HopeOver the past 20-odd years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to teach and/or counsel high school youth groups, along with some additional experience w/ folks struggling with addiction recovery (groups that have more in common that you might think).  One of the common topics that I’ve found that these people have struggled with is the concept of decoupling forgiveness from the consequences of sin.

“If you have forgiven me, then things must go back to the way things used to be…”, so the argument goes.  “If you are still going to treat me different/punish me, then you really haven’t forgiven me,” is cry of the addict, and it is the siren call of the addicts’ enablers in allowing the abuse to continue.  In addictive/abusive relationships, it is quite common for the abusers to manipulate those around them by taking a key component of Jesus’ teaching about living in the Kingdom – the concept of forgiveness – and twisting into something antithetical to its purpose.  As the saying goes “the best lies are the ones that contain the most truth”..

And without a good grounding in the Word, it is easy to fall for this lie, which is why so many do.  And, as so many of the key threads of Jesus’ teaching do, the decoupling of forgiveness and consequences begins in the Garden of Eden.

In the Garden and Beyond

In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we read:

The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

While this may seem harsh, a number of theologians have pointed out that God states His motives, and they are rooted in love – if Adam and Eve were allowed to stay in the Garden of Eden, they would have been able to live forever, but in a fallen state that separated them from God. Thus, by keeping them from the Tree of Life, they were spared an eternal separation from God.

In providing them with garments to cover their nakedness (which brought them shame), God expressed His love for their act. But even in His love, God did not immediately remove the consequences of their actions.

Fast-forwarding a dozen centuries or so, in the book of Numbers we find the story of Moses at the waters of Meribah, where he and his brother, Aaron, disobey God’s instructions on providing water to the people of Israel. At that point, God declares that neither Moses nor Aaron will be able to enter the Promised Land, as a result. Even though Moses and Aaron are forgiven and receive atonement from God via the sacrificial system He gave them, they do not escape the consequences of their sin.

Hundreds of years later, when David had become the King of Israel, he sinned in his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, and the immediate consequence of this was that the child of their illicit relationship would die. Even though David went through elaborate supplication, prayer and pleading with God on behalf of his child, the consequence of his death was not removed. Later in his life, as well, David was forbidden by God’s prophet from building God’s Temple in Jerusalem because of the blood on his hands. Even so, we read that David was declared a “man after God’s own heart”.

And in the Christian Scriptures, a millennia later, we read the story of Paul and Barnabas, who parted ways on one of Paul’s missionary journeys, because Paul was unwilling to take Mark with him, because of his desertion on an earlier mission. As both a Rabbi and a Pharisee, Paul’s piety and devotion to God and his instruction would have demanded that he forgive Mark his earlier transgression, but even so, forgiving Mark did not require that Paul fully restore him to his earlier role as a partner on his journey. Paul and Barnabas parted ways for a time, while Mark went with Barnabas, not because Paul was unwilling to forgive, but simply because what was broken, even after forgiveness, could not be immediately restored.

Trust and Protection

There is absolutely no doubt, based upon Scripture, that we are required to forgive sins committed against us. Jesus’ terminology of forgiving a sinning brother “seventy times seven” is not a call to limit forgiveness to 490 offenses, but rather to always and completely forgive.

However, forgiveness does not immediately restore trust, nor is it always healthy to immediately return the person forgiven to the situation in which they sinned. When one forgives the debt of a person who owes him money but cannot afford to pay him back, it is not a requirement of Christian love to immediately turn around and lend him money again!

In addictions counseling – for the loved ones of the addict, a key concept that must be grasped is that 1) It is healthy and right for them to forgive the addict, but 2) it may be a great disservice to move too quickly in completely restoring the addict their previous situation and standing. When this fails, it creates a cycle of enabling and may lead to codependency. This is primarily a failure of allowing the addict to escape the consequences of his addiction, and it is often those consequences – “hitting bottom” – which are required to bring about the internal desire within them to bring about a change.

In the Lord’s Prayer, right after asking God to forgive us our sins/trespasses/debts, Jesus asks God, “lead me not into temptation”. As a model prayer for us, this hearkens back to the Genesis story – where God protected Adam and Eve by removing them from the Garden. First, God forgives us from our sins. Then, because we do not want to commit them again, we ask Him to guide us down paths that will not lead us to commit that sin again. Consequences for our sins are but one ways by which we are either discouraged or prevented from going back down that path.


One of the ultimate goals for all of us in God’s Kingdom is to be in perfect community with one another, with nothing held between us – to be reconciled to God and one another.

As such, we should always strive to be reconciled with one another. In the case of Paul, Barnabas and Mark, we know that many years later, Paul considered Mark a close and dear friend and companion. We must be attuned to the Spirit, so that we do not carry the consequences beyond their spiritual usefulness in such a way that they prevent restoration, but that we also do not abandon them when they are needed.

As with so many things in the Kingdom, there is no “cookie-cutter” approach to forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration – it must be led by the Spirit. It is vital that, like bandaging and debriding a wound, consequences serve to prevent/discourage a return to a sin, but that they still be accompanied by forgiveness for the sin, itself.

A difficult balance, indeed.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 at 11:58 am and is filed under Devotional, Theology, grace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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One Comment(+Add)

1   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
March 30th, 2010 at 1:29 pm

“Forgive and forget” is a manmade, not a Biblical, assertion.
Sometimes one must remember, especially in cases of abuse, in order to protect themselves and the abuser.

In a more theological sense, our Lord forgives us, and in His love allows us to remember the many transgressions for which He is forgiving us, to make grace and mercy that much sweeter.