We will continue our study through this rich book of practical wisdom by jumping into a topic that we teach our children very early in life, an action that we expect of others towards us, but that we often struggle with even more as we age: the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness.
Our relationships in this sin-filled world are often marred, broken, full of strife, rivalry, bitterness, hostility, frustration, irritation, and all other manner of disunity and discord. And what’s worse, churches and Christians are in no way immune from such disharmony. Rather than enjoying unity that is grounded in our shared acceptance into the household of God and our mutual possession of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we fight and bicker, or we gossip, or we bury it all inside and stew on bitterness.
As we will see today from Proverbs and many other places in scripture, being un-forgiving and un-willing to consider forgiveness is un-becoming of a child of God, and actually shows that we don’t truly understand the forgiveness that we have received from God himself.
Let’s begin by looking at a single verse in Proverbs 10, from which we will launch into several other places in scripture. Proverbs 10:12 will be our central theme today, and really just the latter half of the verse. Proverbs 10:12 says,
“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
This morning I’d like to look at what “covering all offenses” means for us by examining the larger scriptural witness to the topics of forgiveness and reconciliation. We’ll begin by first briefly looking at the opposite expression of covering offenses: revenge. Revenge. What does proverbs say about revenge? It speaks very clearly that seeking revenge is not the way of righteousness and wisdom.
Solomon teaches us in chapter 20 verse 22: “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil;’ wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.” Do not repay evil. Rather, wait on the Lord. Turn with me to Romans 12:17:
“17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” [which is a reference to proverbs 25:21, speaking of a burning sense of shame]. Paul concludes: 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Revenge is not for us to take. As far as we can, we should live peaceably with everyone, never seeking to get even, never seeking to get revenge.
Rather, we should trust that the Lord will repay. And that should make sense for us. If it is a Christian that has sinned against us, then we can return evil with good because we know that Christ has died on the cross for that sin. God’s cosmic justice has been satisfied through the atoning death of Christ on the cross for the sin of that transgressor. Further, that’s exactly how we’d want to be treated when we sin: we’d want someone to return us good, rather than evil, and thus applying the golden rule to the situation is not to seek and eye for an eye, but to trust the lord, rather than our often-warped sense of vengeance and revenge.
And if the offender is not a believer, if we’ve been slighted by someone that rejects God, then we can forgo revenge and wait on the Lord because we know that even if that person never sees justice in this life, we know God will ensure justice in the next.
The offending party either had their sin atoned for on the cross, or they will spend eternity in hell suffering for that sin against you. Either way, We can trust in the Lord and not seek to get vengeance. Do not seek revenge, the bible clearly teaches us.
But, the bible also makes clear for us that the absence of active revenge on our part is not enough. Christians are called to go a step further and actually forgive. That’s my second point, forgiveness, forgiveness, which gets us back to our original text from Proverbs 10:
“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
Or chapter 17 verse 9 says similarly:
“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
Love covers an offense. What does that mean? How exactly does that relate to the rest of the bible’s teaching on forgiveness?
I’ll start by saying what forgiveness does not mean, what forgiveness isn’t.
Forgiveness does not mean simply ignoring sin. It’s not merely sweeping it under the rug and acting as if it never happened.
Further, to forgive does not mean to simply forbear something. Forbearance is a word we don’t often hear, but it means to simply put up with something. To forbear an offense would be to bite your lip, muster up some will-power and muscle through it. It is similar in practical experience to some aspects of genuine forgiveness, but it is not the same thing.
Positively, I’ll define biblical forgiveness for us this morning in three parts, each of which is important. Forgiveness is the determination to reckon with the wrongdoing, relinquish condemnation, and desire the good of the transgressor. I’ll say it again: Forgiveness is the determination to reckon with the wrongdoing, relinquish condemnation, and to desire the good of the transgressor.
That’s not an original definition to me, it’s from a Christian professor that researches the physiological effects forgiveness and unforgiveness, but I think she has a good working definition that is similar to many other good definitions that I’ve read in biblical literature. Let’s look at each component.
First, forgiveness is the determination to reckon with the wrong doing. The determination to reckon with the wrong doing. You might even say it is a promise. You promise that you’re not going to sweep it under the rug, or act as if the sin didn’t happen. You’re not going to minimize the sin, nor are you going to exaggerate the sin against you. This can be hard because we often will either want to ignore the sin against us out of a fear of conflict, or we’ll be tempted to exaggerate the sin against us, often out of a sense of pride. More on that later. The first step in forgiveness is to reasonably and responsibly reckon with the sin and the impact of it.
Second, forgiveness is the determination to relinquish condemnation. A determination to relinquish condemnation. That means we decide to forgive, to repent of any sinful anger, and to release any bitter feelings we had toward the offender. We promise to relinquish resentment and any threat of future retaliation. As one pastor concludes: “Forgiving means you promise to let go of the personal aspect of the offense and refuse to obsess over it.”
Please take note: relinquishing condemnation doesn’t mean you agree to release them from the consequences of their actions. Depending on the offense against you, the offender might have earned punitive consequences, legal consequences, or even consequences of church discipline. Forgiving the offender means we release personal feelings of liability or condemnation, but that DOES NOT mean that the offender shouldn’t bear the consequences of their actions. Just because I forgive my child for breaking a window in the house, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t then have to buy me a new window. Releasing from condemnation doesn’t necessarily mean releasing from consequences.
So, forgiveness entails reckoning with the wrongdoing, determining to relinquish condemnation and, third, forgiveness is the determination to desire the good of the transgressor. The determination or the promise to desire the good of the transgressor. This is important, and is no less true even when the relation cannot be restored to what it was previously. Here is where the Christian virtues of empathy come in, where the golden rule rubber meets the road.
We treat the offender the way that we’d want to be treated when we desire their good, rather than their harm. We replaced evil thoughts of revenge with positive prayers for their flourishing. Rather than plotting their demise, we pray for their progress as a child of God. Whatever accountability they need, we seek to support that, and bless them in their endeavors to walk in repentance. To forgive means we determine to desire the good of the transgressor.
A crucial question that often comes up when discussion forgiveness is its relationship to reconciliation. Forgiveness doesn’t automatically mean reconciling the relationship, but neither is forgiveness contingent upon reconciliation. To say that another way, just because you have forgiven someone, that doesn’t mean reconciliation always happens. We HOPE it does, it is glorious when it does, and it can really demonstrate the power of the gospel when it does, but reconciliation doesn’t always happen just because there is genuine forgiveness. I’ll talk more about that later.
What is important for us to think about now is that our decision to forgive isn’t contingent upon present reconciliation with the offending party. Forgiveness is a promise that we make, that we must make Jesus says, regardless of what the offending party does.
Let me give you a few examples. Consider the story of Joseph toward the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph was the younger brother that was hated by the rest of the sons of Jacob. They were jealous of him, they spoke harshly, beat him up, threw him into a pit, and planned to kill him, but instead they decided to sell him into slavery so they could get some money for him. Terrible, terrible sins against him. If anybody had a reason to hold a grudge against his brothers, you’d think it would be Joseph.
But Joseph goes on to Egypt, where he is blessed with favor from God and climbs to be the second in command over Egypt. And I think the text indicates to us that Joseph had forgiven his brothers. He didn’t do this by simply acting as if his pain hadn’t happened, he didn’t just use will power and sweep it under the rug, he trusted God through it. Joseph’s faithfulness to forgive was shown in the praise he gave to God in the naming of his sons. The first son he named Manasseh, which is derived from the word “forget.” He says in Genesis 41:51, “For God has made me FORGET all my hardship, the hardship of my father’s house.” The second son he named Ephraim, and said in the next verse, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” From these two names Joseph did not literally forget his pain. Even after the naming of Manasseh, the “affliction” is still recalled in the naming of Ephraim. We neither see Joseph ignore, excuse, minimize, tolerate, condone, or legally pardon the actions of his brother. What we do see is that he’s reckoning with the sin and harboring no bitterness.
Another example of forgiving without yet reconciling is found in Jesus himself. In Luke 24:34 he cries out to the father from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He’s obviously aware of the sin against him, and yet he is actively seeking the good of the transgressors. He’s praying to the father that they’d receive mercy.
Further, the first Christian martyr, Stephen, in Acts 7. He’s brought out to be stoned for his faith, and he gives a wonderful speech sermon which concludes with powerful words of forgiveness. Luke says:
“59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep”.
Could you imagine: people throwing rocks at you trying to kill you, and you praying in that moment to the Father that their sins would not be held against them? Rather than harboring bitterness or asking God to curse those that were unjustly stoning him, he instead prayed for their good, for them to receive mercy.
This type of forgiveness isn’t merely a charitable thing to do, and it is not only for the super-pious and the saintly. It’s for every Christian. Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:
Father: “…forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, [Jesus says] your heavenly Father will also forgive you,15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
If you do not forgive others, then your father will not forgive you. Jesus is perfectly clear. Unwillingness to forgive is evidence of a heart that has not really grasped the magnitude of what God has done for us.
Think about the parable that Pastor Jordan read for us earlier, the parable of the unforgiving servant. The servant that was forgiven by the king of a debt so large that it would take many lifetimes to repay, that servant was unwilling to forgive another man a debt that was but a tiny fraction of his own. The debt of the second servant is less than one part in a hundred thousand, compared to the debt that the king had forgiven the first servant, and yet he was unwilling to let it go and forgive.
When we fail to forgive others their sins against us, it shows that we have not really grappled with the magnitude of what God has forgiven us. We don’t see our sin as an heinous affront against an infinitely righteous God. We’ve violated his holy law, rejected his merciful grace, chosen our fleshly desires, marred His very image with which we have been created, and willfully opted for high-handed rebellion against our king rather than the loving submission that we ought.
We are too often playing the part of the unforgiving servant, we’re unwilling to forgive others their slights against us, unwilling to let go of the bitterness within, unwilling to lay down our sense of vengeance and justice, because we have an overinflated view of ourselves, and a sub-biblical view of our sin. We think, “How dare they do that to me? How could they possibly have done that to such an innocent and important person?” while at the same time minimizing the egregious magnitude of our own sin against God and others.
Such hypocrisy, such a double standard, such an unforgiving spirit leaves us rightly condemned by God, and justly worthy of being thrown into Jail, as the parable ends. But our jail isn’t short-term and ours isn’t a sentence that can be commuted. Our jail is an eternal place of divine judgment. Our jail will be hell. That’s where the unforgiving will spend their eternity.
But that’s not all that God says about forgiveness in the bible. In spite of the fact that we are too quick to condemn others and too slow to forgive, in spite of the fact that we too often play the part of the unforgiving servant, God in his kindness has chosen to forgive.
When Adam and eve first sinned in the garden, God did not crush them in his justice, but rather clothed them in his mercy. Despite the fact that Israel again and again chose to rebel against God, He instead declared that he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God promises his people in Isaiah 43,
“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.”
In fact, one of the most central promises of the coming new covenant would be His choosing, his promise, not to remember our sins. Jeremiah 31:34:
“…I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
That coming covenant that Jeremiah only saw from afar has been fulfilled in history by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Jesus willingly came to earth and became man so that he might redeem an unforgiving people. His own were unwilling to reconcile with him, in fact the bible speaks of our natural relationship to him as enmity, at war with him, and yet he came and lived and died so that our forgiveness might be earned. He willingly became the victim of injustice, so that we might be forgiven of our unforgiveness.
He tasted of the cup of bitterness so that we might be purged of ours. His life merited nothing but peace, and yet he willingly died in the place of vengeful souls like me and you.
Think of his sacrifice in our place, of how low he came down for us, and how high we have been raised by him. Consider how much love it would take to overcome such a gap of injustice, and how much affection he must have for you to undertake such a miserable mission.
Cherish that Christ. Love him. Come back to him if you’ve strayed, and be forgiven again. If you’re struggling to forgive someone else, think long and hard of Christ’s sacrifice of forgiveness, of how much love he has for you, his former vengeful enemy now made his sweet companion, and see how your bitter feelings can be changed into loving thoughts toward your once enemies.
And if you’ve never come to Christ for forgiveness, then hear my words this morning, and know that you can taste of that forgiveness. Don’t be like the unforgiving servant who will be thrown into the eternal prison of hell because you wouldn’t let go of your grudges, your pride, your bitterness, and your hatred of another. Come to Jesus and have your cold heart warmed by his grace and his love. This offer is for you, don’t reject it, and remain outside of his kingdom forever.
We are called to forgive, because Christ, our King, has first forgiven us, his servants, of an incalculable debt.
Lastly, we’ve covered revenge, and forgiveness. Now lets move on to the next step: reconciliation. Reconciliation. Reconciliation is when both parties can have the relationship restored, even after it was broken by an offense.
The bible teaches us in several places that we should strive for reconciliation whenever possible. We read earlier from Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Jesus says at the end of Mark 9 to have “salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” The salt language there is speaking of salt as a preservative and a purifier; we should seek to be a preserving element, a purifying element in our relationships.
And that makes sense for us. We’ve been the beneficiaries of a great act of reconciliation, and so we can turn around and seek to reconcile relationships that we have.
We were at war with God. We were hated enemies, seditious traitors, having no hope of even coming into his presence to talk about peace. We were outside of the realm of his grace, and branded as enemies of the state. But Christ on the cross has made a way for us to be reunited with our God. Romans 5: 10-11 speaks of this reconciliation:
10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Similarly, Colossians 1: 19-20 speaks of this work of reconciliation:
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
God has made a way for us to have peace with Himself through the work of Christ on the cross. For those that believe, you are no longer God’s enemy, but God’s friend. He no longer has ill will toward you, but only blessings. He no longer feels hostility toward you, but only feels charity. No more grudge, only goodwill.
And because he has done that for us, we can treat one another in that way. He’s filled us with his holy spirit, and by the work of that holy spirit we can grow in our love and compassion for those that had previously sinned against us. We can begin to fulfill what Paul exhorts in Colossians 3:12-14:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
God’s people should ordinarily be living in a reconciled, loving, forgiving community. A community where we don’t keep records of wrong, where we don’t hold grudges and keep people at arm’s length because of something they said or did in the past. The gospel and the work of the holy spirit can and do overcome even great relational rifts that have happened because of sin, and can, in time, bring about loving and warm fellowship that was previously marred by brokenness and disunity.
In fact, that reconciliation is what proclaims the power of the gospel to a divided world. When the world sees unity between enemies like Jews and Gentiles, like Paul describes in Ephesians 2, unity proclaims something powerful about the gospel. When former enemies are made friends, when spouses can forgive and reconcile with unfaithful spouses, when slaves can forgive and reconcile with former masters, when victims can forgive and reconcile with transgressors, then the power of the gospel is proclaimed in a mighty and powerful way. That’s what we all want to see, that’s what Paul encourages in several places.
However, we must also recognize that the bible does explain a few times when forgiveness does not necessarily lead to reconciliation. The bible does give us a few hints about times that our forgiveness may not lead to reconciliation. I will go through a few of those situations.
A little side note: some of these situations require great care and wisdom, and I can’t address every nuance here. If you’re unsure about whether your situation should lead to reconciliation or not, please talk to your parents, or your Sunday School teacher, or your pastors. Often it takes an outside voice to help us discern what we should do in complex relational situations.
Now, one example of when forgiveness doesn’t necessarily lead to reconciliation is when the transgressor clearly does not repent. When the transgressor clearly does not repent. The bible contains many different warnings against us walking together with unrepentant sinners. Paul tells us that bad company corrupts good morals, and Psalm 1 warns us against walking in the way of wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sitting in the seat of scoffer. We should be very careful about being relationally close to those that have sinned against us and are unrepentant.
In such situations, that doesn’t mean we necessarily cut off all relationship, but it often means our relationship will be different. If your classmate sinned against you, and they refuse to admit fault, then your relationship with that person probably should look a little different. If a someone is being clearly sinful and doesn’t admit any fault, then the relationship must look different. Forgiveness is still required, but that doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation will follow.
A second example of when forgiveness doesn’t necessarily lead to reconciliation is when the transgressor’s repentance is proving disingenuous. When the transgressor’s repentance is proving disingenuous. Second Corinthians 7 teaches us that there are two different kinds of repentance: true and false, or godly repentance and worldly repentance. Godly sorrow for sin and repentance will have a genuine confession of sin followed by a resolve to change for the better. It won’t be perfect, but it will contain admission of fault and a striving for holiness.
Worldly sorrow, or false repentance, is demonstrated when someone feels bad about what happened, but does not follow up with lasting behavioral change. They’ll promise to do better, but will quickly slide back to the same old habits.
When someone is demonstrating a pattern of worldly sorrow, we can begin to conclude that their repentance is not genuine, and in such cases reconciliation may not be possible. If someone sins against you, promises to do better, but continues to sin against you in the same ways, then it is probably best for your relationship to that person to change, at least until their repentance shows some genuine fruit, and then you can resume the conversations of reconciliation.
Lastly, a third example of when forgiveness doesn’t necessarily lead to reconciliation is when the transgressor’s sin has cause great harm. When the transgressor’s sin has caused great harm. The bible makes clear that there are certain sins that are so impactful, so hurtful, so damaging to relational trust, that reconciliation is just not possible. Such great harm is done and trust is so shattered that the two parties just won’t be able to make the relationship work.
For example, adultery can have such a devastating effect on a marriage that the marriage covenant just can’t be restored. That’s why Jesus says adultery is grounds for divorce in Matthew19. “Scripture nowhere requires spouses to reconcile within a marriage, when one spouse has biblical grounds for divorce, even if the offending spouse repents.”
The bible says that we are required to forgive an offending party, but it does not require that in every situation we must trust them and reconcile the relationship with the offender.
By way of conclusion, let me say that I’ve covered a lot of different categories, many of which require nuanced counsel and wise discernment. If you need wisdom in how to deal with a troubling relationship, seek out what God’s word says, prayerfully consider how we’re called to forgive, regardless of what the other party does, and consider how we are called to try and live peaceably with all men. If you need wisdom and counsel, reach out to your fellow brothers and sisters, and in all things, remember Christ and the great lengths to which he went in order to bring about the full and complete forgiveness we needed. Our hatred was overcome by Christ’s willingness to overlook our offenses.
Benediction from Romans 5-
If we who were enemies of God have been reconciled to God by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, let us also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received reconciliation.
 Definition adapted from: Witvliet, C. V. O. (in press). “Forgiveness, Embodiment, and Relational Accountability: Victim and transgressor psychophysiology research,” in Handbook of Forgiveness, second edition, eds., E. L. Worthington, Jr. & N. Wade. See also: Everette Worthington Jr., Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope (IVP, 2003, Revised Edition)