One of the best resources I have encountered on conflict resolution, peacemaking, and forgiveness is the book Peacemaker, by Ken Sande. This fall the children’s elementary class is learning from the booklet The Young Peacemaker, by Corlette Sande. One of the reasons these resources are so valuable is because Ken and Corlette Sande emphasize the goal of peacemaking in relationships: reconciliation and rebuilding trust. The gospel is meant to transform our relationships, and if we are living out the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:5), then our relationships will reflect a commitment to one another.
In chapter ten entitled “Forgive as God forgave you”, Sande outlines several truths which are worth meditating on:
1. You and I cannot fully forgive others in our own strength. As followers of Jesus we are called to forgive as Christ has forgiven us, but our desire to forgive and our willingness to forgive must come from the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. Sande admits that at times his honest prayer was, “Lord, please help me want to forgive. Please change my heart and soften it so that I no longer want to hold this against him. Change me so that I can forgive and love him the way you have forgiven and loved me.” You and I can only fully resolve to forgive someone in our minds if our hearts have already been changed.
2. Forgiveness not just excusing or forgetting someone’s sin. God does not simply “forget” our sins, as if he has spiritual amnesia. God chooses to “remember our sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). This means that God will not bring them up again. Some people may say that they have “moved on” or “forgotten about” past hurts, but their actions sometimes show differently. If someone repeatedly brings up a hurtful situation and yet ends the conversation with the words “But it doesn’t matter”, that may be a sign they have not fully forgiven the other person.
3. Forgiveness is a decision and an act of the will, not just a feeling. One Greek word translated forgive in the New Testament is aphiemi, which means to let go, release, or remit. When someone has sinned against us, we feel that they owe us a “debt” (and in a very real sense they may). We may emphasize that “debt” by withholding relationship from the other person, becoming bitter, gossiping, or other kinds of retaliation. Even though we may feel that we have forgiven someone (because we do not have recurring negative thoughts about them), our resolve to forgive, rather, our ongoing commitment to forgive, has not yet been fully tested.
Sande identifies Four Promises of Forgiveness which help us affirm our commitment to forgive someone:
- I will not dwell on this incident
- I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you
- I will not talk to others about this incident
- I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship
In The Young Peacemaker, Corlette Sande offers this poem to help children commit to forgiveness: “Good Thought, Hurt You Not; Gossip Never, Friends Forever”
The sad thing is, even though they talk about forgiveness, many Christians decide not to continue relationship or pursue reconciliation with people they need to forgive. Over the years I have met with individuals who have been hurt, or stopped attending church because of interpersonal conflict. Throughout the course of their story, they will detail how they had been hurt, or how they contributed to the hurt of someone else. At some point they decided to “move on” from those relationships. Sometimes they will even couch it in spiritual language, “We stopped coming to church because we did not want to be a stumbling block to them.” Then I will try to ask them, “Have you fully forgiven this person? What do you think God wants you to do in order to reconcile?” Usually at that point there is a long silence. Sometimes the person will say, “Maybe someday we will reconcile.” or, “It’s just easier to move on.” Both of these responses reflect how easy it is to say we forgive, and how hard it is to walk in forgiveness. Forgiving someone who genuinely repents and asks for forgiveness means that we commit ourselves to re-establishing relationship with them. It may not be the same kind of relationship as before, but we are biblically mandated to treat that person no worse than we would treat a stranger we meet on the street. Again, this does not mean we return to the same level of trust as we had before, but it does mean that we make efforts to treat the person with good will.
May God grant us the grace and strength to forgive one another, reestablish relationships, and rebuild trust—just as Jesus Christ has forgiven us. Pastor Jim