Chris Brauns has an excellent new book out this month. It’s called Unpacking Forgiveness. You can check out my review of this book, or read the first part of my interview with him. Here’s the second half of the interview.
You talked about forgiveness being more than a feeling. Why do you think we often fall into a therapeutic, emotional understanding of forgiveness?
In the first place, it’s because feelings are so much a part of forgiveness. While I think biblical forgiveness is “more than a feeling,” it does involve feelings incredibly. Bitterness (the turmoil of feelings caused by an unwillingness to follow Christ’s example) eats people up.
But, too often, forgiveness has become only a feeling. Most people limit forgiveness to only being a feeling, “It is letting go of a matter and no longer feeling bitter.”
But, in the Bible, forgiveness is about the restoration of a relationship. God never forgives anyone without being reconciled to them. You can’t (contra what at least one book says) be forgiven by God and still go to hell.
So, how did we get here? Big picture, it goes back to the Enlightenment and the Modern Age. When Western thought shifted to a man-centered worldview, then it was inevitable that the focus would increasingly be on the subjective and feeling.
C.S. Lewis summarized this shift in his brilliant essay, “God in the Dock.” Lewis said that ancient man understood that he must give an account to God, whereas modern man believes that somehow God is on trial. Lewis wrote:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock (God in the Dock, page 244).
Once this move from a God-centered worldview to a man-centered took place, it was inevitable that the emphasis would become on how people feel rather than how they relate to God.
And, that’s at the bottom of how we got into this mess of people thinking it is legitimate to forgive God, something I talk about in my book. When people talk about forgiving God, I don’t think they mean to imply that God made a mistake. They just mean that there feelings need to change. But, the idea that we would ever forgive God goes against a biblical understanding of forgiveness.
Dave Powlison has written some excellent material on the therapeutic gospel. You can read one article here.
How have you seen people change as they’ve learned what the Bible teaches about forgiveness?
Once people really own that whatever someone has done to offend them, pales in comparison to what they have done to offend God, grace begins to inform how they go about forgiveness. This is Paul’s whole thrust in helping Philemon and Onesimus resolve their conflict. He was sweetly challenging Philemon to be gracious with Onesimus. So, he concludes the book, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Here are a few more ways people change:
When people understand how strongly Jesus stressed that we should resolve personal differences, then they stop saying things like, “I could never forgive him or her.”
When people really meditate on what Jesus meant when said it would be better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck, and pitched into the heart of the sea, then to be part of a scandal that causes impressionable people to stumble, then they stop being so petty about what they’re holding onto in their local church (Matthew 18:5ff).
When people realize that holding on to some offense can cause damage that all the kings horses and all the kings men can’t reverse (See Proverbs 17:11) then they are more willing to drop matters and move forward.
What do you find especially challenging as you practice the Biblical teaching on forgiveness?
For me, the hardest part is not thinking about it. I talk about this in a chapter, “How can I stop thinking about it?” Too often I can get on a mental gerbil wheel where I am running in place, not getting anywhere.
There have been times when I’ve been mowing my yard and something has been eating at me. I determine not to think about it any longer, and I find that I haven’t even made one row before I was thinking about it again. So my own struggles with the mental gerbil wheel are one reason I wrote the chapter, “How can I stop thinking about it?”