Forgiveness is not conditional

Several weeks after Easter, in a continuing teaching for the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis focused on the Gospel episode of Jesus’ dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. St Luke tells us that while Jesus was there a sinner came up to Jesus, bathed his feet with her tears and anointed them with precious, perfumed ointment. Simon appeared to be taken aback by Jesus’ willingness to have contact with sinners.

Commenting on this, Pope Francis said the Lord distinguishes between the sin and the sinner. “He teaches Simon that the woman’s act, as an expression of her faith and trust in God’s mercy, has merited the forgiveness of her sins.”

The woman was remorseful. She was sorry for what she had done.

At a training weekend for marriage educators in Auckland from May 20 to 22, Aaron Ironside, a pastor, radio announcer and counsellor, gave a keynote address on “The Psychology of Forgiveness” (see page 10 of this issue).

Mr Ironside addressed the myths surrounding forgiveness, one of which is
that if the offender does not repent, the victim should withhold forgiveness. However, Mr  Ironside said, that approach just perpetuates the pain of the victim.

Baptist pastor Dr Stephen Kim of New York has said there is a false and damaging teaching quite often put forward in Christian circles, that we are to forgive others just as God forgives us.

“Keep in mind that God only forgives those who first repent and come to him with a contrite heart. Likewise, we, as Christians, should not forgive others until they too first repent of their wrongs against us.”

That false teaching ensnares many in debilitating bitterness, Dr Kim said.

Let’s look again at the often misused and abused Ephesians 4:32 text: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Yes, Dr Kim points out, God will not grant salvation to those who do not repent (Luke 24:47). However, he also points out, we are not God.

Withholding forgiveness only harms our own soul, he said. “It creates a darkness within the soul that begins to turn you into a person that no one wants to be around.

In this sense, the offender wins twice — first through his offence, then, through your lack of forgiveness, he turns you into a child of hell. A pessimistic, bitter, angry man/ woman who snaps at anyone and anything around you.”

Mr Ironside raised another myth that could be significant for Christians: “I forgive because I am a Christian.”

Not so, he said. A relationship with Jesus is not a life skill.

In other words, forgiveness is not something we say we offer because we think we should. That is responding to something external. Our response should arise from within, because we have become formed to have an interior life of love.

Mr Ironside pointed out that confession and reconciliation are not the same thing. Confession is the first step towards reconciliation, but reconciliation requires true acknowledgement of the hurt and harm done and willingness to listen to the victim.

Sometimes, remorse is lacking. The offender is unwilling to confess, face the consequences and make necessary changes. So the person who forgives does
not necessarily have to resume a relationship with the offender. As St Matthew says, we may have to be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

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