Forgiveness is easy to understand, hard to do, and often mis-understood.
Remember the basic principles: All relationships are based on shared values. All conflicts in relationship are conflicts over value system.
And, unresolved conflicts can lead to breakdown in relationships.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a process for restoring relationship. It has two goals that are both needed for restoring a relationship:
- come to common values for the future
- deal with the results of the value conflicts of the past
The forgiveness process has four ordered steps to accomplish these goals:
- Confession: The offender admits to the forgiver their old values were wrong; they admit fault; they come to an agreement with the forgiver on the offense.
- Repentance: The offender changes their mind about their old value system, the one that brought about the offense; they change their value system.
- Forgiveness: The forgiver forgives by doing three sub-steps.
- Release: The forgiver decides personally to let go of the relational debt they are owed by the offender. The forgiver permanently releases their claim on the debt of offense, effectively paying off the full cost.
- Discharge: The forgiver tells the offender that they have been forgiven; the forgiver discharges the offender from obligation to repay the relational debt of offense.
- Restore: The forgiver no longer treats offender as someone who had offended. Instead the forgiver treats the forgiven person according to the new value system they have adopted, restoring relationship.
- Reconciliation: Both parties are involved in renewed development of the relationship, extending it by living out the shared values.
Note: The forgiveness process is also an excellent description of the process of becoming a Christian. By confession, we agree with God that our (sinful) value system is wrong. Through repentance we change our mind about our old value system, and instead adopt God's value system. God then forgives us: He pays the relational cost of our previous actions (the cross), and discharges us from our debt of sin. And, he treats us as having a common value system, and therefore, a relationship with him. Then by reconciliation we develop and expand the restored relationship together.
What if we leave out some of the steps?
Remember that the primary goal of the forgiveness process is restoration of relationship. The steps Confession & Repentance working together, bring changes in values system within a relationship. And that is why the process works.
Unfortunately, many times forgiveness is taught as only having one step - the one labeled "forgiveness". But, without the first two steps, the foundational values problem that has damaged the relationship is never corrected. That is a mistake.
The offender must go through a change in values. If their values are unchanged, they will naturally re-offend at a later time. If this cycle repeats, eventually the offended will be unable to continue absorbing the offenses and the relationship will die.
Jesus said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3, emphasis added). Jesus taught us to forgive within relationship only if there is repentance. A process without repentance will ultimately fail to restore relationship because no values change is being brought into the relationship.
If sub-steps in the Forgiveness are left out, problems also may occur. If we do not release the debt of offense we easily may become embittered. We cannot truly discharge the offender if we hold on to the debt they owe us. Failing to treat the forgiven person according to their new value system (restore) will prevent success in reconciliation.
Without Reconciliation, the relationship cannot live again.
This process genuinely works for restoring relationship. And it requires all the steps to be effective for fixing them.
When I became a Christian, I don't remember going through those exact forgiveness steps. Why?
All relationships are based on a common value system. This is especially true of a relationship with God. So, God uses the process of forgiveness for restoring relationship with him because it is the process of coming to a common value system.
Before coming to Christ, we were indifferent or maybe antagonistic to him. We only wanted to do what we wanted to do. And then because of life experiences, we met Christ. Afterwards, we wanted to learn to become like him because he showed us how to be better.
Before we are spiritually reborn, God plants a seed of new life in us and nurtures it ("prevenient grace"). We may not be conscious of this new life at the point when God starts it. But, at some point we respond to God in young faith. We want to grow and change. In our experience, we might not consciously go through the four forgiveness process steps at the time that we first express faith in God. However, as we grow in spiritual maturity, we will find that we do follow this process.
There is both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man in the process of becoming a Christian. The church has long struggled to understand the balance between the two because heresies result if either aspect is emphasized too strongly. It is God's power that creates and sustains the growth in us, but growth will not happen without our active, willing participation.
So, becoming a Christian is the process of growing into a relationship with God. It has a point of initiation (in our consciousness), and it is also an on-going process of living. We may not have consciously done all the steps at the time we consider ourselves to have been saved. But our God is not bound in time, and can see our willingness to adopt his value system even though it may occur for us in the future. He credits each of our responses in faith as righteousness, and then gently guides us into more truth.
What is repentance? I don't understand it theologically.
The Greek word "metanoeo" that we translate as repentance means to think differently, to reconsider, to change your thinking. That was also the meaning of "repent" in English hundreds of years ago. In modern times we have changed the common understanding of the English word, but the theological concept is unchanged.
It is clear that repentance involves a change in the mind, and it relates to change regarding things done wrong. But, first there are a couple of things repentance is not:
- Repentance is not the idea of feeling bad about my wrongdoings. When we want to change from doing wrong, we may experience regret or sorrow about what we did previously, but that is not part of the repentance process. We should also not dwell on these feelings because God has forgiven us and we need to move forward!
- Repentance is not simply the idea of changing our mind about God to accept only his means of salvation. That would be a change toward payment for our sin, yes. However, repentance importantly includes change we make in our thinking toward reduction of our sin.
As a theological word, repentance is connected to a change from sin. So, an understanding of sin first will help to understand repentance. Sin is choosing a value system other than God's. God's value system is sacrificial love for the benefit of others. So, when we choose our own (selfish) value system as our motivation, all our actions that come out of it are sinful. However, when we are motivated by God's value system, our actions become acts of righteousness.
Repentance is changing your mind about a value that you had held, and choosing instead a different, better value. Theologically, repentance would be changing your mind to adopt God's value system, or changing a personally held value to become consistent with God's values.
In Matt 18:23-34, Jesus explains forgiveness with a story. (I will name the characters Rex, Tom & Jack.)
There was a king ("Rex") and his servant ("Tom"). Tom owed a large sum of money to King Rex, and the king wanted to settle this account. Rex was ready to bankrupt and jail Tom, but Tom pleaded for mercy and promised to repay it all. In great mercy, Rex canceled the debt. However, Tom right away went out and found another man ("Jack") that owed him some small sum. Tom demanded immediate repayment. When Jack couldn't pay up, Tom had him thrown in prison in spite of Jack's requests for mercy. However, when King Rex found out about this, he reinstated Tom's canceled debt because Tom did not act toward Jack with the value system of the king.
Jesus then said that this is how God will treat us if we do not forgive each other!
Did Tom repent? Yes - at least he did pledge repentance. Originally his value system allowed him to accumulate debt to his master. When Tom pleaded for mercy, he promised to change his values by making repayment be his high priority. The king then voluntarily forgave him and began treating him financially and relationally according to his new value system. Tom did absolutely no works to be saved from condemnation. He was saved through the king's mercy because of the new values he pledged to adopt.
However, when it became evident that Tom did not actually adopt values like that of his king, King Rex removed the forgiveness. The king condemned him for his lack of change in values as demonstrated by his actions. (And unfortunately King Rex and Tom never got to the part about reconciliation.)
The repentance that God wants from us is for us to change our mind about our value system, agree with him that it is wrong, and adopt his.
I don't understand the distinction of the Release step.
Historically, metaphors for sin have been that of a burden and as a debt (owed to the offended). Sin certainly creates these; and they encumber the forgiver as well as the offender. Our selfish desire is to have the offender carry the burden and pay up the debt. However, no one ever has currency to pay off debts of offense. In the best-case scenario then (of forgiveness), the cost of the offense must come out of the forgiver (the offended). Only the forgiver can let go of their own debt burden, and only they can discharge the debt obligation of the other.
But the forgiver does not need to wait for the offender to repent before giving up their own personal interest in the debt. note As soon as they experience an offense, they can consciously release their claim on it. Quickly releasing this debt strengthens mental health. Unresolved relational debt presents real problems for life, but releasing it gives freedom to the person that has been offended.
This explains how Christ can say in Matt 6:11, Luke 11:4 and Matt 18:22 that we must forgive (without conditions). And yet in Luke 17:3, we forgive our brother only if he repents to us.
The Greek word for forgive also has meaning for release. So, we release our personal claims on debts of sin against us immediately and unconditionally. However, we only give discharge to the offender when they repent through the forgiveness process. We have been forgiven much (Luke 7:37-50, Matt 18:23-34). Now we are to have the values of our God and forgive others just as generously.
This is also how God forgives us: God so loved the world that he sent his Son, and yet God does not give forgiveness to the unrepentant sinner. Theologically speaking, this could be seen as equivalent to unlimited atonement, and limited justification.
Release includes the idea of leaving behind that which might be yours - this is neither passive nor easy. Releasing always costs the forgiver something. However then for themselves, they are no longer owed because in essence they themselves just paid it up in full.
Note that the forgiver may have to take actions to pay off that cost. Jesus died on the cross to pay in his own person the relational cost of our rebellion against God.
The Release step is unique because it can be moved to precede the forgiveness process. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. We also can let go of our claims on the debts of others to us any time before we forgive them.
So, the release step is a subtle distinction. It is an action entirely within the forgiver. It is a part of the forgiveness process, but it is not giving forgiveness to the offender (Discharge). It does not restore relationship, and so it is incomplete by itself. However with the attitude it brings, you will be glad to forgive the offender when they repent.
When do I need to forgive?
It is required of those in Jesus' spiritual kingdom that they always forgive others in the kingdom. Forgiveness is such a key expression of God's values, that God only forgives us to the degree we forgive others. (Matt 6:14-15) God values forgiveness so highly that He was willing to die to bring it to us. Holding an unforgiving attitude indicates you are putting your self outside the kingdom and it's value system. (more detail)
But, we can also see that God does not require us to forgive those who are outside his kingdom, who do not have his value system. (Note that God does not forgive the sins of those outside his kingdom.) God does this to protect his people from exploitation. Those outside his kingdom are likely to be driven by selfishness instead of love. And, they will also be unlikely to participate in a process of values change (more below). This blocks our forgiveness anyway.
Note however, that God does not command us to be unforgiving to those outside the kingdom; it is only that he doesn't require it of us. This is an aspect that requires wisdom. However, if our core value is to love sacrificially, it will easily overflow to everyone.
Don't offenses sometimes have more than only relational consequences?
Yes, sometimes there are both physical and relational consequences for wrong-doing. This forgiveness process is for restoring relationship and does not address the other consequences. We can see this in cases in the Bible of forgiveness for sin (a relational issue for God), without removal of the other physical consequences of sin. For example, the thief on the cross beside Jesus went to paradise, but he still died for his crimes that day.
Sometimes an individual may also forgive the physical consequences of a wrong-doing (as in the Matt 18 story above). This is not a requirement, but it is an option. This is an aspect that requires wisdom.
What if one party won't participate in the full process of forgiveness?
Then the relationship will have an impediment. It might be clear to us that there is an issue needing the repair that comes from forgiveness, but the other does not. In that case, we are to show love to the other person and make the most of the parts of the relationship that are still workable.
Whether we are correct or mistaken in our assessment of the issue, love will be the best thing to promote healing in both parties and make future forgiveness possible. And if the issue is not too large, there will still be areas where the relationship has points of commonality and can be continued, even if diminished.
In cases where the issue is very significant, then the relationship will be significantly diminished, or may not be able to continue.
What if the offender will not participate in the full process of forgiveness?
Sometimes the offense is relatively small, and the offender may not realize the relationship issue being caused by it. This is where God's value in us of unselfishness comes into play and offenses can be covered over with love. (1 Pet 4:8)
Consider the whole of the offender's life. Do they show evidence of growing to have God's sacrificial love for others in other parts of their life? If so, then maybe it is just due to human imperfections that they are unable to perceive that the issue is an offense. (Everybody is remarkably different!) Love them wisely and patiently, and later they might grow to be able to understand better.
For non-trivial issues, however, the relationship will be stressed or even damaged as long as full forgiveness is blocked. When the offender knowingly skips steps in the process, the goal of reconciliation cannot truly be achieved. In that case, the offended is again to be like Christ in value system. Jesus waits patiently for us to confess and repent of our offenses against him even though the relationship state causes him pain. And we are also to wait patiently like Christ to be asked for forgiveness, even though the waiting is painful.
The forgiver cannot force the offender through the forgiveness process. In the offender's mind, they didn't do anything wrong, so they find it ludicrous or offensive that you want to forgive them. They will refuse to participate in something that makes them out to be wrong. If you give them forgiveness anyway, you will be set up for disappointment because their values are unchanged and they will soon re-offend. So the forgiver must wait until the offender repents before forgiving them.
However, the offended person can immediately Release their claim on the debt of offense owed to them. While waiting for the offender to fully participate in the forgiveness process, we cannot be angry with them (Matt 5:21-24). Anger is the emotion we commonly experience when there is a wrong that we want to set right. By releasing our claim on the debt of offense, we can set things right within our self, and we do not have to battle anger.
It also avoids another problem. We must also not take revenge on the offender. To take revenge would be thwarting the forgiveness process. Revenge is extracting payment by force from the offender, and we would be making an offense against them. Later, if they did ask for forgiveness, we would be unable to forgive their debt to us because we had already chosen revenge as payment and taken it from them. Because of this, we instead would be the one to need to ask for forgiveness!
Sometimes there are severe cases of offense where real evil has been done in a relationship. The relationship may not be able to continue. The difference in value system can be so large that there isn't enough in common to maintain the relationship. However, the victim can still obtain freedom from the debt by releasing it, and leaving that evil in the past. They are not required to make the unrepentant offender be part of their life. They can be free.
What if the forgiver will not participate in the full process of forgiveness?
The offender that desires the discharge and restoration that comes from forgiveness will feel pain because the debt they owe is not removed. In severe cases, the personal effects can also be severe. However, in spite of the internal stress, we are still to live sacrificial love. In this case, we must be careful that our love is humble and wise.
However, there is help: When we sin against another person, we also sin against God because we were motivated by a value system that was not his. God will always forgive us if we come to him in repentance of our wrong value system. So we can gain comfort in God's forgiveness.
In addition, it helps to involve a third party such as a wise friend or counselor. They can be a witness to our Confession and Repentance, they can encourage us, and they can help carry the burden that we feel.