Forgiveness, Trust, Restoration

After Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13), He warns His disciples about the dangers of not forgiving others (Matthew 6:14-15). What is forgiveness, and how does it relate to trust and restoration? To put it differently: how do we follow Jesus’ teaching to forgive, when often what necessitates forgiveness is broken trust and hurt, and sometimes incredibly significant hurt? Are there exceptions to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness?

Let’s begin the answer with a quick overview of verses 14-15. Jesus is not describing initial forgiveness, or justification, in these verses. Rather, He is describing our relationship with the Father; it will be strained, and we won’t sense His closeness, if we refuse to forgive others. Why? Because we are His children, and He expects us to act like Him. He is a forgiving God, and He forgave us immediately when we first came to Him in repentance. “Repentance” – that’s a key word in this discussion, and we’ll come back to it soon.

Furthermore, Ephesians 4:32 tells us to forgive one another (as Christians in particular here), “as God in Christ forgave you.” So, again, our relationships with others – especially with those in the Church – are to be governed by and modelled after God’s treatment of us in Christ.

With these principles in mind, we are in a better position to define forgiveness. Defining forgiveness is key to knowing two things: (1) what we are expected to do, and (2) what we are not responsible for in attempts at reconciliation. So, what is forgiveness? We might think of forgiveness as an attitude of the heart toward those who have betrayed our trust and/or wounded us. It is an attitude that is grieved over the rift in the relationship, and it propels us to seek to repair the relationship with the one who has betrayed or wounded us. Thus, forgiveness is an attitude of the heart that desires peace and reconciliation and is willing to do what is necessary to bring that about in any relationship. Therefore, forgiveness is incompatible with selfishness. The desire to get even, to speak our minds, to hold things against someone, to want the other person to know just how wrong they are without granting any opportunity of an apology or repentance, etc. wars against forgiveness. To put it more sharply, the desire to feel, and to be seen as, morally superior to the offending party (especially when there was no real offense), suffocates a forgiving atmosphere and ices a forgiving heart. This attitude forgets just how offensive we were to God in our sin, and yet He sacrificed His Son for us to be reconciled back to Him.

Positively, a forgiving attitude will follow Jesus’ instructions for when we are offended, or, to use Jesus’ words, when a brother or sister sins against us (see Matthew 18:15-17). First, we will go directly to our brother or sister alone to “tell him/her his/her fault.” This precludes telling anyone else at this first stage. Thus, a forgiving heart will not gossip. Second, Jesus says that the goal is to “gain” your brother or sister back. It should be noted that the goal of restoration should lead us to keep attempting this first step as long as possible or wise. If it is at all possible to restore the relationship without involving others, this should be our goal. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is a wonderful example to us of this kind of heart attitude. Before Gabriel appeared to him to inform him that Mary was pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit – i.e. that she had not been unfaithful to him – he had every reason to conclude that she had committed adultery. However, the Lord describes him as a righteous man, because “he was unwilling to put her to open shame, [but rather] resolved to divorce her quietly.” Not only so, but he spent time “considering these things,” so that he was not reacting passionately or rashly to what was a very natural conclusion. (See Matthew 1:18-25 for the full account.)

However, what happens when your brother or sister won’t listen to you? Jesus says we should continue to seek to gain our brother or sister by going back to him/her, but now we are to do so with one or two other people who can attest to our attempts at restoration. Like the first stage, if it is necessary to move to this second stage, we should remain in it as long as possible or wise. Note again: the number of people who are aware of the issue has grown by 50 to 100 percent at the most. In other words, the number of people who should be aware of anything wrong in your relationship with this other person at this point is four, at the most.

In both the first and second stages of attempted restoration, the goal has been to present the hurt, wrong, broken trust, etc. with the goal of giving the offending party many opportunities to repent, (Exodus 34:6), to rebuild trust, etc. They should acknowledge the specific sin, the consequences of that sin in your relationship (whether they intended it or not), and sincerely have a goal of not repeating the behavior, or being more aware, etc. so as not to sin against you again in this way. In other words, they should also be grieved at the rift in your relationship and want to do whatever is necessary to restore it. Two quick points need to be stated here. (1) What Jesus has in mind, and what should govern our sense of being offended, is whether actual sin was involved (“If your brother sins against you.”) We need to be careful not to have an over-sensitive spirit that finds fault wherever we can, especially when a person has not actually sinned against us. Grace is characteristic of a forgiving attitude. (2) We need also to be aware of, and open to, any way in which we may have sinned against the brother or sister we are confronting (again, graciously) (we should ponder whether we have a judgmental attitude toward our brother first – cf. Matthew 7:1-5).

But what happens when none of this works? First, the grief over the rift and the desire for restoration should never cease. Second, when you have done all you can do in obedience to the Lord, it may be that there is no possibility of restoration because the other person refuses to repent. Third, you have recourse to the church: “if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 5:17). These really are two more stages, but they are both public stages. Once the first two stages have been exhausted, it is no longer gossip to tell it to the church (though it is implied here that this should be done through the leadership). The point here is: you are not responsible for another person’s repentance or lack thereof; you are only responsible for your own repentance and for your own faithful attempts at regaining your brother or sister. Sadly, there are times where restoration is impossible. We just need to be sure we have given every opportunity for restoration possible to the one who sinned against us.

One more quick thought: this attitude and approach mirror the gospel. God’s attitude toward us, even when we were sinners, was love and desire for restoration (John 3:16; Romans 5: 8; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Therefore, He sent His Son to take away His enmity toward us. And now, “He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30-31). He never turns away anyone that comes to Him in repentance (John 6:37). If you have not turned to the Lord, why not now? If someone has sinned against you, will you determine today to treat them the way God the Father has treated you in Christ? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).