Consider: what is wrong with the following two pictures?
One. A married woman consults with her church pastor about her husband’s ongoing verbal and physical abuse. “Pastor,” she says, “what should I do?” He replies, “The Bible tells us to forgive those who sin against us. To be a Christian, you have to forgive your husband’s abuse and be to him the best wife you can be, submitting to his authority.”
Two. A student goes to see the counselor at his Christian middle-school about bullying from other students. “Counselor,” he asks, “what should I do?” She replies, “Try to get along with them, and forgive them of their hurtful treatment. In doing so, you will be applying Christian principles to your everyday conduct.”
Outrageous? Absolutely! Indeed, if the abuse and bullying were to continue, resulting in serious bodily harm or death, the pastor and counselor could face malpractice charges. We all see through such nonsensical advice, so why is similar advice offered to Christians who suffer from racial abuse?
I have heard more than once such advice given to victims of racial injustice and bigotry. Usually, frowning upon acts of speaking out, protests, or lawful demonstrations, the Christian teacher refers to Jesus’ teaching, quoting the Lord’s Prayer or other New Testament passages about forgiveness. Their assertions that Christians must forgive are correct. But their application of the advice overlooks an important point: If wrongdoing is passively forgiven, how does the wrongdoer know that the behavior is unacceptable? How can it be an act of love toward an offender to omit any effort to bring the offence to attention? Is that what Jesus intended in His teaching about forgiveness?
Let’s examine Jesus’ words on the subject. In Matthew 18:21, Peter posed this question to Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered in the next verse, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven.” Jesus’ use of this large number illustrates that forgiveness is not limited to a certain number of infractions.
He followed this answer with a parable in Matthew 18:23-35 that elaborates, showing that our forgiveness is a response to God’s unlimited and unconditional forgiveness of all our offences. Just as the debtor in the parable owed far more than any debt owed to him, so the sum of all our sins – forgiven by God – far exceeds the individual infractions against us. It all aligns with Jesus’ statement in the Lord’s prayer, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:13).
Definitely, we are to forgive. However, Jesus’ instructions must be taken in full context. Before Peter asked his question, Jesus had said in Matthew 18:15: If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
Luke17:3 is more blunt and concise: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Before we mistakenly conclude that Luke’s passage makes forgiveness conditional on repentance, we must realize that unless we take all of Jesus’ words and actions into consideration we could misunderstand. Apology and repentance are not mentioned in Matthew 18. The point that both of these accounts have in common is that the offender should be confronted about the offence.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are the goals, but confronting the offence is important too because it could result in a change in the offender. If, however the offender refuses to acknowledge the offence, Jesus, in Matthew 18:16-17, gives those who are offended additional advice that escalates the confrontation to give reconciliation a chance. If after these efforts there is still no reconciliation, the outcome may need to be a discontinuance of friendly interaction. The offender is forgiven as Jesus’ later teaching asserts, but the offended does not need to be subject to ongoing offence.
The confrontation Jesus spoke of must stem from love, be accompanied with wisdom, and approached in humility. For an biblical example of effective confrontation, read my Blog series titled, A Biblical Answer to America’s Racial Divide, giving special attention to the approach Joseph took as explained in part 4 of the series titled, Resolution and Reconciliation.