Sunday, October 31, 2010

False Forgiveness

When I was a 7 year old boy, I was hit by a car. I and my family were vacationing in California when this happened. I was following my cousin across the street when the car came up and hit me. The accident was very serious. I flew about 10 yards or so, according to my sister who witnessed it. My leg was broken and my arm was severely scraped and bleeding. I was also lying there in a semi-conscious state when the authorities arrived. To say the least, my mom was frantic at the sight of me. But, of course, I survived.

But here's the thing that happened, which some churches don't seem to understand. The paramedics, and all involved, weren't immediately concerned about the feelings of the driver, the need for the victim and the victim's family to forgive the driver, or to ensure that everyone gets over it and moves on. The immediate concerns were for my survival, the comfort of my family, making necessary adjustments for my rehabilitation, and for determining the driver's responsibilities monetarily. Sure, forgiveness played a role, but not as a panacea for the immediate concerns.

However, some churches tend to focus on forgiveness as if that is the solution for serious sin within its own ranks — such as an adulterous preacher, or deacon who is a wife beater. On the other hand, healthy churches — although they may have forgiveness as a concern too — see forgiveness as part of a process of repair and reconciliation after some serious work is done. Wrongs and the subsequent ramifications aren't ignored, appropriate blame and consequences are clearly handled, and then room is made for sincere forgiveness.

Very few people forgive when it's unsafe to do so. And no one truly forgives from the heart when they are compelled to forgive. Healthy churches understand this, and create an environment where true forgiveness can be accomplished. However, some churches, who use forgiveness as a solution to very real problems, use the concept of forgiveness as a means to avoid problems, unpleasant feelings, and hard solutions.

How can you tell the difference?

  1. Healthy forgiveness can overlook some insults and foolishness while acknowledging the pain of the sin. But it doesn't ignore significant sins and its ramifications.

    However, false forgiveness minimizes sin by equalizing all sin as the same. The philosophy works like this: Since all sin is falling short of the glory of God, and all have sinned, then there is really no significant difference between sexual sins and other sins. And there's no difference between the sin of a preacher, elder, or a new convert. As a result, forgiveness becomes the de facto response to sin regardless the grossness or consequences.
  2. Real forgiveness is done in response to repentance. Some people may disagree with this, because it is often taught that forgiveness is given even if people don't (or can't) repent. Victims are released from bitterness and emotional ties associated with demanding retribution of the perpetrator. But, even if it is true that releasing a situation into God's hand is often necessary when someone refuses to repent, or they just can't (like when they die), it doesn't follow that it is biblical forgiveness. Forgiveness is a two-way exchange. It is a response to a person's desire to be forgiven. God responds to our need for forgiveness when we repent. But if we refuse to repent, God doesn't forgive. However, God treats the unrepentant with kindness. God may overlook some of our sins, but he doesn't necessarily forgive us unless we repent. It may be a semantics problem, but no matter what you believe, forgiveness isn't used to avoid the problem.

    False forgiveness, on the other hand, ignores repentance altogether because the goal is to avoid problems and hurt feelings. At its root is a fear of man. Getting over bad feelings and uncomfortable circumstances is the goal.
  3. Last, real forgiveness doesn't avoid problems, but brings them into the light. Problems caused by the sin, dealing with the sinner and those who supported the sinner, and protecting the victims may be unpleasant but forgiveness comes from the light. Everything is visible and clear, consequences are understood, and forgiveness is done with full knowledge and safeguards in place.

    False forgiveness keeps problems in the dark. Only the obvious facts may be in the light. But darkness and secrecy is the result of false forgiveness. And although it is designed to alleviate bad feelings, these feelings simply go underground. People's relationships break, people don't talk, and if someone wants to bring it up it upsets the status quo.

Forgiveness isn't a solution for sin in the church. Acknowledging and working on problems is the best approach. And forgiveness may be the result of this work. And although there are times when reconciliation is impossible, those who practice true forgiveness would be able to recognize these situations clearly.

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