What Missionaries Ought to Know about Forgiveness
Ronald L. Koteskey
this as a pdf file
fellow missionaries, they were your closest friends. They had prayed
with you for the last six months as you developed a plan to reach the
people in your city. It was successful beyond your wildest dreams. But
now they had a book coming out about your plan-claiming it as their own!
Of course, you are glad for the success in reaching people, but how
could they have done that? Can you ever forgive them?
Even if you can forgive them, can you ever forget it, or can you ever
really trust them again? Let us consider some of these questions.
How could they have done that?
Being hurt by someone you love is inevitable. Sometimes the people
hurting you do it intentionally, planning it carefully and then carrying
out their plot. Other times they do something without forethought. Most
often they do not intend to hurt you and do not even know they have done
so. The Old Testament clearly distinguishes between intentional and
Having your brother or sister turn on you is as old as the human race
itself, as found in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. It occurred
repeatedly in the book of Genesis, as shown in the life of Joseph and
his brothers who first planned to kill him, but then decided just to
sell him as a slave. How could they have done that?
Sometimes you are the one who is amazed at what you do. The first
missionary, Paul, wrote about this in himself in Romans 7. He just did
not understand why he did what he did. He did not do the things he
wanted to do, but he did the things he hated. Paul was saying, "How
could I have done that?"
What if I can't forgive?
When praying the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to forgive us as we
forgive others. Following that prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus said that if
we forgive people who sin against us, he will forgive us. However, if we
do not forgive others, he will not forgive us. He illustrated this in
Matthew 18 with the parable of the unforgiving servant when Peter asked
about how often to forgive. The one not forgiven was the one who did not
The goal is always forgiveness, but the time it takes to reach that
goal may be very different for different offenses and for different
people. You must be careful not to rush into a premature, shallow
forgiveness, in which you say, "I forgive you," but still
really hold the offense against the other person.
Generally the more serious the offense, the longer it takes to reach
genuine forgiveness. If someone "borrows" an everyday dish
without asking and breaks it, forgiveness may come quickly. If the dish
was a treasured family heirloom, the forgiveness may take longer. If the
offense is sexual abuse as a child or adolescent, the forgiveness may
take years or decades. We must not rush into premature forgiveness.
People often cite Joseph's clear forgiveness of his brothers in the last
chapter of Genesis as an example of how we should forgive. Remember that
it was more than 20 years after the offense when he first saw his
brothers, and the first time he saw them (Genesis 42) he pretended to be
a stranger and spoke harshly to them. By the time they came the second
time, he was ready to begin to deal with forgiveness.
What if I can't forget?
You will probably never actually forget. Forgiveness does not mean
that you are no longer able to remember the incident. Some people say we
should "forgive and forget." Others quote Jeremiah 31:34 and
Hebrews 10:17, pointing out that God forgives and forgets.
Of course, this does not mean that God literally cannot remember that
the events ever happened. If that were the case, God would no longer be
all knowing. He still knows that the sin occurred, but he no longer
holds it against the person. He does not develop amnesia, but he will
never bring that sin up again.
Of course, not having the memory constantly occurring as it once did
may be a result of forgiveness, but it is not the means of forgiveness.
Forgiveness literally means to "give up" or "give
away." The dictionary defines it as "to give up resentment
against" someone. Forgiving someone frees you from being consumed
with resentment about the offense, but it does not erase the memory. You
may need that memory to avoid future abuses from an unrepentant person.
God does not erase our memories, but he redeems them so that we can get
on with our lives.
Joseph pointed out that his brothers had intended to harm him, but
that God used it for good. He had not forgotten what happened 40 years
earlier, but he no longer carried the resentment and wanted to punish
them (Genesis 50).
What if I still don't like them?
You may never really like people who have hurt you so deeply.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Forgiveness
means that you give up your resentment and your desire to punish the
other person, not that you necessarily become best friends.
You may say, "Doesn't God want us to love everyone?" Of
course, he does. Such is commanded in "love one another as I have
loved you." But the kind of love that can be commanded is agape
love. It is the kind of love in which you make a decision to be
committed to the best interests of that person. It does not necessarily
mean that you are good friends (phileo). Unfortunately, the English
language does not have adequate words to express the meanings of these
Greek words, so we use the word "love" for both.
God commands you to be committed to the best interests of all
persons, not to be best friends with them all. After some time, you may
grow to like the person and become good friends, but that will not
always be the case. Notice that Joseph was kind to his brothers,
reassured them, told them not to be afraid and said he would provide for
them and their children. He did not say they were his best buddies, and
he clearly favored Benjamin over the others, the ones who sold him into
Even though you may not be the best of friends with others who have
hurt you, you can still work effectively with them. Being willing to
forgive others benefits you as much as it does them. It frees you from
carrying that resentment, freeing you to do God's work.
What if they don't ask for forgiveness?
This is a difficult situation. It is complicated to try to come to
terms with someone unwilling to accept responsibility for actions that
have offended or hurt you. We are often tempted to become resentful.
Unfortunately, carrying around the resentment and bitterness is a heavy
burden, and that burden is on you, not the one who offended. You may be
carrying such a load related to someone you will never see again; that
person may even be dead. Being willing to forgive, being open to
forgiving when they repent, or forgiving before God even if you cannot
see the person lifts the load from you.
Thus, granting forgiveness, or turning the final judgment to God, is
often more for your own sake than for those you forgive. Joseph granted
forgiveness to his brothers even though they did not ask for it. The
burden was taken from him, and he could get on with his life. If you
continue to carry that load, many times you are granting the offender
the power to continue to make you miserable and limit your
Why is it so hard to ask forgiveness?
The basic problem is usually pride. You have to admit that you have
done something wrong, and that is very difficult to do. Many people find
it much easier just to sweep the matter under the rug and say that the
offense did not really matter that much, but it does. Until forgiveness
is sought, something remains to hinder any relationship.
Since they move so often, some missionaries find it easy to just
leave, thinking that the offense will be forgotten. However, that is not
the case. The matter will still be there in the relationship whenever
they meet again. Asking, giving, and receiving forgiveness are
especially important parts of saying good-bye when leaving the field to
Why is it sometimes so hard to accept forgiveness?
This also often goes back to pride. We often feel like we must do
something to earn forgiveness. Forgiving others is against our concept
of justice in which people should suffer for the wrong they have done.
Forgiving others does not come naturally to humans. However, God gives
forgiveness to everyone who asks because Christ paid the debt through
his suffering on the cross. The Bible clearly states that forgiveness is
by grace, through faith, and even that is God's gift to us. Although we
can repent and make restitution, we can never earn our forgiveness, only
In Genesis 50 Joseph's brothers had not really accepted his
forgiveness 17 years after Joseph had granted it to them. They were
still carrying feelings of guilt and fear for an offense that was
forgiven. They asked for something (forgiveness) that had been granted
nearly two decades before.
if they won't forgive?
You may ask forgiveness, but the other party will not grant it. This
is also a difficult situation. You must genuinely request forgiveness,
make restitution as far possible, and continue to demonstrate acts
consistent with repentance. If the other persons will still not grant
forgiveness, you have done all you can. The burden is now on them. You
may still feel some of that burden, but God does not hold you
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