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Right now I don’t want to talk about judging others. It’s something that gets talked about a lot, and for a good reason: judging others is something that many people struggle with. Romans 8 takes the idea of passing judgment head on when it asks: “Who is to condemn?” The answer? “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).
The only one who gets to judge is Jesus. We knows this. We remember vividly the story of Jesus telling everyone that only those without sin could cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery. We remember everyone walking away, unable to condemn her on account of their own sin. And, we remember that the one who was in a position to condemn – only Christ Jesus – did not cast stones, but showed grace.
We know all this.
We might be terrible at practicing what we preach, but we know that judgment really isn’t something we’re in a position to pass on others.
But, what if the question was: Who is in a position to forgive?
How would we answer that one?
When someone hurts us directly, the answer seems pretty straightforward. If we’ve been hurt, we’re in a position to offer forgiveness. And, because all sins are against God, God is ultimately the one who can forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4), Jesus teaches the disciples to pray for forgiveness from God. Interestingly, in both recorded versions of this prayer from Jesus, forgiveness from God is somehow related to our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us.
In Luke 11:4 it says, “And forgive us our sin, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Matthew 6:12 reads: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Somehow our ability to forgive those who have sinned against us is connected to the forgiveness we receive from God. But, it still remains that when someone has wronged us, we are in a position to forgive.
But, what about in the case of a scandal in the church? What about when someone in the body of Christ hurts someone else in the body of Christ? What about when abuse is discovered and called out?
I could name two very recent sexual abuse scandals that have been plastered all over the media of late, but I won’t, because unfortunately these scandals are nothing new. The issue of forgiveness in instances of abuse isn’t something that only applies to these high profile cases, it is something that congregations around the country – and world – deal with on a far too regular basis.
One of the most controversial teachings of Jesus is that we ought not only to love our neighbors, but also our enemies. We are called to pray for our enemies, offer love and grace, and give to those who have taken from us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “‘You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father” (Matthew 5:43-45a).
And so, when it comes out that someone in our midst has abused someone else in our midst, we want to find a way to offer love and grace both to the person who has been hurt and to the abuser. I get that. I think there’s something theologically important that we are wrestling with when we seek to offer love and care to the perpetrator as well as to the victim.
But, there’s something we cannot do. We cannot publicly offer forgiveness to the abuser, because forgiveness is not ours to give. Of course, we may feel hurt and shocked by what has happened. We might feel angry that the community we believed was safe has been shown unsafe. We might feel embarrassed and ashamed that the good reputation of our church or community has been tarnished. We feel violated.
But, we also know that forgiveness comes from God. We know that God’s love is enough to cover a multitude of sins. And so we want to offer quick forgiveness because we think it is the right thing to do. We want to offer quick forgiveness because, in some way, it makes us feel like we’re taking the high road.
In reality, the move to offer quick forgiveness is something we do in order to protect ourselves. We feel uncomfortable sitting with the pain, and so we want to rush to make it better. But, in the process, offering quick public forgiveness is doing something far more damaging.
When the church publicly forgives an offender, the victim loses the ability to forgive, or to have any say in when/how forgiveness is offered. It takes yet another choice away from the victim, and it can even make a statement that the church is more concerned about the abuser than the one who has been abused.
We cannot rush victims of abuse to forgiveness. We cannot offer forgiveness in their stead because it is not ours to give. We cannot smooth things over to save face, our reputation, or to escape the discomfort we feel. We can offer love to the abuser, we can help an abuser seek help (from approved and recognized organizations, and not some in-house program). But, we should never do these things at the expense of the one who has been hurt.
Instead of asking, “How can we make our pain go away?” we need to be asking the person who was hurt, “How can we best support you?” Just as God promises to be near to the brokenhearted in Psalm 34:18, we need to be asking how we can be near to those whose hearts have been broken.
Forgiveness is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t mean no longer being affected by what happened. It’s something that may need to be worked on for years, decades, or even a lifetime depending on the severity and duration of the abuse.
When abuse is uncovered in the church, our job is not to try and make it go away as quickly as possible. If the abuse happened in one of the church’s ministries, every effort needs to be made to ensure our ministries are as safe as possible. Confession needs to be made if failings on our part contributed to what happened. And those who were hurt need to be supported along their journey towards healing. If the abuse did not take place in the context of one of the church’s ministries, every effort still needs to be made to protect and support those who were hurt.
Who is in a position to forgive? The one who has been wronged, and God. We can’t force forgiveness, and we can’t offer it on behalf of someone else. We need to be willing to sit next those who are suffering and grieve with them. We need make space for the pain rather than try to cover it over. And the question we need to have always at the ready is, “What can we do to support you?”