September 7, 2020

Forgiveness and Abuse: The Forgiveness Problem (Part One)

This is part one of a five-part series looking at the issue of Forgiveness and Abuse. You can access the whole series here.

One of the most difficult pastoral questions we get asked on a scheme is: Do I have to forgive my abuser or abusers? This question comes with much past hurt, and so must be handled with great pastoral sensitivity. We cannot give trite or simplistic answers. Besides, theologically, there are no simple ‘yes or no’ answers when it comes to forgiveness. As Westcott writes, “Nothing superficially seems simpler than forgiveness, whereas nothing if we look deeply is more mysterious or more difficult.”

My hope in this series of articles, then, is to examine the issue of forgiveness, specifically as it pertains to cases of abuse. In particular, I hope to equip pastors in dealing with this complex issue. I also hope that my thoughts here will be of some use to victims of abuse who are trying to grapple with forgiveness theologically.

I fully realise that this is a deeply delicate issue, so I want to warn you from the beginning that some technical language will be used. My aim in doing this is in no way to belittle the very real, long-term suffering that abuse causes. Rather, I aim to delve deeply into certain areas concerning sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all in the hope that victims—and abusers—might find hope and refuge in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Forgiveness Problem

Generally, there are two answers given by Christians to the question of whether an abuse victim must forgive their abuser. Firstly, some would argue that Christians, no matter what they’ve been through, should forgive past hurts when they come to Christ. They cite various biblical examples to back this up, such as Joseph forgiving his brothers after being sold into slavery (Gen. 39), or Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35), or Jesus praying on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). In general, such people tend to see forgiveness as unconditional.

Secondly, there are others who would argue that a victim only has to forgive their abuser if that abuser comes to them in repentance. They argue that God only forgives sinners upon repentance (Luke 13:3), and thus, the same is true for relationships between sinful people. They see forgiveness as conditional. So which answer is biblical?

Well, there are actually problems on both sides. People who see forgiveness as unconditional tend to forget that the texts they often cite on forgiveness are not as straightforward as they look. Joseph’s act of forgiveness only comes after his brothers show contrite and repentant hearts. Further, he actually pardons them years after their grievances against him. Jesus teaches much about forgiveness, but he also connects it to repentance (e.g. Luke 17:4). And, on the cross Jesus prays “forgive them”, but the thorny question is, Why didn’t He just forgive them Himself? He had done it before (Mark 2:1–12), so why not now? Why does Jesus petition His Father to forgive them? And then we have to remember that God Himself doesn’t simply forgive everyone. Only those who have repented of their sins and trusted in Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection on their behalf have their sins blotted out and forgiven.

For those who see forgiveness as conditional, I think the biggest thing they forget is that God’s offer of forgiveness precedes our repentance. In other words, God doesn’t look into a believer’s heart and think: That person is super repentant and therefore I will forgive them. No, the whole doctrine of unconditional election reminds us that God chooses sinners before the foundation of the world. The believer’s election is not based on any merit or worth in them—not even on a willingness to repent. Rather, election depends wholly on God’s sovereign grace.

In fact, the outrageous thing about the gospel is that God loved us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). Therefore, making the forgiveness offer conditional upon repentance is adding to the gospel message. The gospel is good news because it is freely offered to all people, no matter who they are or what they have done. Therefore, we must conclude that forgiveness is offered prior to repentance.

So where does that leave us? Well, hopefully we can see that forgiveness is not straightforward. Therefore, we ought to start by asking more questions: What is forgiveness? What role does repentance play in forgiveness? Are we to imitate God’s forgiveness? Are victims obliged to forgive their perpetrators? What does that even look like?

Let’s look at the first question before we move on to the others. What is forgiveness?

The Scandal of Forgiveness

Before we can look at forgiving others, we have to understand God’s forgiveness. This is crucial because we are commanded to “forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (Col. 3:13).

There are three main Greek words in the NT translated as forgiveness. Forgiveness can be translated as chrizomai, which means to “grant grace.” In general, it refers to God’s gracious action to forgive (e.g. Eph. 4:32; Col. 2:13, 3:13). However, it also describes the kindness and generosity of spirit that a Christian should embody in person-to-person forgiveness. These verses remind the Christian that they do not earn forgiveness, rather it is a gift. God graciously forgives the sinner through no merit of their own. In a similar way, in a person-to-person relationship, to offer forgiveness to a wrongdoer is a gracious act. Forgiveness is never deserved or earned.

The second words for forgiveness are apheimi (e.g. Mark 2:5; 3:28; 11:25), which means to “let go” and aphesis (Mark 1:4; 3:29), “freeing from an obligation of punishment.” What are forgivers ‘letting go’? Forgiveness is seen here as the letting go of wrongs done against people.

The NT illustrates this by connecting forgiveness with the releasing of debt. In Jewish culture, if you owed a debt to someone that you couldn’t pay, then you could be thrown in jail or made a slave. If you had that debt wiped out, then it meant freedom.

This is similar to the way the Bible talks about debt and sin. As humans, we are debtors to God because of our sin against him. When we are forgiven, God pays that debt for us, releasing us from the terrible consequences of our sin. So when one person forgives another, they let go of the debt go that they are owed, along with any bitterness and resentment they have towards that person. As Volf writes, “To forgive is to give wrongdoers the gift of not counting the wrongdoing against them.” (130)

So God’s forgiveness towards humans, at its most basic level, is a gracious act where He does not count their wrongdoing against them. Does that mean He just lets sin go? No, because He is just and righteous. He cannot simply let sin go, because that would either mean He treats sin trivially or He is crooked. It would undermine God’s righteous character. All sin before Him is heinous and must be punished—from a white lie to rape. God must condemn and punish sin because He is perfectly holy.

In fact, God’s righteousness is an extension of His love. If He didn’t punish sin, then He would cease to be loving, because the opposite of wrath is not love, but apathy. He is not a ‘grandad in the sky’, but the holy Creator of the universe. Volf again, “God can’t suspend justice any more than God can cease being God.” (143)

Justice Maintained

The question to grapple with, then, is this: How does God maintain His justice while forgiving the sinner? The Bible is clear that God puts forward His Son as a sacrifice of atonement (Rom. 3:24). In other words, the Lord Jesus takes the sinner’s place, bears their sin, propitiates God’s wrath, thus pardoning the sinner. As Luther writes, “Christ, the Son of God, stands in our place and has taken all our sins on his shoulders…He is the eternal satisfaction for our sin and reconciles us with God, the Father.” (Luther, 144).

And the forgiveness the believer receives through Christ is total. Through Christ, God no longer reckons their sin against them (Rom. 4:8). Not one ounce of sin remains undealt with. Through Christ, their sins are completely covered (Ps. 32:1). Through Christ, their transgressions are removed from them, as far as the East is from the West (Ps. 103:12).

Through Christ, God no longer remembers their sins; they are sent into oblivion. Through Christ, the punishment is paid, and the sinner is declared innocent! The forgiveness of God sets them free from the bondage of guilt and shame that they once carried on their shoulders. It’s immense. It’s free. That’s why Newton wrote, “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.”

However, the forgiveness of God is not only amazing; it’s also scandalous. Why, you ask? Well, God’s forgiveness is scandalous because it is available to everyone—no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done. As Volf writes, “There are no people who are too wicked for God to forgive them and for Christ to die for them.” (177) This includes the drug dealer and the little old lady. The paedophile and the social worker. The rapist and the charity worker. The religious and unreligious. The abuser and the abused.

Startled and Amazed

This is where our nice, little, polite ideas of God, love, and forgiveness go out the window. Heaven is not filled with nice Christians who got there on the basis of their own merit. It’s full of wretched sinners who were saved by grace. This is the kind of teaching that got the religious leaders in a rage. This is the kind of teaching that got Jesus crucified.

Here’s the thing: We don’t understand the forgiveness of God if we are not both amazed and startled. The forgiveness of God should provoke a plethora of deep emotions in us—from thankfulness to anger, appreciation to confusion, gratefulness to shock. God’s forgiveness, properly understood, will give you vertigo. It will turn your world upside-down.

When we think of the prodigal returning, we love the story, because we can picture the prodigal son as a loveable rogue, like us. However, if the prodigal was an abuser, then we would be outraged. This is the scandal of God’s forgiveness.

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