The Dangers of Forgiveness

[This is another reposting from the blog I have over at “Context with Lorna Dueck“]


Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person—or to ourselves. But it is surrounded by dangers.

One danger is that we feel we cannot forgive until the offender repents. But if that is so, then the victim is still subject to the offender’s power. That can’t be right.

Consider this passage from Luke’s Gospel: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (23:34). Jesus is asking God to forgive the soldiers as they are crucifying him. It’s impossible to imagine less repentant people whom Jesus nonetheless wants forgiven right then and there.

So we are free to forgive unilaterally. And that is soul-freeing news.

A second danger is that we might feel that we have to “forgive and forget.”

But forgiveness names what was wrong as wrong. If it weren’t wrong, it wouldn’t need forgiving!

Forgiveness is realistic. It does not pretend the future will be sunny and that there will be no repetition of wrong. In fact, you may have noticed that people generally don’t become perfect after a single round of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus tells us to forgive the same person seven times in a single day to make hyperbolically clear that a single episode of forgiveness may not be the end of it (Luke 17:4).

To forgive cuts the offender free, here and now, from Jacob Marley-like shackles. It leaves the past in the past, to let people go forward into the future.

But “forgive and forget” is bad advice. Harold embezzled thousands of dollars from his church. He does his time in prison, and is released. He repents, the church forgives him, and his fellow Christians determine not to meet him every Sunday with condemnation in their eyes and voices. So far, so good.

The church also, however, doesn’t appoint him as treasurer. To do so would be foolish—for the church and for Harold himself.

Forgiveness should be neither sentimental nor stupid. It must be a sober assessment of what has happened, and a serious decision to move forward into a new future—informed by, but not dominated by, the past.

A third danger is that we may feel we cannot be forgiven unless the victim forgives us. But here is where Christianity is radical, and even scandalous.

For God can forgive sins, since God is the one ultimately against whom we each sin. He is empowered to forgive sins unilaterally, and the amazing fact of the gospel is that God wants to do so, for every one who will repent and trust him to do so.

Yet the full well-being of everyone involved obviously requires more than one-way forgiveness or one-way repentance. We want, and need, the relationship to be repaired as well.

So as life provides us opportunities to do so, we need to do the hard thing. We meet. We confront the past and the ongoing pain. We name the truths. And we step up to do what has to be done. Repent. Forgive.

Otherwise, the past coils around us and threatens to drag us under. The pain gets heavier, the horizon gets lower, and we sink beneath the waves of depression and despair.

Forgiveness is freedom. Escape today!

4 Responses to “The Dangers of Forgiveness”

  1. Andrew

    Thanks John. I would add another danger to your list – a modification of the first danger in which an unwitting offender (who has offended a victim without explicitly intending to do so, whether by lack of love, judgement or luck) is subject to the victim’s power because the victim is withholding forgiveness and relationship until the offender repents to the satisfaction of the victim.

    In this case, the offender may not understand that an apology is needed or they may be unwilling to take full responsibility (to the satisfaction of the victim) for the harm caused, particularly if the victim was unusually vulnerable to harm at the time of the offense (such that the level of harm was greater than the offender’s perception of their offense and the harm it would normally cause).

    This does not mean, of course, that the victim cannot attempt to explain the offense and its impact to the offender – reconciliation almost certainly requires this conversation – but it does mean that where the offender is unwilling or unable to accept responsibility for the entire harm caused, the victim needs to forgive the offender or the relationship will be undermined or destroyed.

  2. Jim

    If I may quote Richard Rohr, “ If the pain of your story is not transformed, it will be transmitted”.


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