Forgiveness: Cornerstone of Healthy Relationships

R. E. Cline penned an earlier article on building healthy relationships in discipleship. This article builds on the foundation laid in that article and focuses on forgiveness as a cornerstone in those healthy biblical relationships.

Jesus lived in a way that was obviously counter to the culture around him. His relationships were different than those in his own day and certainly different than those in ours. For Christ, relationships were not self-serving. They were messy and filled with tensions. He loved really difficult people. He forgave them in spite of their outright rebellion, and he didn’t let the fact that they were his so-called enemies get in the way of his pursuit of them.

Jesus built those types of relationships because they were right and because we needed to learn about them. Relational holiness in a local community is one of the things that makes the church a signpost of heaven. Our relational unity points to the gracious God whose gospel alone is able to bring genuine relational health to sinful people.

We Are Shaped by Culture

Unlike Christ and his counter-cultural ways, we tend to build relationships that are shaped by culture, for good or ill. For instance, I heard a report of young, college-educated adults from an international urban culture being asked what they would do with only twenty-four hours to live. Their response was disturbing, at best: “I would go find those who have hurt, offended, or wronged me and get even with them. I would get revenge before I died.”   

“Unlike Christ and his counter-cultural ways, we tend to build relationships that are shaped by culture, for good or ill.”

When people from that particular cultural background respond in faith to the gospel, their relational world will be turned upside down. They will have to wrestle with the fact that Christ has forgiven those who were God’s enemies, adopted them as sons and daughters and blessed them with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). And the expectation is that they will do the same.

Gospel Relationships Are Rooted in Forgiveness

Turning to Christ brings many relational challenges, not the least of which is learning to forgive. Writing to the Colossian church, Paul detailed major relational change for believers: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3:12–14 ESV).”

The character of Christ—the model for our own—is on full display in this passage and commended to the early Christians.

Several other New Testament passages include teaching from Christ in regards to forgiveness. One, in particular, involves a sinful woman who interrupted a meal with Jesus and the Pharisees. She poured expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, an action that angered the Pharisees. Jesus seized the moment to teach about forgiveness, saying, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little(Luke 7:47 ESV).

Furthermore, Jesus told a parable about a servant who was forgiven a very large debt and refused to forgive someone else a tiny sum, but rather demanded payment (Matt. 18). The parable clearly explains how embracing the gospel of God obligates us to forgive others. Seemingly, Christ said that we do not fully understand the gospel until we are willing to forgive others for wrongs done against us.

“We do not fully understand the gospel until we are willing to forgive others for wrong done against us.”

We Must Disciple Others into Gospel-Driven Relationships

These sorts of relationships don’t simply occur naturally; they must be cultivated. There is hard work required in doing so, especially across cultures. The following is a short list of the basics for those discipling new believers for healthy relationships:

  • Explain the God-centered goodness of the gospel.
    We must constantly remind new believers of God’s overwhelming, infinite, and unconditional love shown to us in Christ. We must help them see that, because of the gospel, we treat people in a new way, a different way—the way Christ has treated us.
  • Explain how the gospel transforms relationships.
    Christ gave his life in order to reconcile us both to God and to one another. In the words of John Stott, the gospel saves people who are “
    body-souls in community.” We are not meant to be alone. We are meant for the formative work of Christ carried out through the local church, in community.
  • Go to the Scriptures quickly and often.
    Allow the Bible to shape your conversations. Don’t focus solely on behavior, per se. Instead, highlight the way that Scripture focuses on Christ as our hope in all things, including our relationships. He is the one who saved us, and he will be the one to lead us.
  • Point new believers to forgiveness.
    We’ve been offered eternal forgiveness so we can also offer it to others. The experience of grace must lead to its expression.
  • Consider the culture. 
    In some cultures, Jesus’s parables will connect quickly and deeply. In other cultures, Paul’s didactic approach, always grounded in the finished work of Christ in the gospel, will be readily understood.

As we discussed in the previous article on healthy relationships, there are many oft-overlooked skills that should be developed in the discipleship process. Disciple makers train new believers to read the Scriptures, share their faith, join a local body of believers, and other biblical activities, each of which is an incredibly important thing to understand. Each is an aspect of faith that should be commended among believers. However, we cannot forget softer skills that are just as important to our faith and service, and relationship building is at the top of that list.