A Book Review: Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds by Chris Brauns
If you are anything like me – and I trust that you are, you’ve picked up some baggage along the way. As we travel down this rugged road called life, the burden of past wounds, injustices, and relational strains can weigh heavy on us. I love how Shannon Popkin, a freelance writer who endorses Braun’s book puts it, “Unpacking Forgiveness”, “Offers a tender hand of guidance to those who ache to unpack what life has flung at them, and awakens a longing for the happiness that only forgiveness can bring.”
For several years now, I have been hitting a brick wall when it comes to the spiritual breakthrough necessary to get beyond what “life has flung” at me. What’s more, it seemed that any outward attempt to deal with it, in a way that I thought was biblical, only complicated matters and inevitably added more weight to my already heavy load.
Much of what I heard from mainstream Evangelicals on the matter of forgiveness seemed so trite and clichéd. Even the sermons from well-known, and respected preachers all sounded so stale and commonplace. Nothing even remotely came close to addressing the painful, thorny issues of my heart that I so longed unload. Most, if not all, of the counsel that I received, (though sincere and well intended) did nothing to help. In many cases it only served to complicate matters and make them painfully worse.
A few weeks ago I read a familiar passage of scripture that came alive to me in a most peculiar way (Matthew 5:43-48). This was the beginning of my breakthrough that eventually led me to “Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds”, by Chris Brauns. Before I go any further, I’d like to say that it is in scripture alone that we find the answers to all of our questions. I espouse with every fiber in my body the theological doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”. It is only by scripture alone that we can truly work through and sort out all of our issues on forgiveness. To that extent, the entire premise of the book, and any underlying principle thereof, is found in the infallible, inerrant, holy word of God – The Bible.
As the author himself explains, “Unpacking Forgiveness” presents “the beauty of God’s grace and the necessity of forgiveness. But it will also teach the reader that forgiveness must take place in a way that is consistent with justice. We must move beyond a ‘feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.’ Christians must always have a willingness to forgive or an attitude of forgiveness. But this does not mean that forgiveness always takes place.“ Does this statement run a little contrary to your understanding on the issue of forgiveness? It did for me.
Providing a biblical definition of forgiveness is Brauns’s first order of duty. He starts the process by explaining a key principle: “God expects believers to forgive others in the way that he forgave them.” Ephesians 4:23 states, “Be kind to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Brauns establishes 5 principles to come up with a definition of forgiveness. I am taking this verbatim from his book as summarized on page 51.
1. God’s forgiveness is gracious. He offers forgiveness freely. This is not because forgiveness is free in terms of cost. It is a very expensive gift that can be offered freely because, motivated by love, God sent his one and only Son to pray the price for it.
2. God’s forgiveness is a commitment. When God forgives us, he makes a commitment that we are pardoned from our sin and that it is no longer counted against us.
3. God’s forgiveness is conditional. Only those who repent and have saving faith are forgiven.
4. God’s forgiveness lays the groundwork for and begins the process of reconciliation. When God forgives us, our relationship with him is restored.
5. Not all consequences are immediately eliminated. God disciplines his children as a father disciplines his children (Proverbs 3:12)
With these aspects of forgiveness laid out in detail, human forgiveness can be defined like this: “Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.”
Understood in this light, true biblical forgiveness can only be extended if there is repentance. True biblical forgiveness is conditional. Sadly, this truth, although scriptural, has evaded most mainline Evangelical teachers. Brauns states that, “Contrary to the conventional understanding, I believe that the notion of automatic forgiveness itself fosters bitterness. We are created with a standard of justice on our hearts. When we forgive someone who is not repentant, we are acting in a way that is unjust. Deep down we are saying that forgiveness must sometimes happen at the expense of justice.” Brauns identifies this as “therapeutic forgiveness” or “cheap grace”, and it is dangerous. Among some of its negative consequences are “a reluctance to identify and name evil”. He cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer who argued that it was because of this biblically incorrect application of scripture that Germany did so little to stand up against the evil of Nazism. Evil, he argues, if not identified and named, will soon flourish.
This is the first book that I have ever read that addresses all of the real-life issues involved in forgiveness in a practical and realistic way. Brauns discusses when it is appropriate to overlook an offense. Conversely he discusses when and how we should take action and pursue forgiveness and restoration. He dedicates two chapters on how the Christian should respond to the unrepentant offender. He tackles the issue of bitterness and how we can avoid it. He talks realistically about those times when Christians come to what he calls an “impasse, a hopelessly complicated knot” that despite all efforts, reconciliation is seemingly impossible. Brauns also deals with questions such as adultery and confession, restitution, forgiving people after they have died, and what do to when someone you have offended will not forgive you.
On a personal level, since reading this book, I have made spiritual and emotional progress in an area that quite frankly, has dogged me for years. If you have been struggling to reconcile the Word of God with your own experience in the area of unforgiveness and feel like you’ve been hitting your head on a brick wall, then this book is for you.
Jeremiah 23:29 says that the word of God is, “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” I pray that the Word of God would be to you as it was to me in this book – a hammer that cracks, splits, and shatters every proud rock obstructing your progress in God.
You can visit Chris Brauns at his blog here.