When it comes to forgiving others as we know we should (Matthew 6:12), we sometimes need to remind ourselves of advice the apostle Paul gave to the Corinthian Christians. The church at Corinth apparently included an individual who had caused some problems for the brethren in that city.
We don’t know exactly what the problems were, but we do know that once the matter was sorted out, Paul reminded the other believers of an extra step in the process of forgiveness that we often overlook.
When we forgive someone who has done something against us, we often jump from the act of forgiving in our own mind (which is difficult enough) to trying to “forget” the incident as well as we can (which can be just as hard – see the blog post “What Forgiving and Forgetting Really Means”). But this jump overlooks a part of the process that Paul chose to stress. Notice what he told the Corinthian church regarding the one from whom they had become alienated:
“If anyone has caused grief…The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
Notice that Paul immediately follows the admonition to forgive the individual with one to “comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” This clearly indicates that the individual was already sorry for whatever it was he had done and Paul seeks to limit or to end the ongoing sorrow. But Paul doubly stresses this admonition to accept the forgiven individual by telling them that in this circumstance they should “reaffirm your love for him.”
Forgiving someone a serious hurt can be difficult enough, and we sometimes are tempted to feel satisfied if we do reach a point of sincere forgiveness. But Paul shows we must resist the temptation to then continue in a kind of hurt distancing of ourselves from the individual forgiven. The apostle shows that if the person does respond to our forgiveness, it is then our responsibility to reestablish an accepting relationship.
We can also see that Paul meant this important principle as a firm admonition for us rather than just something he was offering as “good advice” by what he says in his following words: “For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything” (2 Corinthians 2:9 ESV). Paul clearly equated his readers’ acceptance of this principle of reconciliation after forgiveness with spiritual obedience.
Being as conscious as he was of his own need for God’s forgiveness and acceptance (Acts 9:4, 1 Timothy 1:15-16), Paul probably understood as well as anyone that the second step of forgiveness is just as important as the first. Having himself been fully accepted by Christ after his persecution of the Church, Paul reminds us that forgiveness without acceptance is meaningless and hollow. Only as forgiveness is followed by acceptance is it truly full forgiveness, and that acceptance in turn makes the final step of forgetting the incident, where possible, that much easier.