The Blast Radius of Forgiveness

forgiveness (Photo credit: cheerfulmonk)

In my experience reactions to the words, “I’m sorry” occur in four ways:(approach/response)

1)      I am sorry – I am sorry too (healthy)
2)      I am sorry – it’s about bloody time you apologised, now earn my forgiveness. (one sided – unhealthy)
3)      I am sorry – Do you even know what you’re apologising for?  (dismissive – unhealthy)
4)      I am sorry – What do you hope to achieve by saying you are sorry? (demanding – unhealthy)

Correlated to this is the straightforward question ‘’what have I done wrong?’’, which is crucial to any conflict management strategy, this is because the purpose of the approach is to clearly identify what the actual problem is:

5)      What I have done wrong? – If you don’t know I am not going to tell you
6)      What I have done wrong? – Oh you know bloody well what you’ve done
7)      What I have done wrong? – Don’t you play dumb with me, I’m leaving you to figure it out

It is easy to see that six of the responses have the word ‘you’ embedded in each statement.The use of the word ”you” in this sense is accusative. It is unhelpful to the healthy outcomes by which forgiveness can be the ONLY conduit.

By contrast, notice that all seven approaches use the word ‘I’.  This is a key word because it indicates that the approach involves a concern for personal responsibility.

Often the person responding in this way dismisses, discounts and/or unrealistically and impatiently demands reparations for damages, before examining the authenticity of an apology. A significant historical example of this is the Allied demands on Germany after World War One.

However, from my experience I have observed that responses are often accompanied by guess work. That is, I am forced to try and figure out what has caused so much conflict. This “figure it out otherwise I’m not forgiving you” response is unhelpful because another person is required to participate in the process of forgiving or seeking forgiveness.

Cycles of abuse have to stop somewhere, and they only stop when somebody stands their ground, speaks, and acts on the truth.Removing yourself (establishing boundaries) from any cycle of abuse will mean that you create conflict in order to neutralize conflict and minimise harm.

This raises a few questions:

a)      Is forgiveness an assertive, rather than a submissive act?
b)      If so maybe our ideas about forgiveness need realignment?

Perhaps forgiveness is more like an interpersonal incendiary bomb than a fire extinguisher.

The former starts fires has a significant blast radius, and is most effective when used against targets which are already flammable (e.g: I am thinking Jer.23:29).

This image suggests that forgiveness effectively neutralizes conflict in an aggressive way. The blast radius of forgiveness is then measured by it’s point of impact; it’s influence, on any given interpersonal conflict. To forgive is too assert our freedom granted to us by the God who is free. Only in Him do we discover the true source of our Freedom expressed in His own act of forgiveness.

By necessity this means that every act of forgiveness we enter into becomes a necessary humanitarian act. An act of ‘faith and obedience’ (Barth, CD.IV.4). The basis of this act is the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus the Christ. On which we choose to not only stand, but live by the Spirit, with ‘resolute gratitude’ (CD.IV.4:158) in response to the gracious command of God.

Reconciliation is and can only be fuelled by forgiveness, as exemplified by Christ and the subsequent forgiveness of sin, granted through His willingness to act on our behalf. Therefore, forgiveness is an aggressive rather than a passive act. This is because the process of forgiving is both deconstructive and reconstructive. Since forgiveness is empowered by Christ’s example, its intent and purpose has a theologically motivated impact on ‘society and politics’ (Ben Myers).

Forgiveness is irreversibly transformational. There can be no going back if forgiveness is true forgiveness.

‘The foundation of forgiveness is the confession of our sins. Hiding sin in silence, not admitting and confessing it, is living in darkness, even if our lifestyle may have a Christian appearance!’ (Jobst Bittner 2013:L.910 & 1082).

This is consistent with the differentiation between forgiving, forgiven and seeking to be forgiven. For example:

Forgiving: (Col.3:7 & 13a) is about engaging in a dynamic personal response to damage and victimization. This is powerful and requires human effort.

Forgiven: (Col.3:13b) is about accepting that you already are forgiven, by far the most powerful of all three and the hardest to grasp because we need to understand that this reality is one that has first grasped us. This is based on God’s divine initiative – His free movement towards humanity to be for us. (Barth CD.IV.4)

Seeking to be forgiven (Col.3:13c) is about repentance, contrite admission of failures or ‘renunciation and pledge’ (Barth CD.IV.4). Seeking to be forgiven is to engage in a form of lament that reaches out. This is also difficult to do; it requires taking responsibility of our actions, humility, wisdom and a willingness to be transformed by acting on what we have learnt from our mistakes (Col.3:16).

In Colossians 3, Paul presents six lists. Of these six lists, four, form part of what is called an ‘ethical catalogue’ (DNTB). The remaining two lists are as follows:

1. ‘Forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive’ (Col.3:13)

2. ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thanksgiving in your hearts to God’ (Col.3:16)

Paul’s letter encourages us to ‘assert the primacy of scripture over culture’ (2006:62 – sola scriptura).One caveat that is drawn out from this is that unlike urban, Western philosophical syncretism, Christians should not confuse forgiveness with forgetting.

Pastor Jobst Bittner when talking about how survivors in Germany are dealing with the atrocities committed during World War Two, makes the observation that:

‘God’s answer for unhealed wounds is the power of forgiveness. This power, however, must not be confused with “forgetting” or “wanting to cover up”. The wounds of the Holocaust are still present in the third generation of survivors. They are the generation who are facing the truth and breaking their silence’. (Jobst Bittner, 2013:L.1658-1660)

The ‘repression of sin is graceless existence…forgiven sin does not mean forgotten sin’ (Busche citing Karl Barth in ‘Barth’ & CD.II.2 1957:756).  The brightness of Paul’s discourse on forgiveness in Col.3:13, makes it easy to miss the significance of his command in 13:9:

‘Do not lie to one another’

Forgiveness, in its truly Christian form seeks to break the silence by ‘putting on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’ (Col.3:10).

Therefore I am not entirely comfortable to state, in complete agreement, with Alexander Pope, that ‘too err is human, to forgive divine’ (An Essay on Criticism, 1711). The reason for this is that Pope implies, when it comes to forgiveness, that human effort is pointless.

On the contrary, as we have seen from Paul’s words and from what Dallas Willard so profoundly explained, ‘Grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort’. Like an interpersonal incendiary bomb, the blast radius of forgiveness is to be measured from it’s point of impact; it’s influence, on any given interpersonal conflict.Forgiveness given authentically, may be received or rejected, nevertheless in both cases it allows for the truth to be seen.

Only then can the ‘creative power of forgiveness’ (Bloesch 2006:62) breathe, reconstruct, transform and free us.

Bloesch, D. 2006 Essentials of Evangelical theology Hendrickson Publishers
Bittner, Jobst (2013-04-03). Breaking the Veil of Silence (Kindle Locations 1658-1660). TOS Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Charles, J. D. (2000). Vice and Virtue Lists. In C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter (Eds.), Dictionary of New Testament background: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship (C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (1255). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press
Eberhard Busch (2008-06-01). Barth (Abingdon Pillars of Theology) (Kindle Location 1212). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
ESV – Crossway Publishers
Willard, D. 2006 The Great Omission Monarch Books, Harper Collins USA



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