The End of Forgiveness

Sometimes it’s simply about not trying to exact our own justice.

When we speak of “the end” of something, we are sometimes referring to its goal, or purpose. “The chief end of man,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism informs us, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That is the goal and purpose God had in mind when he created us. Likewise, the goal and purpose of forgiveness is to remove offenses, to restore harmonious relationships, to reconcile former enemies—ultimately, to reconcile sinful people to a holy God, resulting in their salvation.

 

In the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, this time at a church in Texas, a journalist posed a question to me and several other of her Facebook friends who are engaged in one or another type of Christian ministry:

“How do you balance forgiveness and anger after a tragedy like this weekend’s Texas shooting? Where does ‘turn the other cheek’ end and righteous anger for change begin?”

I don’t know how effectively, for her purposes, at least, I answered her question, but I present here a somewhat modified version of my reply.

Luc’s Story

Our church supports a Rwandan Christian missionary who is a member of the Tutsi people. His name is Luc. Luc has been to our church, and on various occasions members of our congregation have traveled to his town for work projects related to his ministry.

On one such trip our pastor traveled around Rwanda with Luc, and he noticed that the landscape was dotted by huge slabs of concrete that he at first thought were foundations for new buildings. Luc told him that the slabs covered mass graves, legacies of the genocide against his people.

At another point in the trip when our pastor was with him, Luc informed him that he recognized various Hutu people on the streets around them who had participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. I don’t know how the legal status of such individuals, who may have been too many to count let alone prosecute, was finally resolved, but somehow they still enjoyed their freedom in spite of what they did.

So, our pastor asked Luc how he coped with knowing that at any time of day and on any day of the week he might be walking past or even be doing business with someone who murdered people who may have been friends of his or even relatives.

Luc cited Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (NIV) This is a spiritual exercise that Luc has to practice on a daily basis.

Where Does It End?

When we speak of “the end” of something, we are sometimes referring to its goal, or purpose. “The chief end of man,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism informs us, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That is the goal and purpose God had in mind when he created us. Likewise, the goal and purpose of forgiveness is to remove offenses, to restore harmonious relationships, to reconcile former enemies—ultimately, to reconcile sinful people to a holy God, resulting in their salvation.

But sometimes it’s not about forgiveness. Sometimes it can’t be. Sometimes the situation is too horrendous and the offenders are too lost to allow it.

Sometimes it’s simply about not trying to exact our own justice.

I think that’s the category under which we are to file Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek.” In a sense, that is the lowest level of forgiveness, because contenting ourselves with letting the offense “slide,” so to speak, doesn’t really accomplish what full-blooded forgiveness is designed to accomplish: i.e., the restoration of a loving and harmonious relationship. It does allow for the possibility that offenders might one day come to their senses and seek real and deep forgiveness. But, in the meantime, we do not pursue what they really owe us. We do not seek our own justice (although this does not mean that the government should not seek it and in matters like the Texas shooting that is their role). We leave it in the hands of God. Again, this does not fulfill the biblical purpose of God’s deep and lasting forgiveness, but it at least fulfills the basic meaning of the word “forgive.”

Just as in our day and language, the biblical terms for “forgive” and “forgiveness” also double as accounting terms. This becomes evident in the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus tells us to pray, “forgive us our debts,” he’s using the same verb that is used of forgiveness of sins—and, of course, that’s what we are really referring to when we pray the way Jesus taught. Our sins are spiritual debts for which we would, if justice were served to us, receive punishment. But once forgiven the debt is canceled along with the punishment. The sins are “written off,” as it were. Thus we can “write off” the damage done to us, whatever it may have been, by the offenses others commit against us, by simply practicing this lowest level of forgiveness, and in doing so, we help ourselves by freeing ourselves from the sin of a vengeful spirit.

Of course, the kind of forgiveness that Jesus told us to request is not the lowest level of forgiveness, but the highest, because it’s meant to result in a restored Father-child relationship between God and the believer. We are praying, after all, “Our Father.” When a young child, for example, is forgiven by a father, who we assume will never stop loving the child regardless of the child’s sins, it cannot mean that the father starts loving the child again, but rather that the child can climb back into the father’s lap and enjoy his love once again.

That’s the kind of forgiveness we can’t always offer a person who has sinned against us. Sometimes we can’t offer it because the offender makes it impossible. Because Devin Patrick Kelley did what he did, he’s now dead, and so the people he offended will never have the opportunity to forgive him in such a way that fellowship and friendship might be a real possibility. All they can do is leave him in God’s hands and move on.

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