What Is Forgiveness?
Many Christians, influences by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. But if we start with a biblical notion of God’s forgiveness, we see that such a view falls short.
The offer of forgiveness is unconditional (for God, and it should be for us), but forgiveness itself is conditioned upon repentance. We must always be open–and even, in God’s grace, become eager–to extend forgiveness, but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent. No bitterness either way. No revenge. But forgiveness, and the reconciliation that should follow, is a commitment to those who repent.
Chris Brauns explains:
This book has argued that forgiveness should be defined as a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.
In contrast to this definition, forgiveness would be alternatively defined according to a therapeutic approach. In the therapeutic line of thinking, forgiveness is a private matter that means shutting down anger, bitterness, and resentment. In other words, Christians should always forgive automatically. Because therapeutic forgiveness is based on feelings, it posits that people may even find it necessary to forgive God.
Ultimately, the question for the reader must be this: which definition do you think is more biblical? This is not a theoretical question that can be avoided. Life is relationships. In a fallen world, relationships get damaged and broken. What we believe about forgiveness will determine whether or not we can move forward for God’s glory and our own joy. (Unpacking Forgiveness, 72-73).
Overcoming anger and resentment is important, but forgiveness is something more, something different, something that involves two parties instead of one.