

I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?

The lesson, God’s wisdom coming down from heaven, is clear is it not? We are to forgive others just as expansively as God has forgiven us our debt for sin, an unimaginable indebtedness that no one could ever pay. What debts are owed you that could ever compare?

It is only unmerited forgiveness that gives any of us the hope of eternal life in Christ. In the same way, only unmerited forgiveness will enable a church to redeem its conflicts and enjoy the fruits of reconciliation. Forgiveness is at the heart of every redemptive encounter in the church. Forgiveness is the “other-centered” act that God bestowed on us so that we might follow in his steps and do the same. Forgiveness may be the most “God-centered” act we will ever undertake, an act intended to fulfill God’s goal of unity in the church rather than any personal goal of fulfillment or trying to teach somebody else a lesson. It is costly activity but you have the expansive account from which you can afford the payments.

For peace among God’s wise people,
-Dave Edling

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About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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