What Does Forgiveness Require?
Look carefully at this statement by the Apostle Paul:
2 Tim 4:14-15 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.
We know that Christ calls us to forgive one another. We are to love our enemies and do good to them (Matthew 5:43ff; Romans 12:19-20). We are not to take vengeance against them, but to leave it to the Lord to effect justice. (I am still researching whether or not we are commanded to forgive our enemy. We are to love our enemy by doing good to them, not returning evil for evil 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9).
Therefore, we can certainly assume that Paul acted in love toward his enemy Alexander the coppersmith. Alexander had done Paul great harm. He was an enemy of Christ, opposing the gospel. Notice however that Paul’s actions here do not square with the following widely held notion of what forgiveness is:
- I will not dwell on this incident.
- I will not bring up this incident again.
- I will not talk to anyone about this incident.
- I will not let this incident hinder my personal relationship with the offender.
This fourfold formula definition of forgiveness appears in articles and books that are widely circulated among Christians. Yet these two short verses in 2 Timothy clearly discount at least three, if not all four of these supposed elements of forgiveness. Paul is, in a sense, “dwelling” on what Alexander did. He isn’t just forgetting it. Paul IS bringing Alexander’s sin up again. Paul IS talking to someone about it. Paul IS letting Alexander’s evil hinder his personal relationship with him! Big time! There is no relationship! Are we supposed to charge the Apostle Paul with bitterness and unforgiveness? Hardly. In fact, Paul’s actions in regard to Alexander are a very wise and right guideline for an abuse victim’s attitude toward their abuser. Watch out for him. Don’t trust him. Recognize that what he has done is evil and has effected great harm. Have no relationship with him. Warn others. Dwell on what he has done in the sense of being reminded of his true character, thus not succumbing to the common temptation and pressure to imagine that it is the victim that has been wrong.
The fact is that we do not treat our enemies in the same manner that we treat a brother or sister in Christ who wrongs us. When Paul instructs us to forgive one another just as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13), we must remember who the “one another” is! Fellow believers. Repentance then is assumed. There is no repentance in the case of an enemy else they would no longer be our enemy! And yet we are being told by prominent Christian teachers that there is no difference in how we are to forgive an enemy or a fellow believer. That is, we must say, preposterous and in the case of an abuse victim, dangerous and naive. Forgiveness, in its essence, is simply agreeing to not seek vengeance for the wrong committed. In some cases we will reconcile the relationship, we will never speak of the wrong done again, we will never mention it to others. But all of that is “gravy” on the real meat of forgiveness and must not be insisted upon in every case.