Unpacking Forgiveness

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One of the thorniest, most practical problems any pastor or Christian will deal with is forgiveness. Every Christians knows forgiveness is a good thing, but what does it mean? How do we do it? Is it always necessary no matter the circumstances?

For answers to these questions (and many others) I highly recommend Chris Brauns’ book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. Chris is a pastor in western Illinois, and, I discovered, used to be just down the road from my current church. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions for a blog interview.

1. Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? Do you have a family? Where are you serving now? Why does your book reference the Lansing State Journal?

Originally I am from the cultural center of Keosauqua in the GSOI (Great State of Iowa) –though, I’m very disappointed about last week’s court decision about marriage.

I pastor a church in a small town (Stillman Valley, IL). My wife, Jamie and I have four children (ages 15,13,11, 6). You can read more about me than you want to know here.

As for the Lansing State Journal, I was the senior pastor at Grand Ledge Baptist for 6 years which is just west of Lansing, MI. I collected a lot of forgiveness illustrations during that time and they ended up in the book.

My sermon illustrations are not the only thing we took from Lansing. Our dog still has a Michigan State collar, and my wife picked MSU to win it all in March Madness. Go Spartans.

2. Your book “Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds” is very good. Thank you for it. How did you get interested in the topic of forgiveness?

As a pastor, I repeatedly encountered situations where people in my church needed to work through forgiveness issues and were not following biblical teaching. I began to study and preach about forgiveness because there was such a need in my church.

Once I began to really study forgiveness, I discovered that a lot of what was written was not biblical. So, it was that combination, the need of people in my church, combined with unbiblical teaching.

3. What are some of the common misconceptions about forgiveness?

Many people do not understand what a serious matter it is to be unwilling to forgive those who ask for forgiveness. If someone reading this is unwilling or unable to forgive they should read and meditate on Matthew 18:21-35.

I think another misconception is that we can unpack forgiveness on our own. All Christians must be part of a local church. The need for a church home is even more pronounced when working through a deep wound. The church is God’s plan for this stage in redemptive history. As much as Noah and his family needed to be on the ark, we need to be truly connected to a local church if we are going to unpack forgiveness. If someone feels themselves drowning where a forgiveness issue is concerned, the first question they should ask is, “Am I really connected to a Christ-centered, Bible preaching local church?”

The most common misconception is that of “therapeutic forgiveness,” which we get to in the next question.

4. You talk a lot about therapeutic notion of forgiveness. What is this and why is it so dangerous?

“Therapeutic forgiveness” insists that forgiveness is at its core a feeling. Our culture has picked up on this in a big way. When most people say that they forgive, they mean that it is a private matter in which he or she is not going to feel bitter.

Borrowing a line from Boston’s, “Don’t Look Back,” album. I argue that forgiveness is, “More Than a Feeling.” Biblical forgiveness is something that happens between two parties. When God forgives us, our relationship with Him is restored. That is why Calvin said that the whole of the Gospel is contained under the headings of repentance and forgiveness of sins (Institutes 3.3.19).

Once people make forgiveness therapeutic, you have all sorts of non-biblical things happening. For instance, some say it is legitimate to forgive God. This is a heretical idea because God has never done anything which requires forgiveness. But, “therapeutic” forgiveness needs to forgive God so bitterness is no longer felt.

Therapeutic forgiveness also diminishes the necessity of two parties working out there differences. If forgiveness is simply how I feel, there is no need to worry about the relationship.

The tragedy of therapeutic forgiveness is that in making individual feelings the center of everything, I think it ultimately leads to bitterness and the wrong feelings.

5. Probably the most provocative aspect of your book is the repeated assertion that forgiveness is conditional. What do you mean by this? What don’t you mean?

Start with the most basic biblical principle about forgiveness. We are to forgive others as God forgives us (Eph 4:32). The Bible clearly teaches that God does not forgive everyone.

That being the case, Christians are always required to have an attitude of forgiveness. Just as the Lord prayed on the Cross that his murderers would be forgiven, so we should pray for those who persecute us.

However, forgiveness doesn’t happen until the other party is repentant. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he wasn’t granting absolution. Unless those who crucified Him repented and accepted God’s grace, then they weren’t forgiven.

6. As you’ve talked about this topic in different places, how do people respond to the message? Have you changed your mind on any aspect of the book? Have certain areas been reinforced even more strongly?

The fun part of preaching and teaching on forgiveness is that people are always interested. In a fallen world, everyone is unpacking forgiveness one way or another. And, there are always plenty of case studies to consider.

I haven’t changed what I believe the Bible teaches. The messages have been reinforced. I see more than ever that people need to carefully think about how justice fits with their beliefs about forgiveness.

If I was going to add to the book, I think I would put in a section about holding to forgiveness ideals in a fallen world. The reality is that many forgiveness wounds will never heal completely this side of eternity. I did include one chapter about what Christians should do when they can’t agree. But, there needs to be more said about that.

7. Are you working on any more book projects?

Yes, I have several things in the early stages. In response to the individualism that is so rampant, I am working on something about the need for Christian community in the church.

8. What books are your reading right now?

I have been reading a number of different books by Wendell Berry. I just finished a historical fiction book by Bernard Cornwell, Agincourt. I am preaching through Hebrews so I’m reading lot on Hebrews. And, honest, your new book, Just Do Something is on my desk.

9. What are some of the unique challenges and blessings of being at a rural church?

God called us here so we tend to notice the blessings more than the challenges. Ministry is much more local here. When we lived in more suburban areas, we only saw our church family at church. But, here we attend church with the same people who play football with our sons or softball with our daughter. It is a wonderful place to build relationships.

There are opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have because it is a small town. For instance, our church decided not to have a library. We are cramped for space and libraries require a lot of resources. Instead I am on the local library board. I helped oversee the donation of a collection of books to the library. I’ve been able to pick out many, many books to make sure that there is a good basic collection of Christian books in the library. Those books are now available to our whole community, not just the people who come into our church.

I suppose that the tough part of being a pastor in a small town is that there are no breaks for me or my family. Pastoral matters often come up when I am at a ball game or some other activity for my children. There are no boundaries here.

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