When You Just Can’t Forgive: a book review

Forgiveness and justice are two gospel threads, though, in many theologies, one often short-shrifts the other. Either grace is emphasized to the exclusion of justice, or justice, in the form of care for the marginalized, is stressed while grace remains opaque. In Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach, Dr. Bryan Maier holds up the importance of both, explicating the power of forgiveness and God’s heart for justice, in a pastoral and counseling context.

9780825444050Maier has a doctorate in psychology from Wheaton College and is associate professor of counseling and psychology at Biblical Theological Seminary. He approaches the topics of forgiveness and justice as a professor, a counselor, and a pastor who has walked with people through difficult things.

From the outset, it should be noted that this treatment on forgiveness is limited by a focus on interpersonal forgiveness, and not corporate forgiveness (13). So while Maier does envision justice, he is not so much talking about social justice, i.e., a response to systemic issues and institutional dynamics that impact communities, but individual and personal injustices (e.g. abuse, adultery, etc.).  However, he does speak realistically about the nature of sin and the way individual people are affected by evil. He validates the experience of victims and warns us against easy forgiveness.

After reviewing contemporary clinical models which describe forgiveness (chapter 1), Maier sharpens our understanding by offering 3 boundaries around the construct of forgiveness and 4 contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness. He asserts forgiveness is a response to a moral violation (i.e. no moral wrong, no need for forgiveness), that forgiveness is not simply a cognitive reframe (choosing to see reality differently) or empathy for the offender (33-40). Maier asserts instead that forgiveness, in the Christain sense: (1) is derived from divine forgiveness—Christ and his cross, (2) does not have personal healing as its primary goal, (3) is other-centered, focused on the offender, and (4) is active, not passive (41-43).

These four characteristics describe much of what follows in the rest of the book. Unlike a lot of contemporary forgiveness literature, Maier doesn’t think forgiveness is about making the victim feel better about themselves by letting go of the hurt. Instead, forgiveness is about the offender recognizing their error and repenting. Thus, forgiveness is not something to offer flippantly, or the appropriate response if the offender is unrepentant.  Resentment and anger may actually be our appropriate response in the face of ongoing sin. Maier writes:

Interpersonal sin is an assault on justice and the God of justice. Feelings of resentment or legitmate anger are both a logical and appropraite response to injustice. Resentment is logical if it is defined as merely an emotional reaction to what has already been recognized cognitively—that is, that an offense has been committed and the offender is not repentant. Resentment defined this way is also appropriate because God Himself reacts to sin with such strong affectively laden legative feelings. (53)

We forgive because God forgave us, and God’s forgiveness should typify our behavior (cf. Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12); Nevertheless, just as God’s forgiveness of us requires our repentance, so our forgiveness of others ought to require their turning from their sin (64). God keeps score (chapter 5). So while Christians ought to always be ready to forgive, forgiveness is not the Christian response to ongoing injustice.  Anger with the state of things is, just as creation groans toward redemption (Romans 8:22-23).

Several biblical resources are helpful in this regard. Maier commends Romans 12:9-21, which brackets out vengeance as a Christian response. God himself will repay the evil done to us (80). He also recommends praying imprecatory Psalms (those Psalms where the enemies of God’s people suffer for the evil they’ve wrought), as comfort and assurance that justice will be done (96). He also describes a counseling session where his patient drew comfort from the book of  Revelation, because of its assurance that in the end, someone pays (82).

Maier goes on to describe the reality and benefits of forgiveness and to describe the benefits of forgiveness and justice and counseling.

What I found most beneficial about was how Maier confronts cheap forgiveness. I have personally been taught, and have taught others, to define forgiveness therapeutically and subjectively. I’ve thought of forgiveness as not letting the wrong done to me poison my soul. In Maier’s model, forgiveness is about setting the relationship right. This can only be done if the offender is repentant and trust is rebuilt. This deals objectively with the world of relationships.

I also appreciated the validation of anger, not just as an appropriate response but as a motivating factor in our work against injustice. I do not know an activist who isn’t angry, and I’m glad for it. Anger and resentment at injustice are meant to move us to action, to set the world to rights. Maier names these as important and legitimate responses in a world where all creation groans toward redemption (Romans 8:22-23).  In fact, I think this book may have changed my thinking a little bit about what forgiveness means, when to offer it and when to hold out.

In terms of a ministry aid, I think Maier offers some sound advice for pastors and counselors,  in walking people through the process of forgiveness. He uses the Bible judiciously, holding up the ideal of forgiveness without slighting victims of profound evil. By pointing to repentance as the normative standard for forgiveness, Maier doesn’t make light of sin, while still holding out the possibility of reconciliation and redemption. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic and Ministry in exchange for my honest review

 

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