Forgiveness and Justice are incompatible, right? Forgiving someone means foregoing justice, doesn’t it? Isn’t it just cognitively impossible to think of pursuing justice and forgiving at the same time? That’s how the popular thinking goes … but that’s not biblical thinking at all.
Lamentation (and even anger) at injustice, the seeking of justice, and the practice of forgiveness are all closely intertwined. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) included in his book Souls of Black Folk a chapter entitled “Songs of Sorrow.” In one place he astutely notes that such songs of sorrow (such as the “Negro Spirituals”) offer hope, “a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”
Bryan Maier has written an excellent study that explores this relationship between lament for wrongs suffered and hope for justice. We can’t over-recommend his Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach (2017). At just 160 pages, it’s a fairly quick read.
There’s nearly a cottage industry of books on forgiveness. Most contemporary teachings on forgiveness follow one of five models (though there are others) —
- therapeutic forgiveness (the victim should forgive for the sake of the victim’s well-being, the state of unforgiveness only causes further injury to the victim, and may cause the victim to risk damnation),
- forensic forgiveness (forgiveness as a transaction — the cancelling of debt, granting clemency from deserved punishment),
- relational forgiveness (transactional forgiveness plus possible reconciliation of a ruptured relationship),
- unilateral forgiveness (forgiveness is a one-sided action, all on the side of the victim, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator repents), or
- dispositional forgiveness (having a forgiving or conciliatory spirit).
All of these have some merit but tend to either try to say too much or too little.
Offering an alternative (and more robustly biblical) course, Maier lays out three boundaries delimiting forgiveness.
- “Boundary #1: Forgiveness Is a Response to a Moral Violation”
- “Forgiveness, in order to make sense, must presuppose that an offense has been committed; otherwise there would be nothing to forgive.” Forgiveness is only required when there has been a moral violation, an offense that is inherently unrighteous/unjust.
- “Boundary #2: Forgiveness Is Not a Cognitive Reframe”
- This cognitive behaviorism may have its place, within appropriate limits, to offer a fresh perspective — life has handed me a bunch of lemons? No problem, I’ll just make lemonade! Clearly, perception does shape behavior. Changing our perception can help us not to get stuck in resentment.
- But forgiveness is something different. Defining forgiveness in this way can blur the lines of reality, foster gaslighting, and confuse such concepts as
- condoning, excusing, justifying, and showing mercy.
- Often cognitive reframing can ultimately call evil, good — see, God can bring good out of that situation, so what happened to you was really good after all!, and you should praise God for this abuse! (NB: We — Joshua and Ruth — have both, separately, heard this type of thing many times over the years.)
- As a result, this type of focus ultimately makes victims more vulnerable to future acts of injustice and harm.
- “Boundary #3: Forgiveness Is More Than Empathy”
- Maier notes that “many forgiveness authors suggest some kind of empathy with the perpetrator as a means of ameliorating the resentment” which a victim feels as a result of the moral violation he or she suffered. Of course we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But we must also recognize that “that if the victim’s sin cancels out the sin of the perpetrator, then the whole basis for justice collapses. If we are always guilty in some kind of morally equivalent way, then we can never charge our offenders. If a victim must be totally free of any sinful behaviors or thoughts before the offender can be addressed, justice would never occur. In the classic passage on confronting a brother (Matt. 18:15–20), the victim’s sin (which we know is present from the rest of Scripture) is never mentioned.”
Maier then outlines “four contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness,” asking a series of questions that we must answer to reach a biblical definition of forgiveness on the foundation of the three boundaries listed above.
- “How does God forgive?”
- “How does healing relate to forgiveness?”
- “Is forgiveness primarily self-centered or other-centered?”
- “Is forgiveness active or passive?”
After examining (in chapter 3) the relationship between resentment and repentance, he explores each of those four questions. Reminiscent of Bonhoeffer’s discussion of “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship, Maier explains the hidden costs of the “cheap forgiveness” that many in the Church insist upon. With cheap forgiveness, because the offender has neither confessed nor repented, “there is no agreement that what was done was wrong” and the victim remains unsafe, and true reconciliation is impossible. It is appropriate to address ongoing resentment harbored by a victim once the offender has confessed and demonstrated signs of repentance, including where necessary some type of restitution to restore justice. And so, because “trust is the basis of true unilateral healing for victims,” if such “resentment poses a barrier to genuine forgiveness,” this should be dealt with. But often “resentment is merely an appropriate emotional reaction to sin yet to be addressed.” In such circumstances, “healing can only come by means of some assurance that one day justice will be complete and final.” This is not a desire for revenge and vengeance borne out of bitterness and rancorous resentment, but a godly and natural desire for justice and righteousness.
Our scholar friends will recall that both the Old Testament Hebrew root צדק (tz-d-q) and the New Testament Greek root –δικ– (-dik-) are inclusive of our English ideas of “righteousness” and “justice.” There is no justice in the midst of unrighteousness, and no righteousness in injustice.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that it was after Israel named their daughters “Miriam”, or themselves “Mara” — names that mean “bitter” or “bitterness” — that God sent savior-redeemers (Moses, Boaz, and ultimately Jesus). God in God’s wisdom acted salvifically after God’s people recognized their bitter lot.
Maier has chapters on “authentic repentance”, “trusting God for justice”, “results of forgiveness”, and “forgiveness and justice in counseling.” Here is his exposition of what the simple statement “I forgive you” should mean:
Because of your repentance and the facts that the price for your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin, I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship.
We (Ruth and Joshua) recommend this book — Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach — to any pastor, preacher, counselor, or missionary in any context. It’s practical, theologically robust but in everyday language, and firmly grounded in Scripture.
For that matter, we recommend it to anyone
- who struggles with forgiveness,
- who struggles with justice,
- who is passionate about justice, or
- or who is passionate about forgiveness.
We guess that covers most of us.
Note: We have this book in paper and in Kindle (it’s also available for Nook). We didn’t include page numbers as I (Joshua) was referring for the quotes to the digital copy, which sadly doesn’t include “real” page numbers. Bryan Maier’s Forgiveness and Justice is available from Christian Book Distributors, Joseph Beth, BooksAMillion, Barnes & Noble, or wherever fine books are sold.