The Christian Faith is all about forgiveness. What does forgiveness look like? Let me explain forgiveness in a story.
You invite a friend over to explain why you have to do an unpleasant task. You explain why it is necessary and your friend grudgingly agrees, but he leaves angry and in his car he purposely backs over your mailbox and then drives over it again before speeding down the road. To replace the mailbox will cost at least $100. This is a debt your friend owes you. The monetary debt is not the only debt. Your relationship is also broken. You have feelings of anger and sadness at how things turned out. Those are debts too. You have been wronged. You want vengeance. He needs to pay. He owes you and you have a desire to even the score.
However, you decide to forgive. As a Christian, you forgive because God has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32). You are no different than him. You both are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness (Romans 3:23). You forgive because you have been forgiven much (Matthew 18:23-35). With the Holy Spirit in you, you have the power to forgive. This is the first dimension of forgiveness. It is upward and looks to God.
You internally forgive your friend. If you do not, your friend and this event will have power over you. By not forgiving, you will let this event influence you in the decisions you make. By forgiving, you decide not to demand the $100+ from your friend. You will also treat him well and will not extract a payment in any way for the mental anguish he caused you. If you do not, your unforgiveness will bind you and you will take actions solely because of what he did. Forgiving will free you from this bondage. This is the second dimension of forgiveness and it is inward (Mark 11:25).
The third dimension of forgiveness is outward (Luke 17:3-4). You go to your friend to reconcile with him. You confront your friend about the wrong, the destruction of the mailbox and his anger. Most of the time, it is not 100% his fault. You likely had a part to play in the wrong. No matter how small a part it was, you should apologize and ask him for forgiveness for your small part. That will help with the reconciliation. Now you have confronted him with his wrongdoing. If he takes your admonition to heart, forgive him and let him know that you will not hold anything against him. If he does not and refuses to repent, then you still can be open to restoring the relationship as much as it is possible (Romans 12:18). Even without his repentance, you have internally forgiven him so you can and should still treat him with love and respect, however the relationship is not what it once was.
If things are serious, you may need to involve the police. You should consider whether having the police involved is the best thing for him and for others in contact with him. Out of love for him and for the others, you need to consider what is best. Note justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. Your internal forgiveness frees you to do the best thing possible without any need for revenge, and that may mean involving the justice system.
So how does justice play into this idea of forgiveness? Looking at God’s forgiveness for us, we start with the knowledge that God is both forgiving and just. On the cross, out of love, God reconciled the world to himself by paying our debt (Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19). He could not ignore our sin and let it go. Justice required a payment for our sins and Jesus made that payment on the cross. So justice and forgiveness need not be exclusive to each other.
People, who do not like forgiveness, often point to abusers and oppressors for their reason not to forgive. They think you are letting them get away with their wrongdoing. In most of these cases of abuse, power dynamics are involved. The abuser or the oppressor twists the relationship so that they are in control and they have the power. It is not a healthy relationship. It is best for others and for the abuser/oppressor that they receive justice that will protect society. A slap on the hand is not going to change their behavior. They need a sterner punishment for their own good and for the good of society.
The purpose of forgiveness is to restore and create a good healthy relationship. Internal forgiveness makes it possible for the relationship to be restored. The repentance of the offender with the proclamation of forgiveness then allows the relationship to be restored. This restoration is a process that can take some time before the relationship is fully restored.
This post was partially based on Timothy Keller’s book, “Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?”.