Forgiveness

There’s been some conflict in the Corinthian church. We don’t know what the conflict was but whatever it was it created a rift within the congregation and it appears that someone was disciplined. Paul is watching this conflict unfold and feels the pain of the broken relationships. He writes that when one person is hurt everyone is hurt. Conflict between two people affects more than just the people involved. It harms the whole community.

In this passage, Paul urges the community to forgive the wrongdoer. The Greek translated here as forgive has to do with “giving freely.” The implication being that there is no requirement or expectation to forgive. When we think of forgiveness we often associate it with an apology which leads to the relationship going back to how it was before the hurt. You might have heard the phrase “forgive and forget.” With these words it seems that the hurt is over and done and now we can get back to normal.

But it doesn’t always work that way. I had a situation where someone scared me and I locked myself in my house for almost three weeks. When I finally found courage to tell someone, a meeting so that this person could apologize. After he apologized, I was told to forgive and forget. But I was scared and angry. For several months after this if the other person walked into a room I needed to leave.

Even though an apology was made and forgiveness was asked no one received healing. I didn’t feel the person involved truly understood what he had done or how it impacted me. A few weeks later, the same behavior that had scared me was directed at someone else. How could I forgive and forget when I knew the behavior that had caused me distress hadn’t changed. It was just directed somewhere else. In this scenario, it felt like the primary concern was in ensuring I made the other person feel better and that I was quiet about the situation so no one else needed to be upset. I was being asked to be responsible for his well-being. But seeking forgiveness requires repentance – a change in behavior. This person was not seeking forgiveness because there was no change in behavior. What he was seeking was my silence and in my silence I would give permission for his behavior to continue. I didn’t keep quiet and that raised other uncomfortable situations.

We can look at forgiveness from the perspective of the wrongdoer. If I have hurt someone and go to that person asking forgiveness, I am asking them to be responsible for making me feel better.  In order for me to feel better, I need someone else to tell me whatever I did was OK or somehow let me off the hook. Apology and forgiveness are often linked. In our culture, an apology means admitting that we hurt someone. The original meaning was about standing by a position and was not an admission of guilt. This is about explaining what we did and why and allowing the person who was hurt to decide whether the explanation resolves the conflict. This creates an opportunity for the relationship to be restored.[1] It does not pretend that the hurtful event didn’t occur. It does not simply smooth over conflict but invites a conversation about what was hurtful and how the relationship can be mended.  Truly seeking forgiveness requires repentance – a change in behavior. Someone once told me that repentance is “being in the same situation and behaving differently.” So the next time we find ourselves in a situation where there is potential to cause hurt we choose a different behavior. In choosing a different behavior, we seek and find God’s forgiveness. Incidentally, neither Jesus nor Paul encourage people to ask for forgiveness. In the passage we heard this morning, the wrongdoer has been punished in some way but there is no mention of them seeking forgiveness.

From the perspective of the person who has been hurt, forgiveness is for their own healing so that they are able to live fully. It is easy when we are hurt to blame the person who hurt us, to want to cut them off or to hurt in return. To forgive means to “give freely.” Paul’s letter is speaking to the people who have been hurt and asking them to love the person who hurt them. They are being asked to forgive so that the relationship between them may be restored.

There is an implication with the Greek word used here that in forgiving, both parties will be restored in the relationship. I want to show a video which shows the ways in which forgiveness functions in restoring relationships.

Paul’s letter reminds the Corinthian congregation to forgive, console and love the person who hurt them. It reminds me of Jesus’ words in the gospels:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). The implication is the same: don’t hold onto hurts, don’t repay one hurt with another. This doesn’t mean ignoring what has happened but be actively engaged in creating the conditions for healing. In the video, the mother didn’t forget that her son was killed but she sought an opportunity to let go of the hurt in her own life. In doing so, she transformed her own life and that of her son’s killer. She didn’t set out to fix him or change him but simply to find healing for herself. Her work of building a relationship with her son’s killer showed courage, love, compassion, forgiveness and the strength of prayer. It did not bring her son back or condone the killer’s behavior but freed her for fullness of life.

[1]. James Rowe Adams, The Essential Reference for Biblical Metaphors (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 119.

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