The Principles of Biblical Forgiveness
- A Workbook -
Summary Sheet for Processing Offenses
- If someone has offended you, first make sure that you’ve given up all thought of exacting revenge; otherwise, you’re in a state of sin yourself - and you should never attempt to “rebuke” anyone while you yourself are in a state of sin. God will not honor your rebuke. It will only serve to further exacerbate the alienation. Scripture, however, does not require that you postpone your rebuke until your anger has totally dissipated; anger is not vengeance. Anger can lead to vengeance; nevertheless, there’s a very real distinction between the two. But, be careful here! You can very easily fool yourself.
Any failure here in taking this first step will inevitably pervert the whole forgiveness process. The offended party must surrender his wrath to God. The forgiveness process must be undertaken in a spirit of love and redemption; and its purpose must be kept always in mind: it's meant to effect reconciliation - that alone and nothing else.
Notice how often the phrase "you're in a state of sin yourself" is used throughout these 26 rules. Point that out very forcefully to the person you're counseling. We tend not to ascribe sin to the offended party; after all, he's "the victim." However, you must help the person you're counseling to take note of how easy it is for someone who's been offended to fall into sin when dealing with the offense he's suffered.
- You are not permitted to prolong the process of composing yourself - of releasing your wrath to God. You must engage your faith and act quickly to “put off” all thoughts of vengeance. Scripture strikes a note of urgency here: the offense must be resolved as quickly as possible. There’s no justifiable excuse for protracting it.
It's going to be tough for you to get the person you're counseling into the habit of not procrastinating. Don't let him put off a confrontation with the excuse that he hasn't set aside his wrath. That's just a coping device on his part. He's got to start walking by faith. Just because he "feels" angry doesn't mean that he's being helplessly driven to act out his anger.
- Go privately to the person who has offended you and rebuke him. Try never to rebuke him in the presence of others. Keep in mind the definition of the biblical term “rebuke.” It doesn't mean to rail; it means to
a. prove your case;
b. describe it thoroughly;
c. explain carefully why it’s an offense - and what, specifically, it “stole” from you.
Remember, the dynamic underlying all sin is “theft.” What, then, has his offense stolen from you? If you’re unable to describe his offense in terms of a theft, it may not be an offense in any genuine biblical sense. It may be simply a disagreement; and a disagreement is not an offense in and of itself.
- Do not wait long for the offending party to assume the initiative - to acknowledge his offense and seek your forgiveness. That’s not a biblically condoned attitude. Scripture never leaves you in a state of contingency - waiting for the other party to act. If he fails to assume the initiative, you must take the first step. And if you don’t, you put yourself in a state of sin. Once again, you're required to act quickly - to resolve the offense just as soon as possible. It should not be long and drawn out.
- Don’t expect the person who offended you to be able to articulate his offense. He may not even be aware that he has offended you. His ignorance, in and of itself, is not an offense. It should not be “held against” him. You bear the responsibility of describing the offense. Don’t make it his responsibility.
It's surprising how many Christians fall into this trap. They want the persons who have offended them to be able to articulate their offenses. It often amounts to little more than an attempt to humiliate them.
- Don't attempt to “slough off” his offense - especially if you find it “eating away at you.” Inevitably, it'll fester below the surface of your consciousness - eventually generating a defiling bitterness. Remember, bitterness always defiles. First, it will defile you - and, then, ultimately, it will defile your closest and dearest friends.
Placaters and appeasers are forever falling into this trap. Press them hard. They're apt to be very slippery and elusive - and you've got to stay on top of them relentlessly. They must be both taught and encouraged - sometimes sternly - not to "slough off" offenses.
- “Stewing” is sinful. If you find yourself stewing, do not blame it on the person who has offended you. It’s not his sin; it’s yours. Don’t stew!
a. Go to him;
b. confront him directly with his offense; and
c. rebuke him - keeping in mind what the word “rebuke” actually means.
- Your rebuke must stay focused on a specific, well defined offense - a single incident, not a series of incidents. You must not allow it to extend to a character trait - and certainly not to his entire personality. Don't go “cosmic.” If you extend your rebuke beyond a single, specific offense, you put yourself in a state of sin.
This is a "make-it-or-break-it" rule. Be prepared to "go to the mat" with everyone regarding this rule.
- Your perception of an offense cannot be based upon "second guessing" or "reading between the lines." The offense should stand on its own - stripped of any subjective assessment on your part. If a specific gesture or comment is subject to a variety of interpretations and its meaning is not immediately apparent, you may respectfully ask the offending party about it. If he denies malice, you are required to take him at his word.1 You must rid yourself of the habit of playing amateur psychologist. To do so puts you in a state of sin. Troubled individuals are forever interpreting the behavior of others through an "interpretational grid" built out of their own fears and lusts. That grid must be utterly dismantled.
This is another "make-it-or-break-it" rule. The use of a distorting "interpretational grid" is at the very core - the very heart - of some people's way of life. It's the dynamic that "feeds" all their coping devices - it undergirds all the defense mechanisms they've formulated over the years. They won't dismantle it without a "big time" struggle.
- No “word of knowledge” or “prophetic word” of any kind can be brought to bear. Neither plays any role whatsoever in processing offenses. All offenses must be processed on a purely objective plane.
It's not just Pentecostals and Charismatics who have a hard time with this rule. Non-Pentecostals and non-Charismatics often find it just as difficult. The terms they use, however, are different: instead of using terms like "word of knowledge" and "prophetic insight," they'll say something like, "I have no peace from the Lord" or "God hasn't shown me his will yet." But it all amounts to the same ploy. They've been backed into a corner - with no way out - and they're trying to play "the God card."
- Your rebuke must be redemptive in nature. It should never assume the form of “railing.” Ultimately, you should design your rebuke to effect reconciliation, not further alienation.
- If your rebuke prompts the offending party to repent, you must forgive him - and that means terminating your estrangement from him - in concrete, tangible ways. You should be able to specify exactly what you’ve been withholding from him in terms of a broken relationship - and restore exactly that to him. If you don’t restore him to fellowship - in a concrete, tangible form - you put yourself in a state of sin.
Press the persons you're counseling relentlessly here. Make sure that their forgiveness is real and genuine; that it's not just a "mouth full of words." Have them take a good, hard look at how exactly they're restoring fellowship. Make sure that the person who's been forgiven is convinced that the "restoration" is real. And that too might prove to be difficult - especially for persons who are placaters and appeasers. They're apt to settle for little more than "eggshell peace," not genuine fellowship. It's your job, as counselors, to go beyond "eggshell peace;" to keep them from settling for that alone.
- If you doubt the offending party's repentance, you’re permitted to exact restitution. Restitution serves to prove the sincerity of his repentance, not some subjective assessment on your part. Again, neither a word of knowledge nor a prophetic word of any kind can be brought to bear. Neither can be used in proving the sincerity of his repentance. Restitution alone serves this purpose. Moreover, restitution should never be confused with retribution. The restitution should be commensurate with the offense; it should restore what the offense stole from you - adding 20% to its value. Anything more is retribution.
- Restitution should always be used whenever you doubt the sincerity of someone's repentance. Don’t be "tricked" into thinking that forgoing restitution is the "spiritual thing to do;" that exacting restitution falls short of the "law of love" - that it's somehow "carnal." That’s not true. If you doubt someone's repentance and yet fail to exact restitution, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve made it difficult to “close the offense” and restore him to fellowship. You’re doing both yourself and him a grave disservice.
Make sure you know if the person you're counseling is a placater - because it's a placater who is most apt to back away from exacting restitution. Placaters give the appearance of being spiritual; but it's only a "good show." Their failure to exact restitution makes it difficult for them to close offenses and resolve anger - so bitterness gradually builds up - and, eventually, poisons their lives.
- If you forgive someone without exacting restitution, you can't later change your mind and seek to exact it. Your forgiveness must stand without it - however difficult that might be. "A card laid is a card played."
- Except in the most egregious of cases, forgiveness and restoration to fellowship should not be made contingent upon actually completing whatever restitution has been agreed to. All that's required is the agreement itself and, correspondingly, a good faith effort to follow through. If it's determined that a good faith effort is not being undertaken, that should be considered an additional offense - and handled accordingly.
This is a new rule; it has been included here to keep alienation from being dragged out interminably - which is what occurs (1) if the restitution requires an extended period of time to complete or (2) if someone - either consciously or unconsciously - is abusing the principle of restitution to justify his continued alienation. Don't let that happen! Make sure the principle is not being abused. Come down hard on any abuse! The whole point here is reconciliation.
- If the offending party acknowledges his sin but feels that the restitution you’re demanding is not commensurate with the offense he's committed, you must permit him to seek the judgment of a trained, church appointed panel of judges. Furthermore, you’re not permitted to hold against him either the fact that he disagrees with the restitution you’re demanding or the fact that he wants it submitted to a panel for its evaluation. The judgment of the panel must stand1.
- If the offending party, after listening attentively and respectfully to your rebuke - with no interruptions - wishes to respond to your rebuke, you’re obliged to listen. You must be prepared to engage him in a dialogue; but the dialogue should not be long and drawn out. Furthermore, he's not permitted to harangue you or to raise any additional issues. He is obliged to maintain a gentle, nonthreatening, respectful attitude. The offense alone should constitute the focus of the dialogue.
- Resist the temptation to placate and appease. The sin must be resolved and the offense closed. God is not pleased when a sin is overlooked for the purpose of placating someone who's offended you. You inevitably leave him in a state of sin and fail in your responsibility to shepherd him back to God.
- The offending party is not permitted to question your motives in bringing the rebuke. He is not allowed to play the role of “amateur psychologist.” If the offense is real, that alone is sufficient.
This is obviously a corollary of Rules #9 and #10, but it needs to be made explicit.
- If the offending party fails to acknowledge his sin or fails to listen attentively and respectfully to your rebuke, you’re not permitted to drop the issue. You must not allow yourself to be bullied. To do so puts you in a state of sin. You’re obliged to invoke the principles outlined in Matthew 18: call two or three persons as witnesses to your rebuke. They should be drawn from a pool of individuals who have been trained in the biblical process of forgiveness and who have been appointed to the pool by the church eldership. If there were witnesses to the actual offense, they too should be called.
A. The witnesses who observed the actual offense, if there are any, can testify to its authenticity.
B. The witnesses drawn from the pool established by the church eldership should confine their observations to two issues: (a) Is the offending party giving the offended party a fair hearing? And (b) Are the "forgiveness rules" being honored and rigorously enforced?
The judgment of the witnesses must stand.
This is tough rule for placaters; watch for its violation.
- The witnesses are not to play the role of intermediaries; they're not to insert themselves into the actual confrontation; they must keep themselves from passing judgment on any of the substantive issues being discussed. Their role is strictly limited: once again: (1) whether or not a fair hearing is being provided; (2) whether or not the rules are being rigorously applied; and (3) in the case of witnesses who observed the actual offense, the authenticity of the offense itself. Remember, direct, personal confrontation is necessary if the reconciliation that emerges is to be truly personal in nature. And, at this stage, that's still what we're seeking. Personal reconciliation requires personal confrontation - and intermediaries tend to subvert this kind of an outcome.
This is tough for everyone; make sure that it's honored rigorously; it's tough for the witnesses as well. We're all tempted to violate it; don't do it: you'll undermine the whole process of achieving genuine personal reconciliation.
- If the witnesses determine that the offending party has given you a fair hearing but that an impasse has nevertheless been reached, they may refer the matter to a trained, church appointed panel of judges. The judgment of the panel must stand. Here, judgment on substantive issues is being rendered.
- The panel will determine whether or not an actual offense has occurred; it may also help to determine an appropriate restitution - should restitution be required. Here again, the panel is passing judgment on substantive issues. The judgment of the panel must stand.
- Once the offense is closed, fellowship must be restored in a concrete, tangible form. Otherwise, a state of sin exists.
- If, after the offense has been “closed,” you find that you're still upset, you’re obliged to assume that, in all likelihood, you're suffering from "free-floating" anger." You must ask God to help you identify its source. Don’t permit anyone to play “amateur psychologist.” Press into fellowship with God alone - into the secret chambers of your own heart. In the meantime, you can’t continue to alienate the person you've just forgiven - regardless of how you feel. To do so puts you in a state of sin. He must be restored to fellowship.
Press this rule hard - and it won't be long before you've got the "time bombs" in the church spotted and clearly identified. Then work on them relentlessly. Remember, the key to eradicating "free floating anger" is to get anyone suffering from it to (1) acknowledge it and (2) walk out reconciliation by faith. Teach them that they're not apt to "feel" the reconciliation they're walking out until a lot of time has elapsed; but that if they "give in" to their anger, they're only feeding it and forestalling genuine victory.