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Forgiveness: How expecting too much can be spiritually damaging

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God want us to forgive our enemies? Of course. Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times” (Matthew 18:21-22). Most Christians pray at least every Sunday a version of, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

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Christians forgive – that’s how it works.

But does it always work? And do pastors sometimes ask more of people than they have a right to – perhaps in a personal quest to build the perfect church?

The English Bible translates more than one Hebrew and Greek word as “forgive”. Hebrew words can have the sense of “cover”, “send away” or “let go”. Greek words can have the sense of “be gracious to”, “set loose” or “send away”. The Old English root of our own word has the literal sense “give completely” or “give up”.

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At its root, this is what forgiveness means: setting aside the right to justice and retribution.

So here are things it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean that you have to become friends with the person who’s injured you.

It doesn’t mean that wrongdoing is ignored or condoned.

It doesn’t mean that feelings of anger and bitterness magically go away.

It doesn’t mean that you trust someone again just as you trusted them before.

It doesn’t mean that you won’t be hurt again.

One of the problems churches sometimes have is that people are expected to be friends with everyone. But it doesn’t work like that. Forgiveness and friendship aren’t the same. And in the wrong hands, forgiveness can be a powerfully destructive weapon.

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Sometimes pastors encourage people to forgive someone who’s injured them – perhaps a woman who’s been abused by her husband – when the wrong she’s suffered hasn’t been acknowledged or dealt with.

Sometimes Christian employers or manages urge people to forgive misconduct at work – perhaps of a sexual nature – because it will bring the organisation into disrepute and damage its witness.

Sometimes people use the forgiveness they’ve been offered as a way of freeing themselves to continue sinning.

At the same time, properly understood, forgiveness is very powerful. It says to the person who has offended, “What you did has no power over me. I am not going to be defined by what you did. The desire for revenge is not going to warp my life out of its God-given shape.”

That can be very, very hard. If the injury someone has done us is deep and lasting, the feelings of hurt and anger might keep coming back. We often assume when Jesus told Peter to forgive 77 times that he meant 77 separate offences – an extreme way of saying that there’s no limit to the number of times we ought to forgive. But maybe he’s also acknowledging that there’s no limit to the number of times we might have to forgive the same offence. What has been done to us keeps coming back: the memory of injury or betray rises in our minds again, for the second or the 10th or the 50th time, and each recollection requires a fresh act of forgiveness.

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But for Christians, forgiveness is more than setting aside revenge and more than just moving on with our lives. We aren’t just called to forgo revenge against our enemies, we’re called to love them. Loving forgiveness is an intention. Resolving not to take revenge is at best neutral. Resolving to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who even when he was dying on the cross prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him, involves a movement of the heart towards the other person – and that isn’t possible without the work of the Spirit within us to transform us into the likeness of Christ.

But forgiveness, at whatever level, has to be free, or it isn’t real. Pastors and well-meaning Christians who insist that someone who’s been badly hurt should forgive and act as though nothing has happened aren’t helping anyone. They may, at worst, be doing terrible spiritual damage.

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