Apologies, this post might be somewhat triggering for domestic violence.
Like “Infatuation”, Forgiveness is a topic I have tried to write about a number of times over the years, but like with infatuation, I never feel that I have adequately managed to convey the issue. Unlike infatuation, with forgiveness I do believe that I genuinely understand the issue, and my challenge finding adequate analogies etc to explain it. However I think I’ve finally managed to work out how to do this.
In short, there are two very distinct meanings of the word forgiveness. Unfortunately I believe that confusion over forgiveness in Christian circles arises because the Bible seems to use one word to describe both meanings, at least in translation (I must look at this in the Greek!) In this post I will refer to one kind of forgiveness as “releasing”, and the other kind of forgiveness as “reinstatement”.
[Why I’m obsessed with what forgiveness truly means – versus what it does not mean – I’ve experienced so much from the hands of “Christians”. I’ve had to sit down and work out what the true Biblical limits must be.
Serial perpetrators: don’t seem to understand what Biblical forgivenss is either; they genuinely think that the Biblical commandment to forgiveness entitles them to automatic reinstatement. So they *genuinely* think that they can do literally whatever they like – and then all they have to do is say “sorry”. As if Christianity is some massive gift to and endorsement of their poor character.
Because the concepts are somewhat complex, it is easier to use an analogy to describe/explain them.
So imagine that you are a woman in a relationship with a man. He has proposed to you, and you have eagerly, excitedly said yes. And then one day, you are having a slight disagreement. Before you know it, it blows up, and your fiancé physically lashes out at you, screaming out some obscene slurs at you even as he does so. Apologies, this is a very exaggerated example, and yet sadly for some women (and even some men too), this will not be exaggerated at all.
Afterwards he cannot believe what he has done. He does not know what came over him! He apologises profusely, begs for your forgiveness, tells you that he was “going through stress”.
So in my current understanding of forgiveness, “releasing” this man would be releasing yourself from the temptation to retaliate against him by lashing back out at him, or otherwise being violent or planning violence against him. You might feel entitled to be legitimately angry, but you release from your heart all feelings of hatred and bitterness. In itself, this can often be very difficult. However the Bible mandates that we have to do this.
However, in this scenario, what I call reinstatement would be if you put aside this incident, and you went ahead to marry him.
For me, my attitude towards marrying someone after he has acted in such a way, is simply: “No way!” To be candid, even an excessive amount of shouting is enough for me to emphatically walk away from someone – much more so if it is accompanied by physical violence as in this example. And yet apparently for some Christians, “reinstatement” is what the Bible means by forgiveness. So they actually, truly believe that they can physically attack you and shout obscenities at you – and you still “have” to go ahead and marry them. [This example is mroe relevant when the couple are already married – many Christians would somehow suggest that “Christian forgiveness” means that you should stay with a physically abusive spouse. My attitude towards that way of thinking is simply untypeable. In short, you cannot be serious.]
Here is the thing with “releasing someone in forgiveness”: the law might still need to get involved. The perpetrator might still need to pay the legal price. That might be sheer justice, and it might also protect other people from being harmed. However as Christians the most important thing is that we empty our hearts of all desire for violent vengeance, and for hatred.
Another example: Say you are a business owner, and one day you catch a trusted employee stealing from your cash register. You check your records, and you discover that this person has actually been stealing from your business repeatedly for years, even decades. Once again releasing them in forgiveness might mean that you don’t try to exact angry revenge against them. Out of the stupendous kindness of your heart, you might even decide not to sack them, but rather to transfer them to a position that does not involve access to the cash till. But because you want to obey the Biblical commandment to “forgive”, will you then put them back in control of your cash till, so that they can continue to steal at will from the till? That is like reinstatement. If you would do that out of “Christian obedience” then you are definitely more holy than I am, or than I ever plan to be!!!
There are so many other examples that I can think of, and I’m sure any reader can think of. I’m sure that when the Bible tells us to forgive, it means releasing someone in forgiveness, forgoing a perhaps natural urge to exact a violent retaliation; it means releasing feelings of bitterness and hatred in our hearts. It cannot generally mean “reinstatement” because in many cases reinstating someone to the position that they previously had would be utterly stupid. So it contradicts common sense, and natural justice. Furthermore absolutely no-one does this. No-one who wants to continue having a business puts a thief back in charge of the cash till. It might be one of those impossible things that people might preach from the pulpit, but no-one actually ever does in practice, and deep down, everyone knows that no-one does or can do. Some Christians apparently think that the Bible is full of lofty but impracticable commandments. So they think that part of being a Christian, that is, part of the contract of being a Christian is lauding these lofty but impracticable ideas, while deep down knowing in practice that you will never do any of them. However, I believe that our faith is actually meant to be workable. Where God gives us these commandments, it is because we are supposed to actually do them, not merely laud them in public, but ignore them in practice. So if there is an idea like this one, that is clearly impracticable and furthermore utterly stupid in practice, then it simply is not true. You know, our God is all wise, so our faith should actually resemble wisdom!
And once again, it all boils down to character. Here’s the thing: when you initially put someone in a position of trust, it is because you make positive assumptions about their character. When your fiance punches you, or your trusted employee steals from the till, and is discovered to have been stealing for a protracted length of time, then in so doing, they reveal their true character. They reveal that their character is just not equal to the level of trust that you have invested in them. So by “reinstating” these people to whatever the previous position may have been, it’s like you are knowingly putting someone back into a position for which their character is simply not adequate. So of course they are going to fail. The likelihood is that they are going to fail over and over again. If you had known, before you employed them as your cashier, that they were going to steal from you, then obviously you would not have employed them to that position, would you?
From the examples listed above, the one exception I can think of to this is domestic violence. So the fact that “fiance” hit you might genuinely be uncharacteristic. However I just don’t believe that you can afford to take that risk of finding out. That is, there are a few things that people can do that even if they do them just once, in their entire lives, that single incident is enough to walk away from them forever. And I believe that domestic violence is one of those things.
So you see, “releasing” someone in forgiveness is hard enough. However to go to the extent of “reinstating” them, even after they have proven the inadequacy of their character, is just ridiculous. And anyone suggesting otherwise is definitely not speaking in the name of God. We can also see some Biblical examples where God definitely did not “reinstate” people after they acted poorly. And we know that God is the God of forgiveness. So if God Himself who is the King of forgiveness does not do that, then how can that be the definition for everyone who is not the king of forgiveness?!
Here’s another thing: when we go through life, there are so many times and various situations when we initially invest trust in people, because that is just the way life works, and then these people act in ways that show that their character is not equal to the trust that we have invested in them.
This is a sad and recent example: did any reader out there read or watch the case of the policeman who was recently fired for scanning a pack of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, worth approx £10 GBP – as a 7p pack of carrots. You know what is the saddest part about this: the fact that he threw away his job as well as his hard-won reputation for the sake of less than £10 pounds. So initially the police force invested trust in him that he would be upright and upstanding. And most people are, of course – and so was he, for a certain length of time. And in a crazy moment of madness, he just threw it all away.
To be honest, I’m somewhat intrigued by how they caught him. Perhaps someone noticed that there were x packets of Krispy Kreme doughnuts at the beginning of the day, and y packets were officially sold, yet at the end of the day they definitely had fewer than (x-y) packets left….So they started checking out the CCTV, and they noticed that around the time this PC was apparently “buying” his packet of doughnuts, the relevant self-service machine only scanned a tiny bag of carrots… And this might have been all the more noticeable with doughnuts because they have such a short shelf life, so there is likely to be at least one supermarket employee who knows just how many packets are ordered in every day, and takes perhaps an obsessive interest in this. And this is a 3rd party product, so if the supermarket in any way has to make accounts to “Krispy Kreme, Inc” as the 3rd party supplier then you can pretty much guarantee that discrepancies would be caught immediately, and ultimately any thief will be caught. And he would not have been the first person to try to steal a packet of doughnuts. But most Krispy Kreme shoplifters I’m sure would be young, or teenagers, the kind of people to be let off with warnings accompanied with angry or disappointed looks from their parents. His case was notable and newsworthy precisely because he was a policeman, and his behaviour completely contradicted the integrity and probity that you need to demand from policemen. So in all such a sad story, I felt really bad for him.
So I’m going to leave this here for now, perhaps come back later and talk about Christians who apparently think that “Biblical forgiveness” automatically equates to “reinstatement”, and confidently expect or even demand reinstatement from you, after they have emphatically demonstrated the paucity of their character.
Actually you know what? Having reflected on the example of the PC and the doughnuts, a few other thoughts have occurred to me, namely these: what does this example say about our society, that we apparently do not pay our policemen enough to legitimately afford a few in-work perks and luxuries, like gourmet doughnuts? Obviously the big issue here is that I’m not in a position to say whether he could have afforded them or not. However, this much I do know: people who are in debt are barred from joining the police force. Why? Because it is generally known that being in debt puts such pressure on people that they are capable of acting in uncharacteristic ways, and they are more vulnerable to bribery and other things which cannot be accepted within the police force. So then knowing this, how can it make sense to put police staff under such financial pressure that they cannot comfortably live their lives? Surely it’s clear that they will be under the exact same pressures as if they were technically in debt? And being a policeman or woman is a hard job! Sometimes I’m sure you need to treat yourself in small ways, with nice doughnuts or similar things, to encourage yourself to keep going. I think that there should be enough leeway in their salaries after paying for their mortgages and other essential things, to be able to comfortably afford a small treat like a packet of Krispy Kreme doughnuts at least once a week! Someone please tell Mr Sunak who I otherwise think has performed really admirably, under the current circumstances – or indeed under any circumstances – as he plans to implement a pay freeze on public sector workers!
If in the case of this policeman it was genuinely a case of not being to afford it, then I make the blindingly obvious prediction that more public sector workers are going to buckle in similar ways over the coming months and years.