Is Love and Forgiveness Always the Same Thing?
At least in this country, we live in a unique time. I like to preface these kinds of generalizations with “in this country” because our tendency is to see things through a Western perspective, especially the Reformation which was primarily a European thing. That’s why I have begun studying (in preparation for a third book I am writing) the church history of other regions like Africa and China.
But back to the present day in this country; with spiritual despotism being rampant, the subject of forgiveness is heavy in the air. Thinking Christians find themselves in a quandary: how do we hold people accountable with a pure heart void of revenge? Or should we hold people accountable at all? Should we “forgive and forget”? After all, we should forgive the way we were forgiven, right?
Indeed, this is tricky territory, but may I start from a practical standpoint? There seems to be this thing called unresolved conflict that makes “forgiving and moving on with our lives” a lot easier said than done. In fact, I wonder if people who have been wronged with no resolution who say they have “moved on with their lives” have really done so. You can move on, but what is going with you?
Then there is the following question: is it likely that what has been done to you will also be done to others by the same person/people? Now things get really tricky. I don’t think the Bible covers prevention specifically, but it may be a matter of God-given common sense. Not wanting to hold individuals accountable for what they did to you for prevention purposes because it is uncomfortable or not your personality may be deemed selfish. Moreover, it could be argued that you are partially responsible for unhindered future acts.
As one who has had to struggle with this question, let me give you the best answer I have to date: we need to hold people accountable in a biblical way, and there is also some liberty involved. The apostle Peter said that “love covers a multitude of sin,” and I do think we have the liberty to cover offences with love (barring complicity or putting others in danger). But if we find ourselves without the grace to not continually bring up the offence to ourselves, to the offender, and to others, that’s a huge problem. That’s unresolved conflict bouncing around in our minds and refusing to go away.
In such cases, the Bible prescribes a process for resolution; we all know what it is, Matthew 18:15-20. Though only six verses, it covers every conceivable situation. Considering the source, that shouldn’t surprise us. Let me just mention a few. In the first step, we may find out that the offence was just a simple misunderstanding. In the second step, and with the help of the two witnesses, we may find out that we are being petty and making a mountain out of a molehill. However, if that’s not the case and it goes further, there is no guarantee that the church as a whole will see it the same way. I think that is why Jesus refers back to the second step in verse 20. Think about it: the third step involves the whole church, but he refers back to the second step.
Nevertheless, the whole church confronting an individual is very powerful, and will probably yield results, and excludes anything in the process from being behind closed doors. If the results are not favorable, the wronged person receives the support of the whole church. The church states that they will not fellowship with said person or persons until they reconcile with you. Not only that, the person/persons are prevented from doing the same thing to others in the same church, and theoretically, any other church when they disallow membership because of former unresolved issues with another church. Prevention. No?
Now, it is true, the apostle Paul said that we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. That’s the gospel, right? Well, partly. I wouldn’t be dogmatic about this, but if you want to bring the gospel into this, the following is at least a fair question: Did God forgive us without our repentance? Furthermore, Christ said that “IF” the offender “listens to you,” you have gained a brother. In Luke 17 concerning the same subject, Christ said to forgive your brother seven times seventy “IF” he repents. If he repents, you “must forgive him.” In the parable of the unmerciful servant, we find that we are to also forgive if there is repentance, but restitution is not possible. That’s the gospel; we repented, but certainly, the only restitution we have to offer is in Christ. But also, on the horizontal level, we must remember the example of Zacharias when restitution is possible.
So, if we are sinned against, and the offending party refuses to repent, are we obligated to forgive them? I’m not sure about that (while leaning toward, “no”), but I am sure about the following: we are obligated before God to love our enemies. Note that it is interesting that the Lord states that we will have enemies. What is a biblical “enemy”? May I suggest that it is someone that we are not reconciled to? This would seem apparent. In regard to our enemies, we are not to take revenge on them. The apostle Paul is very specific about this in Romans 12. If our enemies have a need that we are aware of, we are to fulfill that need. The Old Testament law stated that if we happened across our enemy’s oxen that had gotten loose, we were obligated to return it to him/her. Paul wrote that if our enemy is hungry, we are to feed him/her. I would imagine that such opportunities are divine appointments that lend great opportunity for reconciliation (as an aside to the aforementioned point concerning the gospel, the gospel is also referred to in the Bible as being “reconciled to God”).
But is holding someone accountable also an act of love? Proverbs states: “The kisses of an enemy are deceitful, but the wounds of a friend are faithful.” And, “Be angry but sin not.” Let me suggest that we may be angry with someone, and not obligated to forgive them without repentance, but obligated to love them. Does not God love many enemies daily by giving them breathe and a litany of other innumerable resources? Being angry at those whom we are un-reconciled with is not revenge. It is interesting to note that in Romans, Paul immediately speaks of being subject to government authorities after instructing Christians to not avenge themselves. I think these thoughts are related. In regard to revenge that is not against civil law: “….bless, and do not curse them.” We are to bless our enemies and conduct ourselves “honorably” (Romans 12) before all in regard to them, but remember, that does not exclude holding them accountable.
There is another point that I am certain of, and unlike the daring assertion that Christians are not obligated to forgive without reconciliation. Christians are not called to a mental/emotional decision to forgive from the heart—it simply won’t work. A true forgiveness from the heart must be solidified by action. Forgiveness and love in the Bible are ALWAYS related to some kind of action. We don’t love our enemies from the mind only. Neither do we forgive them from the mind only. The apostle Paul NEVER stated that we are to, “Forgive and forget, or “forgive and move on with our lives.” We are to not do this (curse), and to do that (bless) instead. We don’t ignore their needs, but rather feed them instead.
But all in all, the vast majority of unresolved conflict in the church today is the non-application of the Matthew 18 process by leaders and for leaders. Hordes of today’s leaders will fellowship with each other, and give each other credibility despite the long list of unreconciled conflict that they have with other Christians. This puts the laity in tricky waters.
But that’s not on us. That’s on them. And I hope these thoughts lend some worthwhile ideas to the chosen direction. However, non-action is not an option, and forgiveness does not always walk with love.