By Rev SEIK PITOI
THE young man came to see the youth leader about violence in his home. His stepfather often threatened to shoot him and his mother with a loaded gun when he was in a drunken rage.
“Please, we need help,” the boy pleaded. The youth leader took the boy and his mum to see the senior pastor.
“The Bible says man is the head of the family so you both need to submit to your father,” the pastor counselled. “Just forgive him and forget his sins, and he will soon change.”
Twelve months later the mother filed for divorce. She could not stay on with the man who had just killed her son after he tried to defend her from another severe beating!
The parish head steward was the talk of the church district. His stealing of $100,000 was big news. It split the district in half with parishioners either for or against him. A huge debate on whether to charge him criminally or not ensued, and each speaker quoted Bible verses to back their different positions.
“Let’s forgive and forget,” one said, “because we’re all not perfect people.”
“Indeed”, said another. “Jesus said ‘do not judge’ so who are we to judge? Let’s do like Jesus did and just forgive and forget!” But another countered, “Ephesians 5:11 says to expose the works of darkness. To sweep sin under the carpet is to promote a culture of stealing and lying in the church. The steward must answer for misusing God’s money!”
In the above two scenarios taken from actual overseas accounts, we see the usual mantra oft used by many Christians today when conflicts arise. Their solution? Simply ‘forgive and forget’. Sweep it under the carpet and pretend the offence didn’t even happen. But what does the Bible really mean when it says “forgive and forget?”
That phrase is taken from a particular translation of the texts, Jer 31:34 and Heb 8:12. In the Contemporary English Version (CEV), it says, “I will forgive their sins and forget the evil things they have done.” But, in other versions, the words are slightly different; e.g., the King James Version (KJV) says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” What is the difference between to forget and to no longer remember?
One commentator says the latter is a more correct translation. He says: “The trouble with saying God forgets is to imply that He suffers from amnesia like any old man does. But God is not a human person to grow old, neither does He forget. Rather, He chooses not to remember our sins. There’s a difference.”
Much “quick-fire” counselling today seems to gloss over the problems between people, rushing them through to the forgiveness part as if to get the prize of being the quickest counsellor in town. In the process, the issues are not properly dealt with and problems usually arise later. As such, it is pure fallacy to tell an offended person to “just forget”.
Our minds are not like computer discs that can be zapped with the click of the mouse button and all the memory is wiped out. The sub-conscious mind will keep the hurtful data somewhere in there. But with God’s help, we can choose not to dwell on it when it reappears. Just as forgiveness is a choice, so is the act of not remembering or entertaining the offense in our minds.
But where is accountability in all this (Matt 12: 36, Luke 16: 2)? Does it matter if the offender owns up or repents? After all, isn’t God the God who checks accounts?
In life, we will always experience hurt. There is always someone who will betray us, attack us falsely, and generally be nasty to us. We will always experience offense of some sort. We cannot control how others act towards us, but we can control how we respond.
Forgiveness is imperative, and we will need to draw close to the cross of Jesus for strength to forgive. The place for giving and releasing forgiveness is at the cross of Jesus Christ. But to see how forgiveness works, we must look at how God does it. God loved mankind so much He sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross. What happens next? Well, man doesn’t just live as he pleases and then one day, waltz his way into God’s heaven just because Jesus died for everyone! No way.
In the story of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, we see that God has released forgiveness to everyone through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (Luke 23:34), but He expects humble repentance first, an admission of our guilt (v43). That is accountability. Both thieves heard Jesus’ prayer for their forgiveness – one rejected it; the other repented and received salvation.
This story teaches that after we repent (Greek word meaning change of mind/direction), we then receive God’s forgiveness and salvation. No unrepentant sinner makes it into heaven. Indeed, repentance precedes forgiveness and salvation. In fact, just as “quick-fire counselling” is wrong, “quick-fire evangelism” that leaves out repentance from sin, is flawed (see Matt 4:17; Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30; Rom 2:4).
If that is the standard God has set, why do we expect it differently? In a conflict situation, ideally, there should be a genuine ‘owning up’ to the offense (repentance) before genuine forgiveness can be experienced. Christ clearly teaches us this truth further in Matt 5: 23-25. There, He commands the offender to leave his gift at the altar, make peace with the one he has offended, and then proceed with his sacrifice. The offender must acknowledge his error and apologise for it. The offended is then commanded to forgive. This thought is again amplified in another advice Jesus gives:
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17: 3-4).
Today, we leave out the “rebuke him” part. We would rather just sweep it under the carpet. However, the downside to this is if we leave a small scratch untreated, it could become a festering sore. If we do not deal with the issue now, some time down the track, it could turn into a bloody confrontation.
Once the offense has been pointed out, the wrongdoer will be aware of his error and, if he is a Christian with a proper attitude, he will repent (apologise for the wrong). Then, the offended person must forgive him. Jesus even said if he keeps on doing it and then keeps asking our forgiveness afterwards, we are to keep forgiving (Matt 18:22)! However, note the “if” conditional – repentance comes first, then forgiveness!
But herein lies another problem – what happens when the offender does not admit his error and denies any wrong doing, even becoming aggressive? This brings us to the issue of choice. That means, if the offender is irreconcilable and does not want to own up, you have a choice – to be bitter and resentful as you carry the offense with you, or choose to release it, forgive him, and move on.
Even if the conditions have not been met, you will now have to think about yourself, not the other guy. Forgiveness is for your release, for your good – not his. He can keep on denying his errors, but you cannot afford to hold on to unforgiveness. It will eat away at you, slowly taking away your joy, happiness and health. If the offender refuses to accept responsibility and apologise, simply release forgive to him from your heart and move on. You have a life to live.
To conclude, the two scenarios in our introduction are problems that should not be casually swept underneath using ‘forgive and forget’ as an excuse. For example, family violence must be dealt with. Wives and children are the most affected, and the church must try to help in any way. Where possible, a prayerful pastoral visit to the father at an appropriate time would have helped the family. But in extreme cases, professional help should be sought from the police or from Christian organisations that shelter abused women.
Secondly, stealing of God’s money is serious (Acts 5:3). It must be dealt with and the offender should be reprimanded. However, if he owns up and admits his wrongdoing, the church should forgive him and embrace him again as a brother in the Lord – while allowing him time to repay what he stole (Luke 19:8).
Our society, and indeed our churches and homes will be better places that promote harmony and peace when we all learn to love, be accountable for our actions, and release forgiveness and grace upon each other, even as God does to us!
- Rev Seik Pitoi is a freelance writer.