The Rules of Forgiveness

If the interwebs are any indication, I worry sometimes that as Christians we are not altogether certain how this forgiveness business works. Rules of forgiveness? you may scoff. That seems harsh and wrong and unfeeling! But no- it isn’t. There are good and bad ways to forgive and ask forgiveness. You can do it wrong. Google any politician who has given a half-hearted “sorry for getting caught” apology and you will see what I mean. We have all seen far too many celebrities (religious and otherwise) give pleas for forgiveness that didn’t seem right with our souls, and to deny that or question that is unwise. If we sense something’s off, it’s probably because something’s off. And that’s because there are rules to forgiveness. There are better and worse ways to go about doing it.

You may have made the connection that I’ve been reluctantly following online conversations about a prominent church pastor who has once again found himself in the spotlight for actions that are, to put it mildly, less than admirable. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, it doesn’t matter, and it’s probably preferable. I’m not writing this post about him, but about what bothers me about the way I see Christians discussing and engaging questions of forgiveness and grace, particularly in relation to pastors/leaders who are caught in the wrong. It’s like we get caught in the brambles of guilt about our need to be a forgiving people (which, of course, we are called to be) and we throw out in the process any ability to wisely discern how to do that in a way that actually calls the person’s actions to their logical, necessary consequences. The result of this confusion is often a continuation of abuse, a repeating cycle of questionable behavior. Put another way, doing forgiveness wrong doesn’t lead us to the goal of forgiveness, which is reconciliation.

So, what are these rules? Well, when faced with anyone in the entire world who has done something wrong and has asked forgiveness for it, there is but one clear Christian response, and that is to forgive the person. We forgive the person over and over, ad infinitum, because grace is crazy and doesn’t run out and God loves us that same kind of way. It is scandalous and totally goes against our usual inclinations, but that’s clearly the “Christian ethic.”

HOWEVER, there is not a time limit on this process. Some things can be forgiven quickly, like when one young sibling pulls the other one’s hair. It shouldn’t really take more than 30 minutes to get on the other side of that one. Forgiving a friend for saying something truly awful to you? That might take a few days or weeks. Forgiving an abusive parent or spouse? Forgiving the person who killed your loved one? That might take years and years. Reconciliation and forgiveness are things we move toward. It’s not a sprint. Done rightly and mindfully, in many cases it simply cannot be done quickly. And that’s assuming that the person requesting forgiveness is taken as genuine.

What happens when the apology doesn’t seem genuine? How can you tell the difference? Well, here’s one way of determining it: if a person is truly repentant, the apology holds within it a desire to make amends, and those amends are left open to the determination of the person(s) that were harmed. So, for example, if Jim stole credit for an idea at work that was really his co-worker June’s idea, and if Jim is truly repentant, when he apologizes he asks what he can do to make amends. And if June says, well, you can go tell the boss that it was my idea, then Jim does that. Of course, if June uses this acquiescence of power to exploit him, and she says, well, you can give me all your stock options and quit your job, or some such nonsense, then Jim can obviously decide that’s not entirely fair. But let me be clear: I can count one time that I’ve ever seen that happen as a pastor. Most of the time, the harmed person comes up with a really just and fair way for the person to make amends. Quite often, the apology itself is seen as enough, and the two can move forward.

It starts to smell funny when someone apologizes and then doesn’t leave him/herself open for making amends, or decides him/herself what the amends are going to be. I don’t think that’s doing forgiveness right, because it isn’t leaving yourself open to the person(s) harmed. And that’s what is required of you in forgiveness- you open yourself up to the person you harmed. You stop being defensive and become responsive.

It seems to me that people only start calling for leaders’ heads to roll when an apology is coupled with a refusal to be responsive to the actual needs of the people harmed. It’s like the situation becomes def-con 5, because everyone senses this unholy marriage between an appeal for forgiveness and an unwillingness to do what forgiveness requires. If this happens, instead of saying that the harmed party is not acting “Christian” enough, it might behoove us to step back and see why the normal rules of forgiveness aren’t playing out in the way they’re designed. Because people who feel truly apologized to, on the whole, don’t respond with vindictiveness, or vengefulness. They respond with “thank you.” If that response isn’t happening, maybe it’s because the rules of forgiveness aren’t being followed.

There is also the question of what we do after the offering of pardon, and there is not just one clear Christian ethic. There are many ways to proceed, all of which can be construed as truly Christian ways of moving forward.

1) The two parties move forward together, in the same kind of relationship as in the past

2) One party wants the relationship to continue as-is, and the other party does not feel it is possible to do so.

3) Both parties agree that it is best to part ways

It seems to me that the response many Christians expect, in every situation, is the first one. And that is just categorically naive, not to mention potentially harmful in so many situations. An abused spouse may choose to forgive, but has every right to decide to leave that marriage out of fear for the same situation happening again. Even if it’s believed the situation most likely wouldn’t happen again (which also seems naive), an abused spouse has every right to say: I can’t look at this person in love anymore. I sure can’t sleep with this person. I can’t risk having my children live with this person. Etc. Etc. That is wise and just. It is not, in any way, unChristian.

To put it on a communal scale, a congregation can decide, after finding that a pastor or leader has had an affair, or embezzled money, or has exhibited abusive behavior, or has been ethically suspect in a way that shows a detrimental pattern, can decide to forgive the person and yet determine that the person is no longer (and perhaps never was) capable or commendable to hold a position of authority. Especially one of religious authority, which has the potential to be the most damaging kind, if done badly. To remove a bad spiritual leader from spiritual leadership is the most Christian thing to do. It honors both parties, because it removes a person from leadership for which he is clearly not fit, and it also honors those who were harmed by this poor leadership and who no longer wish to follow someone who does not uphold the very values a spiritual leader ought to possess. To call that unChristian is…well, it’s crazy, honestly. It’s not unforgiving. It’s not mean. It’s just and wise.

To put it on a national scale, if we discover that the President has, say, bugged the offices of his rival political party, we can forgive him (and should), but we can decide to remove him from office because he acted in a way that is contrary to the office of the President and because he justifiably lost the trust of the democratic nation he was commissioned to represent. This is also wise and just.

Miroslav Volf described this best in his must-read book Exclusion and Embrace in terms of the rules of embrace. The person asking forgiveness makes an apology. They then ask for reconciliation, meaning, they do what they can to make amends. The result of this is that the person in the wrong then opens his arms to ask for a response. And then he waits. He stands there, vulnerably with his arms wide open, and waits. It is up to the other party to decide whether or not to embrace. And it’s critical for the decision to be theirs, and theirs alone.

Obviously, the goal is the embrace. That’s the highest hope. But it isn’t always possible. And even when embrace happens, the next step is letting go. It’s releasing both parties from the embrace, after which there still needs to be decisions on how to proceed best.

My point is this: while it’s true that the Christian ethic is unequivocally one of forgiveness, it is not at all true that the gospel requires us to accept some kind of eternal embrace with someone who has done us wrong. If there is any Christian ethic at work here, it’s that God is on the side of the oppressed. God is on the side of the abused, the victimized, the silenced. God doesn’t leave the oppressors alone or abandoned, but the side God favors is clear. It’s the powerless. (See: the cross.)

Also, a blanket appeal to Christian forgiveness does not mean that we should not be incredibly, attentively, carefully selective of those we choose to lead us spiritually. Yes, the Gospel is full of misfits and mess-ups. But I can’t think of one example in Scripture of God being on the side of someone who is a serial abuser. I sure don’t see God appointing people who are unwilling to change. (Pick a prophet, any prophet, and get a sense of the tone God feels about people who are stubborn or unwilling to change.) Sure, Peter denied Jesus three times, but he didn’t KEEP DOING IT, over and over again. The denial was more of an anomaly than a pattern. Sure, David messed up in a huge way with Bathsheba, but you don’t see the same story played out, over and over, with the result of multiple murdered soldiers with attractive widowed wives at home. What I’m saying is that we can take the “God works through screw-ups” thing too far, particularly as it pertains to spiritual leaders. Yes, thank God, God works through all of us, and we are all screw-ups. But the idea that God would be okay with someone whose life pattern continues to show a disconcerting lack of harmony with the life of Christ being appointed- and maintained- as a spiritual leader to anyone is suspect.

Forgiveness is absolutely central to the Gospel, but that doesn’t mean we give everyone some kind of eternal “Get Out of Consequences Free” card. That’s irresponsible. If we care so much about forgiveness, we should care enough to practice it wisely and justly, and not blindly.


  1. great sharing, i really like this one

  2. thank you for this article, is really cool

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