Un-forgiveness in the Church?

Question
Why is there so much un-forgiveness in the Church?
Answer

Thanks for your question. Since I have only limited space and time I will only give a general answer. Books have been written on this topic. I highly suggest reading Ken Sande's works, "The Peacemaker; A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict" and "Peacemaking for Families."

First, a comment on the word "un-forgiveness." Yea, I'm sure that both I and the person asking the question realize that it should be spelled "unforgiveness" without the "-". But I kind of like the point it makes. I use to love Coke, but never liked the "Un-cola" (yes, another added "-"). Why? Because it tasted "unlike" Coke; different color, taste, fizz, etc. Un-forgiveness is nothing like love or forgiveness. It always leaves a bad taste. Un-forgiveness is un-loving. (I apologize to all you 7Up fans).

Have you ever gone to an airport? Having been on numerous flights throughout the world I have been in many an airport. When I arrive I normally have two (2) bags. However, I inevitably get behind someone who has countless bags. On a trip to Germany a group of us were standing in line. There was a person in front of us that had sixteen (16) bags of luggage! Yes, my degree in accounting did not let me down, I counted them. There were red bags and green. There were all different sizes of bags.

We, even as Christians, often live in the airport of life with the excess baggage of un-forgiveness (lack of forgiveness). Un-forgiveness comes in many different colors and sizes. We travel everywhere with it. It fills our lives with unceccessary clutter. It weighs us down. We hurt not only ourselves, but others when we fail to forgive.

Forgiveness is a clear teaching of the Bible. We are to forgive as the Lord forgave us (Col 3:13; cf. Prov 19:11; Matt 6:14; Eph 4:2, 31-32, et. al.). As a Christian you will be given numerous opportunities to forgive others (Matt 18:21-22); as we are experts - masters - at sinning against one another. We each have a Ph.D. in it. However, if we are Christians then we will forgive one another. This is part and parcel of love (Gal 5:14). Paul writes, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). We are to follow Christ's example aren't we? However, the Bible does not teach that we are saved and forgiven by our love for one another, but that our love shows that we have truly been forgiven! (Luke 7:41-50). Have you been forgiven? If so, then you will forgive others!

There are all kinds of sins that lie smoldering at the fires of un-forgiveness. In looking at Ephesians 4:31-32, we see a few of these flaming embers mentioned:

"Bitterness" may be described as our smoldering resentment or something that eats away at us, resulting in a grudge-filled attitude (Acts 8:23; Heb. 12:15). Bitterness can cause one to be irritable, cold, resentful, harsh, and remain in perpetual animosity. Bitterness suppressed will never die; it will never lose its power. People who carry bitterness and grudges are literally burning (hurting) themselves.

"Wrath" is another sin Paul mentions. This is a wild uncontrolled rage; our passion of the moment. This is an emotional response to something that lies deeper in our soul.

"Anger" is an internal smoldering; a subtle and burning feeling. Many embers may lie at its feet, such as: injustice, strife, impatience, abuse, unmet needs, and jealousy. What is the root of your anger?

"Clamor" is a continued and repeated crying out; a public outburst that reveals a loss of control.

"Slander" is the continuous defamation of someone that rises from our bitter heart. Slander and gossip are often flip-sides of the same coin.

Malice is a general term for evil. It is a deadly root.

Ouch, these hurt don't they? All of these, Paul says, must be put away from ourselves. If not, then not only are we in sin, but we will harbor un-forgiveness in our hearts and damage the body of Christ.

Why is there un-forgiveness in the body of Christ?

First, there is un-forgiveness in the church because some in the church are not saved. There are goats among the sheep; tares among the wheat. Because some are merely professors and not possessors of the faith, they cannot forgive; as it is not in their spiritual DNA. Though they may hide it for a time, they are full of hatred. This not only includes many laymen and woman, but leaders in the church as well. You will know them by their fruit (Matt 7:15-23). See "The Church: Visible and Invisible: Is Everyone in the Church Saved?" below.

Second, there is un-forgiveness in the church because some in the body of Christ are disobedient. We may divide this into two parts: (a) those who sin in ignorance and (b) those which purposely sin.

Sinning in Ignorance:

As to those that sin in ignorance, we must recognize that some have not been taught what it means to really forgive. It is more than saying you are sorry (see below).

In addition, they may not understand that if they know someone is holding something against them that it is as much their responsibility to take care of the offense as it the other parties. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:23-24, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." So, if you know, or suspect, that someone is holding a grudge against you, it is as much your responsibly, as it is the other parties, to work it out. The living love of forgiveness is active! It seeks to be reconciled.

Moreover, it is important to recognize that a Christian may grant forgiveness before the other party even confesses their sin in certain cases. Though ideally forgiveness is always a response to repentance on the part of the person who has sinned against us, there are times this is just not possible. We can forgive even then (see Prov 17:14; 19:11; Eph 4:2; 1 Pet 4:8; cf. Mark 11:25-26). Don't let stuff linger. Keep your accounts short (1 Cor 13:5).

However, there are other times when unconditional forgiveness is not the right course of action (see, Matt 18:15-20). Consider: (1) a serious offense against another (Exod 23:6; Isa 1:17), (2) if ignoring an offense may hurt the offender (Gal 6:1-2), or (3) when it is a scandalous sin or it may potentially damage the body of Christ (Heb 12:15). See "Church Discipline and Excommunication: Who Should Be Disciplined?" below.

Sinning on Purpose:

Some Christians merely refuse to comply with God's Word. Though this is unthinkable, I have seen it even among church leaders. They refuse in personal meetings, phone calls, emails, and other forms of communication (some literally asking for reconciliation) to work things out with those they are mad or angry at. Many pout and make grand (faulty) theological excuses, don't we?

Since God commands us to forgive others, refusing to do so is a direct act of rebellion against him (Eph 4:32; 1 John 2:6). Since forgiveness literally reflects the character of God (Rom 5:8), those that do not forgive are ungodly! That means un-forgivingness is no less an offense to God than adultery or homosexuality (1 Cor 6:9-11). Deservingly so, they bring upon themselves God's discipline (Heb 12:3-17).

Gospel-based Forgiveness: What does it look like?

What does gospel-based forgiveness look like? Ken Sande says (formatting changed):

(1) Forgiveness is an act of the will.

(2) Forgiveness is not a passive process of forgetting or letting something fade in memory. Rather, it is an active process which involves a conscious choice and deliberate course of action. Isa 43.25 says that God has willed to remember our sins no more. Same for us: we draw on God's grace and decide not to think or talk about what others have done to hurt us.

(3) Forgiveness is not excusing by saying, "It's okay, it wasn't that big of a deal." Forgiveness is the opposite of excusing - forgiveness says, "yes, we both know that what you did was wrong, but since God has forgiven me, so also I forgive you."

(4) Forgiveness can be costly and painful. Sometimes certain effects of a person's sins linger for quite a long time - you have to fight against painful memories, work on trusting the person, and sometimes you may have to deal with physical costs such as finances or injury. The forgiving heart will put the other person first and self last.

Forgiveness is a decision to make four promises: (a) I will not dwell on this incident, (b) I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you, (c) I will not talk to others about this incident, and (d) I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

C. S. Lewis once wrote, "Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it."

It costs a lot to fly with luggage in this day and age. We need to learn to leave our luggage at the Cross and fly without it.

Related Answers:

The Church: Visible and Invisible: Is Everyone in the Church Saved?
Church Discipline and Excommunication: Who Should Be Disciplined?

References:

Lewis, C.S. The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C. S. Lewis. Mariner Books, 1984.

Sande, Ken. The Peacemaker, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).