If anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. (2 Corinthians 5,7)
Healing They Need
Paul begins his second letter to the Corinthian church on a painful note. From the start, we sense something’s gone wrong, not only because of what he says, but also because the deft frankness typical of Paul’s style is gone out of the writing. He’s mincing words—something he very seldom does—and the strain is oddly disturbing. With unusual tact, he refrains from recounting the specifics of an incident that occasions his letter or naming the offenders behind it. As best we can tell from his introductory comments, he’s decided not to return to Corinth for a while, even though his travels would make stopping there convenient. It seems his previous visit was marred by a confrontation that threatened the church’s unity. Paul was obviously wounded, as were many in the Corinthian community, and for the sake of all, he writes to explain why he believes it would be best not to return to them until the wounds heal.
Now that the offender has been disciplined and repented of his error, Paul encourages the church to welcome him back into community. Yet Paul’s also keenly aware that many in Corinth feel very protective of him and may be reluctant to embrace the man who opposed their leader. They may continue to resent, distrust, and treat him harshly. Rather than welcome his return as an equal, they may begrudgingly allow him to rejoin them while never dismissing their low opinion of him as a troublemaker. This will not bring about healing they need, healing that will ease Paul’s mind about future visits. In 2 Corinthians 2.7, he writes, “So now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
It’s here that we get our first glimpse of Paul, the precise wordsmith and dynamic leader whom we admire. He replaces the Gospels’ customary word for “forgive” (aphiemi), which means “to let go, pardon”—as in forgiving a debt—with a more magnanimous one (charizomai) meaning, “give freely; impart grace; act favorably toward.” Paul asks more than usual from the Corinthians. He wants their forgiveness to surpass pardon. He urges them to dig deep into their reserves of compassion and summon the grace to restore the wrongdoer’s sense of self-worth and belonging. And he asks this for the good of all: for the man, for the Corinthians, and for himself. He concludes his supplication with this: “So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” (v8-11)
Paul's adroit inclusion of “if I have forgiven anything” sends up a red flag that tells the Corinthians their forgiveness of the one who hurt him will make his forgiveness full and complete. Realizing this will be tough for some, he also notes that he’s watching them closely—testing them—to see if they’ll honor his request. In essence, he flips the situation, turning their willingness to extend grace to his former adversary as the litmus that proves they truly love him. Don’t stop at forgiving, he says; be free-giving.
Stuck in the Middle
I would guess that not one of us, at this moment, isn’t dealing with at least one situation that’s left us stuck in the middle somehow, stranded between our desire to stand for right while also deeply troubled about how our stance will affect those we believe are wrong. Break-ups are a classic case. When one partner wrongs another and their relationship ends, we support the wronged party. That’s an easy decision. Our response to the wrongdoer is much more complicated. We may love her/him as much or more than the other, yet our knowledge of the harm he/she caused encourages us to pull away. We hope we can forgive, offering true pardon that lets go. But we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the offender freely.
Restoration that can only be wrought by extending grace—by free giving—may ask more than we’re comfortable providing. That would look like disloyalty to the wounded person, whom we also love. But here we find Paul speaking as the hurt party, explicitly asking us to surpass lip-service pardon. “Freely give of your grace, act favorably toward, and console him,” he implores, “so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” He then tells us, “I’m waiting on your forgiveness so I can forgive.” Paul informs us that our unforgiving, ungracious attitudes and behaviors toward those who’ve harmed others actually impede both parties’ healing. In the course of this process, however, we should note that the offenders’ error has also been noted and dealt with fairly. “This punishment is enough,” verse 6 says. Once we’ve expressed our disappointment and anger, it’s time to move on to restoration. And this will indeed ask more of us than common forgiveness. We’ll need to dig deep. What’s more, we’ll have to deal with the unhappiness of those who can’t find it in themselves to give grace and favor freely. But better that than permitting our misfortune of getting stuck in the middle to delay or prevent much-needed healing and rectification.
One of Lent’s hardest tasks is offloading grudges and fears we carry because of personal injuries. Even though we pray daily, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” it’s an uphill battle to get this work done in anticipation of beholding Grace Incarnate at Calvary’s cross. We want to be free, clear, and unblocked by animosity and resentment, to know the cleansing Jesus purchased for us with His life. What we may overlook, though, are grudges we hold on behalf of others. Have we also forgiven those who’ve repented of sins against those we love, respect, or care about as victims of injustice? Are we too afraid of how we’ll be perceived to extend them the added grace that will bring about their restoration? Do we believe it is just of us to allow them to “be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow”?
What’s done cannot be undone. But the wounds it created can be healed once the harm is acknowledged and the offender repents. Lent’s call for self-examination includes frank assessment of our stance in situations that strand us in the middle. Are we mistaking dismissal and disdain for the offender as loyalty and compassion for the wounded? If so, we’re not giving freely and we’ve relinquished our middle position to become part of the problem. In conflicts that affect but don’t personally involve us, taking one side to the exclusion of the other undermines the healing of both.
Lent calls us not only to offload grudges and fears we hold as a result of personal injury. It also asks us to examine our responses as third-party observers of conflicts between others.
Postscript: Questions 14 & 15
Why is often easier to forgive those who hurt us than those who hurt others?
How does our eagerness to offer compassion to the wounded while withholding it from the offender put us at risk of inflating our sense of importance—or outright pride?