The Healthy Church: Embodying Forgiveness

L. Gregory Jones

Several years ago my wife, a UM pastor, had been appointed to a new congregation. As the movers were unloading our furniture, members of the congregation were stopping by and asking to talk with her for a few minutes. I was puzzled, because it seemed to go beyond the normal welcome. Eventually Susan told me that the members all wanted to tell her “what happened that night.” “That night” referred to a meeting of the administrative board earlier in the year when long-standing bitterness finally erupted. For a period of time a group of board members left the meeting, and conducted a separate one in another part of the church. When that group returned to announce what they had decided, a shouting match erupted. In the midst of the angry words, people actually threw chairs across the room at each other. Although I once thought this was a tragic, but unique story, I have now come to realize that it is more common than we want to admit. Perhaps chairs are not actually thrown, but bitterness and brokenness is real in too many congregations.

Yet Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:17-21).

Indeed, the message of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. We are ambassadors for Christ. This is our gift and our task. But how do we live into that message—that is, shaping healthy churches that understand what it means to practice reconciliation in ways that offer life abundant to one another and maintain a powerful witness to a broken world?

Living into the Message of Reconciliation

In order to live into the message of reconciliation, we must reclaim the significance of forgiveness in our congregations and in the friendships and practices of our lives. This involves a deeper understanding of forgiveness, a willingness to embody it in our lives, and a recognition that it will involve costly engagements with others—especially our enemies.

In the 1930s, D. Bonhoeffer issued a famous polemic against cheap grace. He defined cheap grace as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.” He went on to note that in such a reduction “my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven” (The Cost of Discipleship [Simon & Schuster, 1995] 44-45, 51).

Regrettably, Bonhoeffer’s polemic is as appropriate for the church in America at the beginning of the 21st century as it was for the church in the first half of the 20th in Germany. We have trivialized and cheapened the costly forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. We have made forgiveness virtually irrelevant except as a salve in a pop culture of therapy. We have too often made it seem as if there is hardly anything broken that might require repentance. Or, if we acknowledge that there is sin in the world, it is typically somebody else’s fault. So we cultivate a culture of victims.

As Christians, we need to recognize both the pervasive condition of sin that we identify as original, and the particular sins of commission and omission that mark our lives. We need to understand forgiveness as a way of life of unlearning sin and as a means of dealing with particular sins.

Forgiveness is the means by which God’s love moves us toward reconciliation in the wake of sin and evil. God created us for communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation. As we have resisted and rejected that love, we find ourselves in a condition of brokenness where we assert (or annihilate) ourselves rather than live in communion. God’s forgiveness in Christ aims to restore us to communion.

Reclaiming the Costliness of Forgiveness

We need to reclaim costly forgiveness in our lives if we are to be reconciled people living in communion with God and one another as God intended. The first step in reclaiming the costliness of forgiveness is to rediscover that our being forgiven by God precedes any power we have to forgive. This is the force of Matt 7:1-5. God offers forgiveness to us by God’s free and gracious love. We cannot earn that forgiveness. It should be noted, however, that although the emphasis falls rightly on the priority of God’s free initiative of forgiveness, the indissoluble connection between forgiveness and repentance must not be forgotten. Without that connection, forgiveness devolves into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. As K. Barth observed, “repent not because you must, but because you may.”

So we are called to engage in those practices of Christian life that help us learn how to experience God’s forgiveness through our words, thoughts, emotions, and indeed, our daily actions—a discovery that leads us to more holy living through daily repentance. This occurs significantly through living into our baptism and the celebration of communion, but it also occurs through developing habits of prayer and healing, of singing, of receiving and offering hospitality, and of resisting injustice. The more entrenched our habits of sin have become in our lives and in the world, the more important it becomes to develop habits that help us unlearn sin and embody the forgiveness that enables us to focus on holy living.

Embodying forgiveness also invites us to cultivate Christian character that manifests the fruit of the Spirit. For example, Tertullian noted in his treatise On Patience that “patience is the mother of mercy.” If we want to live as forgiven and forgiving people, we will need to discover the significance not only of patience but also generosity and faithfulness.

The embodiment of Christian forgiveness also entails a commitment to truthfulness, to redemptive speech and silence. It includes knowing what to say and what not to say, but being committed to hearing and speaking the truth in love (cf. Eph 4:25-5:1).

The better we understand what it means to have genuinely received forgiveness, both from God and from others, the more powerfully we will likely understand what it means to forgive others.

Forgiveness redeems the past and orients us to the future. It does not undo the past. We worship Christ crucified and risen, not Christ uncrucified. The forgiveness Christ accomplishes is designed to set us free from the burdens and brokenness of the past in order to live as holy people in God’s kingdom.

Cultivating Patience and Repentance

But what happens if the other person or persons are unwilling to repent? It may be because of disagreements about the nature of sin or about the circumstances of what happened. At that point, we need to cultivate the practice of discernment and the virtue of prudence, seeking the guidance of the Spirit as in Acts 15. Note that in the resolution of the Council of Jerusalem, they indicate that “it seems good to the Spirit and to us”—there is no place for the assertion of individual ego in the discernment of God’s Spirit.

Yet what if the circumstances are clear, the sin is real, and the other(s) refuse to repent? The question is as vexing as it is crucial. Yet we also need to begin with a word of caution. It is often the case that when we are being asked to repent, we want to have a very long timeline for doing so. For me, changing bad, and even sinful habits, can take a very long time.

However, if we want the other person to repent, we want it to happen immediately. I am often terribly impatient with how little seems to change day-by-day, and I may even doubt whether the other person is serious about changing their patterns. Here patience is crucial. After all, even as saintly a Christian as C.S. Lewis wrote in one of his letters to Malcolm that “last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over 30 years. Trying, and praying that I might” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer [Harcourt Brace, and World, 1964] 106).

Even so, sometimes it is patently clear that the other(s) are not interested in repenting. Then we must acknowledge that they are enemies, that they intend harm. But we are not permitted to demonize them. We are called to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44) in the hope that we might induce them through love and prayer to desire reconciliation.

Loving enemies is our calling when reconciliation, at least in the short-term, is not possible. But it is a crucial step in the process of moving toward the fullness of forgiveness and reconciliation. I suspect one of the reasons we cheapen forgiveness is because we do not want to undertake the costly, yet life-giving work of repentance ourselves, and of loving enemies if others are unable or unwilling to repent.

It is, of course, not a new problem. Augustine noted in one of his sermons that his parishioners had heard that they were to pray for their enemies—and so they would—they would pray for them to die (cited in W. Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate [Liturgical Press, 1995] 290-91).

Jonah understood the power of God’s forgiveness. He would have gotten an “A” on a paper about the doctrine of God. At the beginning of ch.4, he describes God’s character beautifully. But this is exactly what he dislikes about God! It is not enough to understand God’s forgiveness; we are called to embody that forgiveness in our own lives, even to the point of loving our enemies and praying for the possibility of reconciliation.

We live in a time when too many Christians are metaphorically—and all too often literally—throwing chairs at one another. How can we offer the good news of a gracious and forgiving God to the world if we fail to reflect and embody the message ourselves? We need healthy churches and healthy Christians, and they are both nurtured through the costly grace and life-giving work of embodying forgiveness. After all, Paul reminds us that the message has been entrusted to us—not to me or them or some abstract other, but to us. Are we up to the challenge?

For additional reading on this topic, see L.G. Jones, “Crafting Communities of Forgiveness,” Interpretation 54 (2000) 121-34; D. Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (Doubleday, 1999); M. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996).

Posted Apr 01, 2003