This is a book I read a while ago now, and have been meaning to review every since. After watching Revenge, I felt now would be an appropriate time.
Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns is one of the most brilliant, thought-provoking, challenging and helpful books I have read during my 10 years as a Christian. It is a book I recommend every Christian should read, although it will no doubt anger some.
For a long time I've been concerned with how some Christians define and view forgiveness. It has been a topic I've been wrestling with for five years, and although I have a lot ot learn on the issue, I feel very uncomfortable with how forgiveness is being modelled among Christians. Here's what I have observed:
An emphasis on telling hurt people, "You need to forgive," but an unwillingness to tell a perpetrator, "You need to repent."
The idea of forgiveness as something internal...like a feeling. I hear a lot of people say, "Oh Bob hurt me, but then I just forgave him in my heart."
A lack of people willing to help those who have been hurt do the Matthew 18 thing. It's hard enough to confront someone who hurt you without hearing fellow Christians say, "I'm not getting involved. I don't want to take sides."
An emphasis on curing bitterness as the main purpose of forgiveness.
Finally, a Christian book that addresses these issues properly!
Brauns is very concerned about the rise of what he calls 'therapeutic forgiveness' in the church. In Chapter 4: More Than A Feeling he criticises a book called Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve which was written by Lewis Smedes in the eighties. This book describes forgiveness as ceasing to feel anger or resentment over an offense or perceived offence. Brauns believes 'forgiveness without repentance' cheapens forgiveness, misunderstands God's forgiveness, and refuses to identify and name evil.
Brauns attempts to really unpack what forgiveness is...and what it's not. He defines forgiveness as:
A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated. (page 56)
He addresses a question I have (and probably many others have): Do I need to forgive someone who is unrepentant? He starts with looking at God's forgiveness offered in Jesus.
God's forgiveness is conditional. Only those who repent and believe are saved.
So God offers the present of forgiveness to all people. Does this mean that all people are forgiven?
The answer to that question is emphatically no. Like any present, the gift of forgiveness must be opened. We receive the gift of forgiveness by turning in faith to Christ. (page 51)
We need to start with God's forgiveness of us so we know how to forgive others. Brauns argues that we forgive as God forgave us. How should Christians do this? We should start by having a disposition of grace towards those who offend us (page 55). But God does not forgive the unrepentant as this would go against His justice and holiness. We should have a 'spirit of forgiveness' and actively try and repair the relationship, but Brauns insists all efforts should be made to bring the perpetrator towards repentance (Luke 17:3-4).
We are commanded to forgive, no doubt about it. If someone asks for forgiveness many, MANY times, then we are to keep forgiving. When we forgive, we are making a commitment to no longer hold that person's sin against them, just as God no longer holds our sin against us. But the book argues that goal of forgiveness is reconciliation. It is an active thing between two parties...not something someone does in the quietness of their heart without making any sort of attempt to approach the other person.
Now I know that full reconciliation may not always be possible. Trust may be lost. For example, a parent might forgive a pedophile who tried to harm their children, but that doesn't mean they have to let them near their children again. As mentioned earlier, forgiveness does not automatically eliminate all consequences of sin. This is not a punishment from God, but how God disciplines, trains and teaches His children (punishment and discipline are NOT the same). Sometimes you may not be able to confront the person. Maybe you don't know how to contact them. Maybe they are dead. Maybe the offence is minor and can be overlooked. Sometimes you just have try to let go and let God deal with it.
One thing the book (and my own experience) has taught me was that therapeutic forgiveness does not bring peace and an end to bitterness. While the main goal of forgiveness is not inner peace for myself, I feel more at peace when I know I've done my best to approach the person and sort it out. However they respond, I can know that God has it in control, that He sees all, and that He is the one who will avenge. Despite feelings of anger and hurt, He enables me to pray for that person, and to treat them graciously. The command to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us, and the enabling of the Holy Spirit in us to carry out these commands is the cure for bitterness.
The church as a whole really needs to stop sticking their heads in the sand, and start helping people forgive and reconcile as properly as possible. We are called to be peacemakers, however tiring and seemingly petty some people's grievances may be. We need to take sin seriously and call people to repent as well as to forgive.
If you only read one other book this year...read this one!