Our country is reeling in the aftermath of several horrific events–some spanning back several years and some just a few days ago. Regardless of the timeline, we all will to some extent struggle with what to do with the offenders. Should there be forgiveness or justice? And, even more perplexing, what do we do when it is a believer who has sinned?
In an excellent article titled “Why repentant pastors should be forgiven but not restored to the pulpit”, Jonathan Freeman deftly summarizes this difficulty within the church when he states, “Christians struggle with this question because Christianity centers on the idea of forgiveness. Step one in becoming a Christian is acknowledging that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. When the pastor is exposed, some push the message of forgiveness. “Who of us is without sin?” they might say, drawing from Jesus in John 8. Meanwhile, others object: “But how can we trust this guy?””
What does it mean to show forgiveness to those who have harmed us? Freeman goes on to argue, as stated in his title, that pastors who have sinned and repented should be welcomed back into membership but not into a role of leadership. There should still be consequences to their sin.
There Are Still Consequences
That’s because forgiveness does not mean there aren’t consequences. The church, like our culture, has bought into the lie that there aren’t any real consequences to our choices. This has a dangerous effect on our understanding of the Gospel. All people have the responsibility to accept or reject the Gospel with the knowledge that this choice has eternal consequences. If we don’t own consequences in the small things, it is harder for us to apply them to the ones that really matter.
But this is exactly what we want to avoid, particularly if we are the one who have hurt someone. We want it over and done with an apology, but we all know that isn’t enough. First, and very importantly, if it is a crime, it should be reported. The church, hoping to protect, instead hurts people when it covers up crimes, particularly those of an abusive nature.
But what if no real crime has been committed–what if the sin/hurt inflicted is not something outlawed? What if it is an affair or lying or harsh words or insensitivity or pornography? The truth is though, that there are still consequences–in most situations, a broken relationship.
The first step includes apologizing, but the next step I believe is the one that is most forgotten. Weep with those who weep. In your shame of your actions, do not try to ignore or minimize the pain that has been caused. Instead, pray that God will help you see what your actions have done to the ones you have hurt.
We Call this Empathy
Empathy is something that no one can make someone feel or experience–it is the choice of the one who has hurt another. This isn’t to be confused with shame or regret which is still focused on the feelings of the guilty party. True empathy sees the entire scope of their actions. They own it and what it has done to others. When this has been done, the person who has been hurt can feel heard and their pain understood.
Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle illustrates this point with one of the best endings to a villain. In his story, Galbatorix is defeated, not by force, but by being made to experience the effects of his evil. They could not overcome him, but they could make him feel. His was accomplished by force, but we instead can choose to feel. Jesus states in Luke 14:11 (ESV), that “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” We have control right now over our ability to empathize with those whom we have hurt.
What is even more amazing is that we can use our own hurts as a way to help us empathize. We each know how it feels to be unheard, disregarded, or abused. These experiences are not wasted when we use them to remind us of the depth of pain that can be caused by our words and our actions. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, but it is about learning.
The church can model true forgiveness by practicing true empathy. This is done when its members are not quick to dismiss but instead quick to listen and understand. And here we can be the counter-cultural voice that stands in opposition to the hardheartedness we see around us.