Christian traditions. I suppose some could be good; but like so many traditions of the past, they are problematic when they supersede, augment, or replace the tenets of God’s word. This paper will focus on one of the traditions de jure: seeking forgiveness when we have harmed another person.
A Google search of the exact phrase of “seek forgiveness” returns about 563,000 results. The exact phrase “ask for forgiveness” returns over 1.5 MILLION hits. (note, for some reason the counts Google changes over time; suffice it say – it’s a lot!) Almost all of these, as we see from modern christian writers, are dealing with what we are supposed to do when we offend or wrong someone. Sounds good. Makes us feel “warm and fuzzy”. But is it Biblical?
Interestingly, when I do a search on BibleGateway.com using the New American Standard Bible and even The Message for both terms, I find zero results in God’s Word. In other words, even though we have over two million hits for both terms in the common writings, neither phrase appears in the Bible.
So where is the disconnect? If the Bible doesn’t teach us to specifically “seek forgiveness”, what are we supposed to do when we wrong someone; or even, when we commit a sin against God? I’ll explore this in detail in the next couple of posts. But for now, let’s summarize the biblical model for what we need to do when we have sinned:
- Confess. When we are wrong, even slightly… we are to confess our wrong. There are two steps to confession:
- First, we need to “look ourselves in the eye” and admit (another word for “confess”) that the fault is ours. We do this without justification, rationalization, or transferring the blame. “Mea Culpa” – my fault. My foul.
- After we confess to ourselves, we should confess to the one we harmed. We accept and admit our part in the transgression.
- After Confession, we need to Repent. Repentance is a process more than an action. Part of repentance is analyzing “What did I do wrong? How can I prevent a recurrence of the pain and hurt I caused?”.
- Finally, we affirm to the offended that we care about them and regret the harm and hurt we caused. We acknowledge that we want to change and fix our problem so that we can restore fellowship.
None of these has any dependence on the other person’s forgiveness; and nor should it.
After we confess and repent, we might express our sorrow: “I am sorry that I hurt you”; or give an apology: “I apologize for harming you”. But our primary goal should be a restoration of fellowship: “I know I have harmed you and our relationship. I value our friendship and want to do everything I can to not repeat my mistake.”
These three components, confession, repentance, and a restoration of fellowship can be summed up in the Biblical concept of: reconciliation.
Let me summarize why asking another person for forgiveness is UNWARRANTED:
- “Seek forgiveness” is not biblical. Confession and repentance are biblical and modeled in scriptures; “seeking forgiveness” is completely absent in God’s Word.
- Seeking forgiveness is incredibly selfish. We are the ones who are in the wrong. The other person is the one who has been harmed or to whom we owe a debt for which we want forgiveness. When we seek forgiveness from them; that is, ask them for forgiveness, we put the entire responsibility for reconciliation on them; or at least, the responsibility for the relief of our debt and guilt. It is important to understand that forgiveness and reconciliation are two very separate things when harm has been done. I may forgive but never want to be reconciled; and the other side is true too: I may be somewhat reconciled but not have forgiven an offence.
- Too often, the offender will “seek forgiveness” without taking responsibility for their actions. Only through confession and repentance will they fully accept and show their responsibility for the harm they have done.
A common verse reference I hear to support “seek forgiveness” is Matthew 5:23-24 Let me allow a greater mind to describe what he thinks this verse means. Old Matthew Henry in his commentary on this section wrote:
“We ought carefully to preserve Christian love and peace with all our brethren; and if at any time there is a quarrel, we should confess our fault, humble ourselves to our brother, making or offering satisfaction for wrong done in word or deed: and we should do this quickly; because, till this is done, we are unfit for communion with God in holy ordinances. And when we are preparing for any religious exercises, it is good for us to make that an occasion of serious reflection and self-examination.”
One final observation regarding this passage from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”… It is interesting to note that the verse does not say “if you have wronged your brother”. No, it says that he “has something against you”. I think this is key. My brother may have something against me that has nothing to do with my wrongdoing or even my guilt. It would be ridiculous to go and “seek forgiveness” for something I do not owe as a debt. Nor should we “confess and repent” when we have not done anything wrong. The directive in this verse is this: No matter what the reason, and regardless of our fault in the matter – we should be reconciled.
To sum up the point of this lesson: When our fellow believer has something “against us”, we should “seek reconciliation, not forgiveness“.
Let me paraphrase what this verse says: “If you remember that a believer has something against you, regardless of whether it’s your fault or his, it is your responsibility to go and work on reconciliation with him”. Once again, I caution to keep in mind that forgiveness and reconciliation are two very different things.
To be fair, I think that the problem we face here is one of semantics. I think many of the writers who tell us that we must “seek forgiveness” actually mean, as Matthew 5 says, that we should “first be reconciled”; that is, that we should seek reconciliation. Similarly, some say that it is important to apologize and say “I am sorry” when the other person is offended. An apology or affirmation of sorrow may be components of reconciliation but they should have no part in forgiveness. After all, forgiveness is all about a debt owed. Once again, taking Timothy Keller’s wonderful definition (in an exegetical article on forgiveness and reconciliation): “Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. But it must be recognized that forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering.”
Let me summarize what we need to do, and not do, when there is conflict with another person that is our fault:
- We should never “ask for forgiveness” since it puts the responsibility of reconciliation on the damaged party.
- When we wrong someone we should confess, repent, and attempt to seek reconciliation (a restoration of fellowship). These are fully independent of whether or not they have forgiven us.
- Reconciliation always takes two people. Forgiveness only requires one.
In a future post, we’ll explore how we should respond when someone harms us; but let’s summarize here for completeness: