Does Forgiveness require a Relationship?

For Lent, we’ve challenged our congregation to read through the Gospels in 40 days, and have encouraged people to post questions that come up from their reading. This question was important enough that I decided to reply here so others with similar questions can see it, and so I’d have the space to give it the nuanced answer it deserves.

Here’s the question:

“I have a question. I just finished reading Matthew 17 and 18, and in chapter 18 it says that you have to forgive from your heart in order to be let into heaven. But what if you forgive from your heart and pray that the person who did wrong to you be saved, do you have to start and develop a relationship?”

Does forgiveness require you to develop a relationship with the person who wronged you? Great question! The short answer is, “it depends.” — I don’t think that scripture requires it in every situation, but if the person has repented (turned their life in a new direction), or if they’re not unsafe for you to be around, then developing a relationship with them may the most faithful response to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.

The scripture we’re looking at here is Matthew 18:21-35. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a recap:

The parable of the unforgiving servant. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive a “brother” (fellow believer) who sins against him, and Jesus answers not seven but seventy-seven times, meaning, a limitless amount. Then he tells a story of a man who owes a fantastically large debt that should land him and his family in slavery for life, but the man begs for mercy and the king lets him off completely free. Then the newly freed man finds someone who owes him a few bucks and instead of forgiving him the debt, he throws the guy in prison. When the king finds out, he revokes his pardon and has the man thrown in prison. And then Jesus tells his listeners, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

That phrase, to forgive “from your heart” means to forgive in all sincerity – not just in words or appearance – but to mean it and feel it. The standard we’re given on how to forgive is to model the grace and mercy of God himself – so the bar is set quite high. God wants us to remember that we are sinners too, and we need to offer the same forgiveness that we have received. We need to remember that we’re no better than anybody else. We all stand in need of God’s mercy.

But you asked, what does it mean to forgive in all sincerity or from the heart? Does that mean I’m called to have a relationship with the person who hurt me? Or is it enough to truly feel forgiveness for them in my heart and pray for them as I would my closest friend, to pray for their salvation? I believe it depends on the circumstances, so here are a couple of questions I would advise you to consider.

Has this person repented and asked for forgiveness?

The parable of the unforgiving servant, and most of scripture’s teachings on forgiveness assume that we’re talking about a person who has repented. We’re still called to forgive “from our hearts” when they haven’t – consider the Lord’s prayer – “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). But most of the time when scripture talks about forgiveness, it’s in the context of repentance. And when there is repentance, that is, when someone has recognized they’ve done something wrong and changed, a relationship is usually possible.

However, without repentance, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean we should develop a relationship. Here are a couple of examples from scripture:

Staying with Matthew 18, just a few verses earlier in Matt. 18:15-17, Jesus teaches that if a fellow believer sins against you, you should make several attempts to confront the person so that they have a chance to repent. If they refuse to repent, even when they have been confronted by the whole church, then we should not continue to have a relationship with that person (Matthew 18:17). So there’s one instance where we have a clear “no” in answer to your question.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul addresses an egregious act of sexual immorality in the church by planning to put the offender out of the church’s fellowship, “hand[ing] this man over to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5), and in 1 Cor. 5:9-10 he reiterates that if someone calls themselves a Christian but is greedy, sexually immoral, abusive, etc then we shouldn’t even eat with those people. Again, forgiveness doesn’t require a relationship.

The standard in both of these, and other examples in scripture seems to be that we if we’re talking about a fellow believer who has not repented, we can forgive them (feel no ill will, genuinely love them, pray for their salvation) without requiring a relationship. In fact a relationship with them should be avoided because it could be dangerous to the overall health of the church.

Is the person safe?

This isn’t a question that the Bible really deals with directly, but I think it’s an important one. The closest you get to it, at least that I have seen (but comment below if you can think of another one!), is in some teachings like the ones discussed above, where the church is told to break a relationship with a particularly immoral and unrepentant person to protect the church itself.

For example, in 2 John 10-11 we’re told that false teachers “should neither be received nor welcomed into your home, because welcoming people like that is the same thing as sharing in their evil actions.” It’s a strong stance because people’s eternal salvation is at stake if the church’s teaching becomes corrupted.

I don’t think it’s too big of a stretch to say that God does not want his children to force themselves to stay in a relationship where they are not safe. If he cares enough for the church’s eternal safety to tell them not to welcome people with dangerous teachings into their homes, then I don’t believe we have to invite dangerous people into our lives either. Take Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As I understand it, in Matthew 5:32 Jesus teaches that sexual unfaithfulness of a partner is an exception to the teaching prohibiting divorce. Though Jesus doesn’t say it explicitly, the fact that he offers sexual unfaithfulness as a case where divorce is permissible would seem to allow us to extend the exception to other violations of the marriage covenant such as severe drug addiction or physical or verbally abuse which are at least as damaging to a partner as sexual unfaithfulness.
Again, we’re into territory here where the Bible doesn’t offer an explicit command so it’s for us to discern God’s calling, prayerfully and with our Bibles open. But it’s my firm belief that if a continued relationship with the person who has hurt us means that we will be physically or emotionally abused, then God does not want us to stay in that relationship. We still have to forgive from our hearts. But God does not call us to be doormats.

 

But what if the person is safe or has repented?

Every situation is a little bit different, but our guiding principle should be:

“How can I most faithfully imitate the kind of love and forgiveness that God has shown me?”

Chances are, following that principle will push us outside of our comfort zone. I’ve heard some beautiful stories over the years about people who were motivated by God’s love to visit their rapist or their child’s murderer in prison to tell them, “I forgive you, and God wants you to turn to him so he can forgive you too.” That probably doesn’t mean they will become friends, but God’s love moved them to reach out to an unlovable person to share the grace and love of Christ.

I’ve known people who were motivated by the love of God to rebuild a marriage that was nearly destroyed by an act of adultery.

Even within our congregation I’ve seen friendships mended and rebuilt after harsh words or anger because God’s grace motivated the friends to have grace and forgiveness for one another.

Certainly every relationship and every situation is unique, but with God, healing is possible in places that would otherwise be hopeless.  We must discern God’s will on a case by case basis.

When a relationship is able to be rebuilt because of the radical love and forgiveness of God operating in the human heart, it’s a witness to the rest of the world that the Gospel is real and makes a difference in people’s lives. It’s a testimony of what God is like.

So, my counsel is to ask yourself, “How can I most faithfully imitate the kind of love and forgiveness that God has shown me?”

And if you are able to forge a relationship with this person without putting yourself in harm’s way, then it may be the most faithful way to respond to Jesus’ teaching to forgive as freely as you have been forgiven. Perhaps a relationship with that person will be the tool God uses to teach him about the amazing grace and love God has for sinners.

 

 

I hope that gives you some food for thought and for prayer. I’d love to talk or pray more with you or anyone else at our church in figuring out how to put Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness into practice. It’s good to seek wise counsel, particularly if you’re not feeling safe in a relationship and you’re not sure how God wants you to proceed.

And if you want more reading on the power of forgiveness, I really highly recommend Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Did any other examples from scripture come to mind as you were reading this? Or does anyone else have thoughts on how we should respond to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

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2 Comments to “Does Forgiveness require a Relationship?”

  1. Imelda Says:

    Thank you for the book recommendation I will definitely look into getting it. And thank you for the clarification of “forgiveness”. If my Father God wants to use me through the act of “forgiveness” to bring his sons and daughters to learn about his life and teachings and ultimately their salvation. Then I welcome it with open arms, mind and heart. After all my Father God, Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior and I am here to serve him.

    Thank you Pastor Corrine

  2. Aaron Bergmann Says:

    I just wanted to say “Amen!” to this blog post, but particularly to the book recommendation. “What’s so amazing about grace?” is just an incredible book, and I’m so glad that Corinne offered it to me as a read. Everybody should read it.

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