This is the audio recording of the third reading of week seven of Start, entitled Forgiveness in Community.
“The idea of salvation cannot be reduced to a personal relationship with Jesus. God’s plan is much more encompassing. God intends for salvation to be a community-creating event."
Christianity is meant to be practiced in community. Yes, there are some unique times in human history when circumstances have required an individual Christian to ‘go it alone’ for a time, but one of God’s greatest tools for forming us in Christlikeness is a community of people.
The communal nature of our faith is emphasized throughout the New Testament. Consider the following “one another” statements found in Paul’s letters.
- “Love one atoner with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” – Romans 12:10
- “Live in harmony with one another.” – Romans 12:16a
- “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” – Romans 14:14
- “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus.” – Romans 15:5
- “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” – 2 Corinthians 13:11
- “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” – Galatians 5:13
- “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” – Galatians 5:26
- “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
- “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” – Colossians 3:9
- “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” – Colossians 3:16
- “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
We could go on, but you get the idea. The New Testament was written to communities, and so many of its instructions are meant to be lived out in community. This, of course, includes the repeated admonition to forgive. The secret to an ongoing healthy Christian community is a commitment to preserve relationships whenever possible and work through forgiveness and reconciliation. Often it is the very process of working through conflict that deepens a group’s commitment to one another.
Here are a few tips and ideas you can use to help ensure your community is a place of forgiveness and reconciliation:
- Watch your words. Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Paul is writing about how to speak to those outside the faith, but certainly, there is wisdom in adopting that same posture toward other Christians. There are plenty of reasons we might be inclined to be less-than-gracious with one another. Sometimes we can become harsh or judgmental without even realizing it. Therefore, we must be conscious of how our words impact those around us. Special attention is needed when we’re feeling hurt or angry, as that’s when graciousness is most difficult but most beneficial.
- Keep short accounts. There’s a scene in Matthew 18 where Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a brother who sins against him. Peter asks if he should forgive seven times. Jesus tells him to forgive “seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22). Jesus’ point isn’t that we should forgive precisely 490 times, but rather that forgiveness must be a continual and frequent part of our lives. That doesn’t mean we should become doormats whom others can take advantage of, but we are to settle accounts quickly. When we allow hurt and anger to fester, they rarely resolve on their own.
- Watch your own emotions. We discussed this in detail yesterday, but paying attention to your emotions is crucial to practicing forgiveness and reconciliation. If you cannot name and understand your feelings, expressing and talking about them will be difficult. When we are aware of our own emotions, we can address them early so that they don’t have as much opportunity to grow.
- Normalize, normalize, normalize. If you work for an organization that does not regularly provide employees with feedback, any constructive feedback will seem like a big deal, and may even be taken personally. On the contrary, critical feedback is rarely blown out of proportion when regular feedback loops exist. It works the same way with the practices of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They seem foreign because they are often unpracticed. When we make them a regular part of our relationships with those close to us, they feel much less weird.
- Trust the process. God forgives us instantly, but we humans tend to take a little more time. Whether you are the one who was hurt or did the hurting, it’s usually a process to get to genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. Psychologist Nick Wignall says, “A firm decision and commitment to forgive is an important first step, but be realistic about the fact that it’s just that— a first step. There will likely be many more steps along the road to forgiveness.” Just because you cannot fully forgive someone today doesn’t mean you won’t be able to tomorrow, next week, or next month.
We would be remiss if we finished these readings about forgiveness without recognizing what forgiveness is not. While forgiveness can be powerful and life-changing, we risk harm if we misunderstand it.
Pastor and author Gary Thomas says, “Christians need to stop worrying about the unhealthy fallout of unhealthy people who are challenged by healthy decisions. We can’t control the way someone responds, and their response isn’t on us. We control our own efforts to be as loving, true, gentle, and kind as our God calls us to be as we live with healthy, God-ordained priorities.” With that in mind, here are a few examples of what forgiveness is not:
- Forgiveness is not the restoration of a relationship. Throughout these readings, we have talked about forgiveness and reconciliation. They are not the same thing. There are times when an offense is so great — or a pattern of offenses has persisted for so long — that it would be unwise to allow reconciliation (at least in the short term and possibly in the long term). When we conflate forgiveness and reconciliation, we can put people in uncomfortable situations where they cannot create healthy boundaries between themselves and whoever hurt them. God is so gracious and kind to us that He calls us to forgive, but He does not require us to reconcile with everyone who harms us.
- Forgiveness is not a cover for toxic behavior. In extreme situations, the victims of crimes in Christian communities have been counseled against seeking justice and told they must forgive those who have victimized them. In less extreme situations, some may be counseled against confronting someone’s hurtful behavior and told to forgive instead. Both of these scenarios misunderstand forgiveness. When the concept of forgiveness is used to prevent accountability or cover the misdeeds of others, it is being misused. Forgiveness does not mean we cannot report crimes or otherwise seek accountability for those who harm us or others (we absolutely should!).
- Forgiveness does not require repentance. You can forgive someone even if they’re not sorry. Lewis B. Smedes says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Even if reconciliation is unwise or impossible, you can free yourself by forgiving those who hurt you. This may be a process, but with God’s help you can do it.
- Forgiveness should not be demanded. When we wrong someone, it is entirely inappropriate to demand they forgive us. Similarly, we must not accept others demanding forgiveness from us. Too often, demands for forgiveness are a manipulative attempt to avoid accountability. While it is true we are called to forgive, our timeline for forgiveness is between us, the Lord, and anyone else we choose to involve in the process.
- Forgiveness is not a one-way street. Most of the time, when forgiveness is necessary, more than one person has done something wrong. A marker of spiritual and emotional maturity is the ability to own our part in a conflict. Even in a situation that is 10% your fault, you can make great strides toward deepening the relationship if you own your 10% (and that doesn’t mean you need to ignore the other 90%!) Henry Cloud says, “Unsafe people will never identify with others as fellow sinners and strugglers because they see themselves as somehow ‘above all of that.’” There may be times when a person’s unwillingness to own their part will be a block in the reconciliation process. Remember, even in cases like that, you can still forgive.
Our prayer is that our missional communities will never experience a situation where forgiveness doesn’t lead to reconciliation, but we know it’s possible. We also know that as we journey through life together, we may experience these types of traumatic situations outside our missional community and rely on our community for prayer and support. One of the ways we can support each other as brothers and sisters in Christ is by helping each other along in our journeys of forgiveness.
In the end, we can remember that we serve a God of forgiveness. He has looked upon our sin and chosen to rescue us and forgive us, and He has done this at great cost to Himself. And when we allow that forgiveness to change our hearts, we can become the sort of people who are not stuck in the prison of unforgiveness any longer.
- What are 1-2 takeaways you have from this week’s readings?
- How have you seen the power of forgiveness in your own life?
- At your next session, your group will discuss commitments you’d like to make to each other to best ensure you are a community of forgiveness and reconciliation. What types of commitments come to mind for you?