bitterness, anger, forgiveness: reflection in ephesians 4 (part 2)
Yesterday I began some reflections in Ephesians 4:31-32 about bitterness and anger and this post will focus on forgiveness. How do we forgive? Do we need to forgive and forget? How can we ensure that someone doesn’t hurt us again and again?
These were some of the questions that were raised at the end of the last post and I noted that I needed to answer them here.
Let’s remind ourselves of the passage in Ephesian 4:31-32;
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
The first question involces the notion of “forgive and forget”. I noted that, in Tim Keller’s words, in order to forgive not only do you have to forego being the executioner, you also revoke your right to judge the person. You cannot be the executioner, you cannot actively seek to bring about your own idea of justice or vengence. And you also revoke the right to be the judge, to pass sentence and will the penalty or will revenge on the person even if you do not carry it out. Bitterness is the inward condition which holds a person liable for a sin (Tim Keller).
So if you cannot act as judge or executioner when someone sins against you, does this mean the only option is to forgive and forget?
Not only is this not the only option, it is often not the right option! In addition, it is almost impossible to forget, especially in serious cases. You may forgive and actually forget, but most of the time this is not a conscious decision – it just happens. But in cases of serious sins, such as abuse or worse, this is almost never a reality.
The objection: But doesn’t God say he will remember Israel’s sins no more? (Isaiah 43:25)
It most certainly does say this, but is Isaiah saying that God forgets our sins, that he erases his memory? No of course not. How can an all-knowing God forget? So what does Isaiah mean when he says God will “remember your sins no more”?
The word remember is used in the Bible to mean more than memory as opposed to forgetfulness. When God says to the Patriachs or to Israel that I have remembered my covenant (Exodus 2:24, 6:5, Psalm 106:45), this does not mean that his promises have just popped back into his head. It is not that God forgot and now remembers, but the word “remember” indicates action. When God remembers his covenant it means that he will now act upon it.
By extension, when God says he will “remember your sins no more” it is not that he forgets them but that he chooses not to act upon the basis of them. To put it in opposition to Keller’s definition of bitterness; Bitterness chooses to hold a person liable for sin and treat them accordingly, while forgiveness does not forget the transgression but does not act on the basis of it, it will not treat you like you have sinned.
Forgiveness does not mean you forget the sin, but it does mean that you don’t seek revenge. Not only that, forgiveness involves an active response that contrasts bitterness. Bitterness wills a person’s demise, punishment or wills vengence. Forgiveness not only does not will these things but it actively loves, actively seeks the person’s transformation, actively seeks that person to be made whole and flourish in the fullness of what God created them to be. This is hard.
Jesus put it this way in Luke 6:
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you [...] 35 [...] love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Jesus’ instruction was to love our enemy and do good to them! Forgiveness is more than simply not retaliating and seeking vengence, it is more that simply not passing sentence. Forgiveness involves an active response of love and doing good. You don’t forget the sin, but you do not treat them in accordance with their actions, in fact you treat them in a way which turns their actions towards you on its head!
But does this mean you leave your self in a position where they can continually mistreat you, continually sin against you while you absorb their wrongs and forgive? No, I don’t believe it does.
It is not ok, it is not loving, to allow a person to sin against you. It is not loving to put yourself or another person in a position where they will do wrong. When you forgive and do good, this may mean making sure you don’t allow a situation to occur where that person can hurt you and hurt themselves. This may mean you do not have contact with that person, that the relationship is severed until such time that the person doing wrong has repented and proven themselves to have turned around and changed their behaviour enough that both parties are not in danger of being hurt in the way that once occured.
This brings up the idea of reconciliation, which is not an automatic outcome of forgiveness. Reconciliation and forgiveness are different. Forgiveness can occur when only one party chooses to be involved. If you smash my car, I can forgive you whether you want to be forgiven or not. But if you do not want to be forgiven then we can not be reconciled. Reconciliation only occurs when both parties desire thier broken relationship to be restored. This can only happen when the offending party has changed their behaviour and shown considerable proof that the offence will not be committed again. Until this point, the parties can not be reconciled and it may be best for the relationship to remain severed.
This does not mean, however, that you cannot love your enemy, love those who mistreat you, do good and pray from them (Luke 6:27-28). Pray for their transformation, pray for their wholeness. Do good and do not treat them as you have been treated. With Christ’s help alone is this possible.
I think I will leave this post with a quote from Paul in Romans 12:
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[ says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
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Posted on March 30, 2012, in Christianity, Ephesians, Exegesis, Forgiveness, Jesus, Love, Tim Keller and tagged bitterness, Christianity, Ephesians, forgive, forgive and forget, forgiveness, Jesus, love, love your enemies, reconciliation, religion, Tim Keller. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.