We may understand the biblical theory of forgiveness, but life will blindside us with messy situations. How do we forgive when forgiveness seems impossible? Some Christians suffer because they live with pain inflicted by an unrepentant family member. Others struggle to understand how forgiveness relates to someone who has hurt a loved one. We can’t forgive on their behalf, can we? What if the person who sinned against us is a stranger and there seems to be no path to reconciliation because there was no relationship in the first place? Are we off the hook if we can’t see a way to forgive?
She never came home
On a sunny afternoon in late September, 2008, our 14 year old daughter Emily went for a walk on a path in our small town of Edson, Alberta. She never came home. A stranger, a man in his 40s, was waiting in the woods by the trail. He was not looking for Emily, but for a woman to assault. The attack rocked our family, our church, our town, and more people than we could have imagined. This man is now in prison, but we miss Emily very much.
On the day after Emily was killed, I wrote a brief blog post to let people know our awful news. I wrote, “We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now.” By God’s grace, we were not consumed by either despair or rage, even though these were painful days for our family.
One of the gifts of God in that time was a new perspective on his sovereign providence from two familiar passages of Scripture. When people would ask about how we were coping, I often responded by talking about Romans 12:19-21 being right there with Romans 13:1-7. I could release Emily’s killer to the justice of God – ultimately and temporally. Vengeance is God’s; I can trust the one who will judge the world in righteousness. Also, in his common grace, God has appointed the governing authorities.
We had a positive experience with the RCMP and the Canadian justice system, and for that we are thankful. But even believers who face corrupt governments and perverted justice can trust that God is working things out for their good and his glory.
Forgiveness has layers
It has been said that forgiveness is like peeling an onion. There always seems to be another layer to take off. This is why we need to talk about stages, or, better, aspects, of forgiveness. We may not ever reach a point of restoration with a person that has hurt us, but that does not mean that we can’t offer forgiveness.
Our teaching on forgiveness often focuses on the individual that has been hurt. We are told to forgive because our bitterness will hurt us more than the person that we are unwilling to forgive. That is true, but there is a deeper first motivation for Christians. Our first responsibility is to God. How would God have us respond to offenses against us? Does God see? Is God just? Can we trust him with our pain?
When we come to the layer of interpersonal forgiveness, we have to be realistic about the potential for reconciliation and restored trust with the person that has hurt us, or those whom we love. We may, before God, offer forgiveness, but if the other party does not repent, we can’t close the transaction.
We are not responsible for the attitudes and actions of other people, but we are responsible for our posture towards them. We also have to consider that the way we respond – or fail to respond – will affect other people.
The Gospel shows God’s goodness
When someone sins against us, we ought to forgive them. But what if we are too weak to respond? What about those times when we even struggle to believe that God is good?
One of police officers in Emily’s case asked me if I ever doubted God during our time of grief. I said that I never doubted the existence of God, but I was troubled by doubts regarding the goodness of God. He asked if I found resolution. That opened the door for me to clearly share the Gospel with him. The overwhelming, “YES!” to the question, “Is God good?” is found in Christ Jesus.
In love, our Lord Jesus Christ stepped into the mess of this broken world. The Eternal Son of God perfectly obeyed his Father, yet was rejected, abused and executed; “…delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God…”(Acts 2:23). What man intended for evil, God meant for good.
We are by nature enemies of God, deserving of his wrath. The good news is that Christ died for our sins. Jesus was forsaken so that we don’t have to be. The cries of the Son were heard by his Father, and his death secured the forgiveness of all who look to him in faith. On the third day, Christ rose from the dead in his body. We may have confidence of eternal life because Christ was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Christ’s atoning death and bodily resurrection are Good News of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
This proof of God’s goodness is why I can take a posture of forgiveness, even to Emily’s killer. It is the same for any of us: If we understand our sin and God’s holiness, we will be ready to respond to the sins of others with mercy. If we know the grace of the gospel, and the power of the gospel, we will have the power to forgive. This doesn’t happen like the flipping of a switch, but is a part of our journey in sanctification. Forgiveness is a critical part of making gospel connections to every area of our lives.
In some of the broken relationships in our lives, we might never see the restoration that repentance and interpersonal forgiveness can bring. We must be content to trust God in the mess. We are to live at peace with all people, as far as it depends on us (Romans 12:18). But, this side of eternity, a robust doctrine of sin, suffering, God’s sovereignty, and the centrality of the cross is essential for standing firm in the face of seemingly senseless evil. Faith in God’s forgiveness of sinners like you and me enables us to forgive when forgiveness seems impossible.