The Meaning of Forgiveness in an Abusive World

by Eli Bernard & Bethany Persons

Words matter. Rather, the meanings of words matter and by that, we mean – words matter.

At the risk of stepping into the universe where the reader’s meaning often matters more than the author’s meaning, our attempt here is to speak to what The Author meant by this amazing word that we misuse. While focusing on the Author’s meaning can be helpful for analysis and open dialogue, comprehending it is much more vital to the “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) in our own lives.

In the recent weeks, there has been a flurry of devastating reports about those that teach, expect, and seemingly demand forgiveness as a response to a horrendous assault. We are afraid that the way the word “forgiveness” is perceived – perhaps by those assaulted and to many who enter the conversation only through media – is as

  • a sort of magic wand, whereby the assaulted or offended waive away any consequence or responsibility of the offender “because that’s what good Christians do” or
  • a weapon used to silence the assaulted, demanding greater spiritual maturity from them than their attacker.

Forgiveness is not a magic wand and it does nothing to remedy the attack or solve problems larger than the one experienced by the one assaulted. To weaponize forgiveness in order to silence those assaulted is a reprehensible power play, worthy of any Pharisee Jesus encountered.

We do not know what the intention or heart is of those who have advised forgiveness in any of these reported or many unreported offenses. We were not there. We did not hear their tone or the full context of their comment. We only know how it reads in the media – and it is that reading that prompts this response.

  • Forgiveness does not absolve the offender of guilt
  • Forgiveness does not bring resolution to implied or apparent larger problems
  • Forgiveness does not abdicate the responsibility of the offender
  • Forgiveness does not eliminate the need for accountability
  • Forgiveness does not supersede the necessity for consequences
  • Forgiveness does not demand or imply the restoration of relationship

One of the things that we should do is strive to understand the full meaning of what The Author meant by the words that He used. And He never used the word “forgiveness” in these ways.

Visiting the Example of the Author of Forgiveness

Jesus’ death is the price that was paid for our forgiveness. He loves us and died for us. And because He forgave us, we have eternal life with Him. While this is true, it is a too-simplistic and gap-filled explanation of the magnitude of that event, and it does not suffice.

Jesus did indeed offer us – the whole world – forgiveness by his death/resurrection. But no one – no one in the whole world – received forgiveness simply because it was – and is – available.

Forgiveness is for the benefit of the offended, wounded and the assaulted – not for the ones doing the offending and assaulting.  We know that flies in the face of contemporary religious thought. But it is to the benefit of the wounded and offended to offer it, not to the benefit of the abuser/offender. The offended offering forgiveness should have no fear of the offender receiving it absent true repentance. It matters not what words they say or actions they take. Only true repentance aligns with true forgiveness. Additionally, since forgiveness does not imply or demand the restoration of relationship, the offended need not fear some obligation to the same.

Jesus offers forgiveness, not because we need it (although we absolutely do), but because He wanted to offer it. The fact that we need it does not mandate it. The fact that God wants a relationship with us is what mandates it. Certainly, we benefit from it should we receive it. But it is not possessed by anyone who does not demonstrate their desire by repentance. The unrepentant are not forgiven. As much as we need forgiveness, it is not to our benefit; it is to His.

“But wait, what about…”

  • Confessing with my mouth and believing in my heart (Rom 10:9)
  • Saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-10)
  • Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30-31)
  • Praying “the sinner’s prayer“
  • Asking Jesus into my heart

Without delving deeply into these for their own merits and implications, unless repentance is the attitude of the heart, then these are motions merely gone through; insufficient regardless of sincerity. To be clear, asking without a repentant heart is to ask vainly. Believing with an unrepentant heart is not the belief that leads to salvation. (James 2:19)

“But wait, where do these passages say I need to repent?”

This question illustrates a telltale failure of contemporary preaching and curriculum driven teaching. It is the whole Bible, not any one passage that gives us the whole truth. John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles preached repentance from the beginning of their earthly ministries (Matt 3:2, Matt 11:20-21, Luke 5:32, Luke 13:1-5, Luke 15, Acts 2:38, Acts 13:24).  We don’t forget about that just because we’re reading from a different passage. To do that is tantamount to Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, but you won’t need to do that if you just wait until Paul writes Romans 10:9.”

To do that is tantamount to Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, but you won’t need to do that if you just wait until Paul writes Romans 10:9.”

Let’s say that you asked me for my favorite biscuit recipe. I might tell you:

In a large mixing bowl sift together ½ tsp salt, 2 cups of flour, and 1 tbsp of baking powder. Cut in ½ cup shortening with fork or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour ¾ cup of buttermilk into flour mixture while stirring with a fork.

After rolling out, cutting, and baking the biscuits, you offer me one – one of the blandest, most tasteless biscuits I’ve ever had.

“Where’s the salt?”, I ask.

‘Oh, I didn’t think I needed to add it since it was the first thing you said. I thought I only needed to add the stuff that made them look like biscuits.”

Forgiveness is the way for the wounded and offended to release the offense, to not carry the grudge, to not hold it to the account of the offended. It is because this is how the Author understands forgiveness that eternity with Him is available – He does not hold our sin to our account. He, who first loved us, has made that possible by offering forgiveness. That is to His benefit because it is He who first wanted a relationship with us.

Forgiveness has no effect or impact on the offender until the very high and humbling price of repentance is paid. Forgiveness is good for the forgiver. The only impact on the offender is that it is available. It is not received simply based on that availability. It cannot be claimed by the offender simply to gain its benefit.

Forgiveness allows the forgiver to heal, to move forward, to live life without a grudge, to not hold on to the devastating event as if it is now the basis of who they are – the driving force that defines their life and future. Forgiveness is the path to freedom from a life controlled by the sin of others.

But, for the offender, the forgiveness offered by others imparts no such freedom. The forgiven receives no inherent or automatic benefit of forgiveness offered. No wand is waived. No magic exists. Forgiveness exists, much like a gift. The one forgiven may see it and want it – but it is not theirs simply because it has been expressed and placed in a common space.

The abuser/offender only receives the benefit of forgiveness through the path of repentance evidenced in part, by godly sorrow. The only way that forgiveness granted influences forgiveness received is the awareness of its existence. The offender must still humble themselves or be humiliated into such sorrow. The offender must be repentant of their offense, honestly and sorrowfully so. This is the benefit to the offender. True, whole-hearted, sorrowful repentance is their path to the freedom from a life controlled by their own sin.

Forgiveness is the path to freedom from a life controlled by the sin of others. 

Repentance is the path to freedom from a life controlled by my own sin.

Here is the truth.

  • Should the offender never repent, the offended can still be free from the spiritual grudge-controlled life by forgiving.
  • Should the offended never forgive, the offender can still be free from the spiritual guilt of the offense by repentance.
  • They can both be free and never know of the other’s freedom.

Unfortunately in our media-driven world, these are areas that are only truly visible to the Author of forgiveness. No one can tell if forgiveness has truly been given – but the forgiver and Author will know, and that is sufficient for them. No one can truly know that the offender has sorrowfully and remorsefully repented. The repentant and Author will know, and that is sufficient for them. They both know that the Author of forgiveness (and repentance) knows.

For the rest of us – the observers of lives thrust into the public view, we should be careful to allow time and space for both forgiveness and repentance in lives that are not our own. Should we not, we are not far from the ocular plank (Matt 7:3-5). (It may well benefit us to realize that the media cares little about planks.)

And since words matter, “repentance” does not mean remorse, sorrow, apology, fear, sadness, or any other number of terms or adjectives that are in common understanding today. The Author of forgiveness says that repentance is a complete turnaround. The offender chooses to never offend again. Those hiding the offense choose to never hide the offense again. Those who believe that their actions and attitudes were normal (“That’s just who I am”), now believe those actions and attitudes to be abhorrent and vile. That is repentance. Expand that definition with “sorrowful” and “remorseful” and you will begin to understand what the Author of forgiveness has in mind.

Let’s bring that down to today’s news. Pastors and missionaries, missionary organizations, associational and state convention employees that commit or hide such abhorrent behavior need to repent. Without it, forgiveness from the assaulted is not yours, even if those assaulted have given it. They know it. You know it. And the Author of forgiveness knows it.

It matters little if your repentance is from your own volition, or if it comes from being outed to your shame. It matters little if anyone believes you have repented. The Author of forgiveness will know. And that is not only enough, but it is also all that really matters eternally. But on this earthly coil, it will not and should not alleviate consequences. It will not and should not by necessity, restore your reputation or relationships. But it will matter – to you and to the One to whom it should.