Therapeutic and Conditional Forgiveness

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Last week I was challenged to think about the ideas I have on forgiveness. There were a few things in this post by Kevin DeYoung (which I was directed to from this post) that made me pause and consider my ideas, ask a few questions, and then spend some time studying the Bible.

Therapeutic & Conditional 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.”

First, I thought “therapeutic” was a very interesting way to view forgiveness. I had never even considered it, and I truly wondered what I do. I know that I am to forgive others, and that I want to be forgiven. I know that God expects me to forgive, and that my own forgiveness depends on it (Mt 6:12-15). I wondered, since I don’t really pay attention to how or why I forgive, what is my motive for forgiving others? Is it with a motive of self-preservation, with a grumpy ‘Fine, I’ll forgive’ but only because I myself want forgiveness? Is that my deepest motive? I had to consider whether I forgive “therapeutically”, with my motive being just to get my emotions under control, jettisoning my offended feelings so I can move on with a very happy day. Or, is it that, when I look at all those ugly emotions swirling in my mind and heart, I get rid of them because they make me ‘look bad’ to God? Do I just take a “breather”, compose myself, looking at all those toxic feelings of anger and bitterness scattered throughout my mind, the elevated fight reflex coursing through my blood, and ffoorrggiivveeee…. Ah, I feel much better.

DeYoung was commenting on a selection from “Unpacking Forgiveness” by Chris Brauns. Brauns writes:

“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.”

The other part of this article that made me pause was this:

“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. (emphasis mine)

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.”

Conditioned upon repentance? Those words really took me off guard. Is that true? At this point, I was becoming very aware of how fuzzy my knowledge is on forgiveness. Is this true? Or, since I try to distance myself from church divisions, is this controversial and debatable? I scrolled down to the comments section to see what other people were thinking and saying. Some were saying things like “finally Biblical teaching”, while others were asking for scripture and clarification. At this point, I decided that was where I should turn: to scripture.

Investigating Scripture

I spent some time studying the Bible to get at what God has said about forgiveness, and I discovered that is very clear that God does place conditions on Christians.

(1) Mt 6: 14-15 tells us that we must forgive in order to be forgiven. If we don’t, God will not forgive us. It seems that this condition is placed on us so that we recognize the seriousness of our own sin. The note in my Bible (Apologetics Study Bible, HCSB) states:

 “Forgiveness is an attitude that follows from recognition of the seriousness of our sin. A person with an unforgiving heart toward others shows that he does not take his own sin seriously and has not appropriated God’s forgiveness.”

(2) Within the church, the offended person must confront the offender. Mt 18:15-17 and Lk 17:3-4 are clear about this, and this has got to be one of the most difficult things to do. It depends a great deal on relationships. If you know the people well, it is much easier to bring something like this up. Then there is the gray area of church acquaintance, where you know people, but you really don’t know them well enough to confront them with sin. Or that they would confront me with sin, either. Honestly, I don’t really obey this, and it is just because I am a social coward. It is much easier to do the “therapeutic” part, scrub the ugliness off my consciousness until I ‘feel’ right, and then move on. But I if I am honest, I know that there is a barrier of varying thickness between me and that other person.

(3) Within the church, the offender must repent before receiving forgiveness. Mt 18:15-17 and Lk 17:3-4 are clear on this as well. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” I have to ask myself, do I do this? If I (or we) don’t act on the first command to confront the offender, will we ever hear the words ‘I repent’? It is almost as if, by being non-confrontational, we short circuit God’s plan for refining his people in the church.

And we don’t even need to see any action (repentance) at all to forgive. Just so we are all on the same page, “feeling sorry” is only part of repentance.  I grew up thinking this was all there was to repentance. The other part is “to be disposed to change one’s life for the better.” God expects penitence and a desire to change and make things right. Zaccheus repented when, to those he extorted money from, he paid back four times.

If someone came to me seven times in one day ‘repenting’ of sin, I would have to question his definition of repentance! God knows this, of course! That is why he tells Peter in Mt 18:22 to forgive seventy times seven, and then tells the parable of the unforgiving slave. It sounds ludicrous to accept ‘I repent’ that many times (490) and to forgive, but it must be exactly what God sees. He is the master and we owe him 10,000 talents1. The “actions” of repentance seems to be what God is looking for—not the work, not at first, but the humility to acknowledge our sin and speak about it to who we have sinned against. If I imagine myself sinning that many times in a day and having to progressively return to confess my sin, I see myself getting more and more embarrassed and alarmed at myself. This reminds me of Paul’s description of godly sorrow in 2 Cor 7 and how it leads to repentance. This alarm at myself, at my ineptitude and stupidity, though, mixed with pride can lead worldly sorrow, to giving up and, ultimately, to death.

(4) I also read the emotions and virtues associated with forgiveness. Eph 4:30 and Col 3:13 tell us to remove bitterness, anger, insult, slander, and to put on compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience—then forgive others as the Lord forgave you. Here I can see where a therapy mentality could develop. We are to scrub out the ugliness, we are to be kind, but it is from the viewpoint of our relationship to God. Utterly destitute, God forgives us based on an immaterial ‘I repent’, a promise only. This is the comparison, the condition: as the Lord forgave us.

(5) There is one point that Jesus forgave the mass of people that were executing him. He asks God to forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing. There is no rebuke, no conversation with them, no reconciliation sought, just a plea to God based on the offender’s ignorance and slavery to sin. If people are just mean to us, in whatever way, I don’t think we necessarily have a responsibility to ‘make it right’. I don’t think we can expect or demand repentance prior to forgiveness.

Concluding Thoughts

So, I think what I have discovered is that God does command us to get control of the ugly emotions we feel when offended, but it is not for us so that we can feel better. It is so that reconciliation can occur between Christians. Forgiveness is conditional and challenging and, once again, proves that man did not write the Bible. Our nature is to satisfy ourselves, and I think that is what DeYoung is getting at: “forgiving” others is not about an emotional shower. Instead, except in the case of those crucifying Jesus, forgiveness seems to be absolutely relational. The questions raised by DeYoung’s article and my subsequent study have given me much to think about, and much to practice.


1I just finished a history of the Peloponnesian War, and one talent was enough to pay for the supplies and rowers for one Athenian ship for one month. Athens had ~6000 talents in their treasury, and they estimated it was enough to pay for 3 years war.

Marine Mammals as Metaphors for Spiritual Living

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I have been wondering lately about the interface between the material and spiritual worlds and how they connect. It may sound strange, but I just wonder what it looks like and how functions, and I think God may give us clues or metaphors as to what it is like. All metaphors do break down and fail if taken too far, though, so these are just some thoughts.

On Sunday I was imagining that the entire ocean represented the material universe, and the sky represents the spiritual realm. I had a picture in my mind of dolphins…how they are built for the water, yet are completely dependent on the air above their world. I think it is a wonderful picture of humanity’s dependence on God.

Just as it is essential for the dolphin to come to the surface for air, it struck me how essential it is for us to come to the surface for God’ Spirit. The air, when you think about it, is essentially separate to water. Bubbles of air don’t press into and  descend down into the depths. Small amounts of the gases may dissolve at the surface and diffuse slowly downward, but actual bubbles do not . Yet a mammal can inhale and carry a relatively large quantity of that air around with them wherever and as deep as they want to go. That is the only way (outside of man’s intervention) that a large quantity of air can move around below the surface of the ocean—inside of a mammal.

In the same way, we too can take from God what he gives us through His Bible and prayer, and bring it into a physical world that really has only a shadow of spirituality. And, in the same way, the air is slowly used up and we must return to the surface for spirituality. The air is not something we can produce in our bodies, but are completely dependent to return to God. Given this metaphor, it is not hard for me to image Jesus being fully man and fully God. Just as air, foreign to ourselves, fills our lungs and keeps us alive, so could the Holy Spirit completely and fully fill the material body of Jesus.

If indeed this ocean picture holds, I wondered what God sees as he looks out over the surface vast ocean of the world. Humanity coming here and there to the surface for life…or staying below in the depths, spiritual lungs burning in want. I wondered if, when God sees us in worship, he sees us like dolphins, breaking through the surface, flipping and twisting in playfulness in the air…only to fall back down into the physical world, unable to maintain, at least for the moment, a permanent place in the spiritual world.

She Did Nothing Wrong?

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I came across this article today, and the headline and first paragraph hooked me:

Former coach of the year fired from Christian school for out-of-wedlock pregnancy

 “In an incredibly bizarre situation that appears headed for a legal challenge, a Dallas-area volleyball coach and science teacher was fired by the Christian school at which she worked for becoming pregnant before being married.” (Emphasis mine)

The problem with this woman isn’t that she got pregnant out-of-wedlock. That is secondary, in my opinion. That she broke the school moral code is also secondary. The real problem is that she thinks she “did nothing wrong.” That’s why this sports writer describes the situation “incredibly bizarre.” I mean, what is wrong with doing what everyone else does?

In her own words she said:

“I looked it up and thought, ‘They can’t do this,'” the 29-year-old Samford told WFAA. “We all have different views and interpretations. It’s not necessarily the Christian thing to do to throw somebody aside because of those.”

This is the post-modern relativistic ideas that this teacher has been and would continue to stamp into the minds of all the children at that Christian school. If she would have kept her job, all the children would have learned that it is ok to have sex outside of marriage, to not wait for a faithful marriage partner, that it is ok to disagree with and not follow God’s commands. But the truth is, sexual immorality, impurity, pornography, text “sexting”, and the like is assaulting teens and children and destroying lives. Can we afford to let them think “I did nothing wrong”? No thanks!

Whoah! I just realized that I have totally been judging this woman! Jesus tells me not to judge, right? …but wait, He actually says:

1 “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2 For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? 5 Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Mt 7: 1-5)

Oh, so He is saying don’t be a hypocrite. Look at myself first; judge myself, then help my brother out with his speck…which requires a measure of judgement. But surely it is wrong to judge! Nobody is supposed to judge anybody—that is God’s job!

9 I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11 But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13 But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves.(Cor 5: 9-13)

Paul writes here clearly about judging. Christians are not to judge those outside the church, but those that are (or call themselves) Christians. Post-modern relativism doesn’t hold up against the Bible, but I hear the “don’t judge” mantras all the time from people. I think it is this very attitude leads to the incredibly bizarre situation of teachers appointed to Christian classrooms who do not have a clue as to their God appointed duty to train our children in God’s divine way.

I also think it bizarre that this “coach of the year” can find nothing wrong with herself. I go with my daughter to her basketball practices and they pick those girls apart, find their weakness and help them improve. Since Samford clearly has no Christian moral compass, I doubt she can seriously guide her players and students spiritually.

In the end, it is sad that this mother will most likely get buried in medical bills. She really doesn’t have a case against the school. But if she could have had even an ounce of humility, and could have even just whispered the phrase, “I was wrong,” perhaps she would be in a better situation. Perhaps the administration would have just put her on probation. Perhaps she could have share with the students what she did wrong and what she was going to do to fix it. It could have been an incredible story of grace, but that would have required some kind of acknowledgement other than “I did nothing wrong.”