Forms of forgiveness

The minister of Emmanuel Evangelical Church in Southgate, London posts something that can help us appreciate aspects of forgiveness. Here’s Steve Jeffrey in full:

When, after a high profile crime such as murder or an act of violence, there is a public announcement by the victim or relatives of the victim that they “forgive” those who committed the crime, there is considerable room for confusion. The subject of forgiveness, it turns out, is more complicated than it sometimes seems. For this reason I’m very grateful to a friend of mine for the following notes on the subject, which go a long way towards making some of the ncessary clarifications.

First some basic concepts:

  • There is “full restoration of proper relationship” between the two parties (offender and offended). Call this “forgiveness 1” or F1.
  • There is “a demeanour of forgiving-ness, a readiness to forgive” on the part of the offended. Call this “forgiveness 2” or F2.
  • There is “a willingness to forego due restitution, compensation and/or a willingness not to prosecute the offender” on the part of the offended. Call this “forgiveness 3” or F3.
  • And there is repentance (with apologies, endeavours to make restitution etc) on the part of the offender.

It should be obvious that there cannot be F1 without repentance.

That being the case, when the offended stands to declare, “I forgive those who killed my son” then they might mean F2 or F3 but they cannot – independently of the attitudes and actions of the guilty party – mean F1.

F2 is always required of the Christian and is, indeed, the “Christian” response. And F2 carries with it true love, namely, a desire for and willingness to take action to achieve the well-being of the other person.

It is possible that, in the absence of repentance from the guilty party, the love which accompanies F2 would see that the well-being of the guilty party is best furthered by taking steps which will bring them to repentance. It is possible that insisting on prosecution or full restitution may be the most loving thing that the offended can do (the thing most likely to achieve the well-being of the guilty party). This may arise not from a desire for revenge but in order to secure the best for the guilty party.

Similarly, the expression of anger towards the guilty party for the crime he has committed may also be a loving thing to do (just as God expresses his anger towards his people for their sin – because he loves them and intends to wake them up to the harm it is doing to them. Sometimes a parent will even “pretend” to be angry for the good of the child – when the child has done something funny but naughty). And that expression of anger will flow from and co-exist with F2.

So in summary, “I forgive them” from the victim in the absence of repentance from the offender

  • never means F1;

  • always means F2;

  • only means F3 where it is the most loving thing to do;

  • can co-exist with an expression of anger and an insistence on prosecution.


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