Recently, I found myself sitting in church listening to an age-old sermon about forgiveness, a topic I have heard preached so many times before.
This time, the guest preacher preceded his sermon by showing a video of elementary-age children telling of hurtful things done to them by classmates: "She called me a baby, he excluded me, he cut in front of me in line, he made fun of my looks, she said bad things about my family, they called me names ..."
As they spoke, each one wrote the offense in chalk on a blackboard. At the end of the service, the preacher resumed the video, showing each child saying "I forgave them" while simultaneously erasing the offense they had written on the board.
In his sermon, the preacher cited well-known Scriptures and parables, including Matthew 18:22 where Jesus said we must forgive 70 times 7. The pastor said we must remember how much God forgave us, and that we must release the person instantly, completely and repeatedly. He said that in forgiving others we heal ourselves.
The sermon was all too familiar in what it included. It was equally familiar (and disappointing) in what it excluded. I call it the CARE factor—Caution, Accountability, Repentance and Encouragement.
While classroom offenses like name-calling may be easily simplified into a 30-minute sermon, what if the offenses are these: "She stole my life savings, he crippled my daughter, he raped me, she killed my twins in a classroom massacre, he gave me a fatal disease, she beat my elderly mother, he had sex with boys in the church, she embezzled church money, he committed incest with our children, she lied and got me fired ..."
The problem with most sermons on forgiveness is not that they are inaccurate. It's that they are incomplete. Jesus doesn't forbid us from holding people accountable. Even Matthew 18 talks about excommunicating unrepentant persons. So, let's examine this CARE acronym:
Caution: Even though you should forgive, that does not mean you should not guard against further harm. You can, and should, make sure you and your family are safe and that your environment is protected from the person's past and possible future actions. Here are some examples:
—Someone who steals should not immediately be trusted with money or valuables.
—An adulterer should be subject to medical scrutiny and intense counseling.
—A church intercessor who reveals secrets should be removed from positions of trust.
—A person who has violated the law in any way (including domestic violence) should be reported to authorities. This is not revenge—it is a moral obligation and, in some cases, a legal requirement. The church often omits this important detail when preaching on forgiveness.
Accountability: Without accountability, there is no real consequence to a person's wrong actions, and without consequences, there is a high likelihood that the bad behavior will be repeated.
It's not always possible to ensure accountability, since the offender may be a stranger or a former associate. But when the offender is a spouse, other close relative, church leader or church member, there are sage methods to facilitate accountability. For example:
—A person who has stolen should be required to apologize privately (or publicly, depending on the offense) and make restitution in cash and/or by charitable service.
—A church member who falsely maligns another should be admonished by church leadership. This is a biblical mandate that is often overshadowed by the forgiveness message.
—An adulterous spouse should apologize, explaining what happened and whether it was a one-time or chronic activity. If the latter is true, the couple should have pastoral or professional oversight.
Directing someone to forgive in a vacuum is like telling them to put a Band-Aid on a severed artery. The Bible makes clear that forgiveness and accountability go hand in hand:
"If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. And if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3).
"Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16).
Repentance: This does not have to precede forgiveness, but it is an important step to restoring broken fellowship. Without repentance, especially for clergy, there is no standard for followers or for those outside the church. Credible church doctrine requires specific steps for a person who has sinned against a congregation, spouse or neighbor. Specific Bible passages call for rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20, Titus 1:13, Titus 2:15). Other passages cite a model for progressive confrontation (Matt. 18:15-17). The ultimate goal is for the person to be restored to godly living, provided he/she is willing to make the necessary changes. Here are some of the biblical steps to restoration:
—Confront a person in a private intervention to encourage the person to acknowledge and renounce the error of his/her ways.
—If needed, schedule another session including other appropriate persons.
—In some cases, involve the church body in addressing the person's wrongs.
—Temporarily exclude the person from certain roles, so they may realize their fault and change.
Not only can these steps lead to repentance, but they often make a person think twice about repeating wrong actions.
Encouragement: Lastly, both the offended and the offender need support. "So comfort yourselves together, and edify [encourage] one another, just as you are doing" (1 Thess. 5:11).
Many times, we fail to realize that even the offending person needs our concern. People who hurt others very often do so as a result of their own pain. Remember the adage, "hurt people hurt people." If possible, forgiveness should be complemented by asking the offender what caused their action. Was it due to depression, ego, alcohol, drugs, past trauma or sexual addiction, or was it simply a misunderstanding? Just as Jesus ministered to hurting people, it's important for us to help all hurting people, even those who have hurt others.
A Final Word
Forgiveness sermons should come with a warning label or disclaimer. Because they don't, I have creatively come up with this one (rapidly read like the disclaimers at the end of TV commercials):
Forgiveness does not require returning to the same level of confidence you had with a person before the offense. Do not allow a forgiven predator to sleep in your house again. Use extreme caution in allowing a forgiven betrayer back into your confidence. There is no warranty on the future honesty of a forgiven embezzler. No advice in this sermon implies that you should not report a forgiven criminal to the police. We expressly suggest that forgiven wrongdoers should be subject to progressive church discipline. Forgiven wrongdoers are also hurting persons who need care and possibly professional help.
Of course, the preceding disclaimer is tongue-in-cheek. But it illustrates key issues that are almost never included in sermons on forgiveness—and they should be. Without this balance, the forgiveness message could inadvertently cause people to take unnecessary risks and could embolden the offending person in wrongdoing.
From now on, whenever you think of forgiveness or hear a sermon on the topic, remember forgiveness is only the beginning of healing. If you are a preacher preparing a sermon on forgiveness:
Please do so with care.
Pamela Wilson is a former journalist and public relations executive who resides in metro Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband. The couple has a ministry providing Sunday church services at a local nursing home. She has written several articles for Charisma online.
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