Kristi Burchfiel. Piecing Together Forgiveness: A Study of Philemon. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. See here to buy the book.
As you can tell from the book’s title, Piecing Together Forgiveness
is about the subject of forgiveness: our forgiveness of others, and how
that relates to God’s forgiveness of us. The book has six lessons
about forgiveness that we can draw from the biblical Book of Philemon.
As Burchfiel shows, forgiveness shows up in so many ways in the Book
of Philemon and its background. There is Philemon, a Christian whose
slave, Onesimus, runs away and becomes a Christian. Paul encouraged
Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to accept him back. This was probably
difficult for Philemon to do, since Onesimus likely owed Philemon money.
Apphia, who may have been Philemon’s wife, is also mentioned in
Paul’s letter. According to Burchfiel, Apphia herself may have had
difficulty forgiving Onesimus, as many of us are reluctant to forgive
those who have hurt our loved ones. Paul’s letter is also addressed to
other Christians and a church, showing that Paul intended for the
incident between Philemon and Onesimus to instruct and edify the body of
Christ. Then there is Paul, the author of the letter, who himself was
forgiven by God for persecuting the church.
A reason that I read this book was to see how Burchfiel would define
forgiveness. To be honest, feeling positively about people and moving
on from hurts and slights are very difficult for me. I have long been
haunted by Jesus’ saying that God will not forgive our trespasses if we
do not forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:35; Mark 11:25-26).
The question that I then ask myself is, “Okay, then what exactly is
forgiveness?” What exactly does God want me to do here? People may
think that this is awful or legalistic, but I wonder what forgiveness is
at its minimum. Is trying to get rid of hateful thoughts enough? Do I
have to be actively in a relationship with people I do not like? If
so, how often does God want me to be around them?
Read or listen to Christian teachers, and you will encounter
different teachings about forgiveness. Many say that we should forgive
primarily for our own benefit: it is our way of moving on and having
spiritual and psychological health. Some deny that we need to be
reconciled with the person who hurt us. Others, by contrast, say that
we should pursue reconciliation and remain in a relationship with the
person who hurt us: if we are unwilling to do that, they say, then that
shows that we have not truly forgiven the person. I read one blogger
who was seeking to define forgiveness, and he looked at God’s
forgiveness in arriving at a definition. When God forgives, the person
was saying, God remembers our sin no more (i.e., Jeremiah 31:34), and
that should be our aim. Later, I listened to a preacher who said
something different: that we are not God, so, unlike God, we cannot
forget people’s sins against us, so our forgiveness of others does not
necessarily mean forgetting. There are other debates within
Christianity about forgiveness: Does the offender need to repent before I
can forgive him or her?
Where does Burchfiel land on the subject of forgiveness? She says on page 7 (of my PDF copy of her book):
“Understanding what forgiveness is about is actually quite simple.
Forgiveness is pardoning a past wrong and then moving forward with a
restored relationship. Forgiveness is about relationships. Without a
relationship, forgiveness has little meaning.”
Burchfiel believes that forgiveness is about relationships. She
seems to be part of the school of thought that maintains that
forgiveness entails reconciliation, or at least an attempt to
reconcile. As far as I can recall, she never says in her book that we
should forgive primarily for our own benefit, so that we can feel
better. As she says, “Without a relationship, forgiveness has little
There are other things that she says that accord with this. For
example, she critiques a common saying among Christians that “I love
that person, but I do not like that person.” She believes that such an
attitude hinders genuine love for the loved-but-disliked person.
Burchfiel’s argument here seems to be that Christians are telling
themselves that they love the person because God commands them to love
and they want to feel that they are obeying God, but they do not really
love the person.
Yet, there are things that Burchfiel says that may qualify her
definition of forgiveness. She says that forgiveness does not
necessarily mean a restoration of trust: Philemon, for example, did not
give Onesimus the keys to his estate after forgiving him and accepting
him back! Then I was wondering what Burchfiel’s definition of
“relationship” is. Is it continually being around the person and making
contact? Burchfiel tells a story about a church that her husband
pastored that hurt her husband, and she really struggled to forgive that
church. She has moved on from that, but does she now have regular
contact with the people from that church? I do not know for sure, but I
have my doubts.
I feel burdened by Christian teachings that I should like or be in a
regular relationship with hurtful people. I feel that those teachings
are unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy. We cannot be friends with
everybody! At the same time, I do not think that it is honest for me to
add qualification after qualification to forgiveness, such that it
becomes a meaningless concept, which is what I can easily find myself
doing. Do I believe that forgiveness is impossible? I think that it is
possible, if the person values the relationship and sincerely loves the
person. And I’m talking here about really valuing the relationship and
the person—-not doing so because God commands it and one wants to
appease God. Let me add this: I think that Jesus’ statements about God
not forgiving us if we do not forgive others make matters worse. Does
threatening people to forgive really work?
In terms of Burchfiel’s book, there were issues that I wish she had
explored more deeply. She talked about how many of us feel that it is
easier on ourselves not to forgive. This is a profound insight, one
that is slightly contrary to the common wisdom that we do ourselves a
favor when we forgive. But she should have explained that more. She
should have interacted more with Jesus’ statements about God not
forgiving us if we do not forgive others. She notes that Paul
encouraged but did not command Philemon to forgive, but what is the
significance of that? Jesus’ statements about forgiveness seem to me to
imply that forgiveness is something that God commands. Burchfiel said
that our failure to forgive hinders our relationship with God, but she
should have explained how that is the case.
In addition, there were some areas in which Burchfiel’s book could
have been better organized. Many books have a chapter, then discussion
questions at the end. This book, however, would have discussion-like
questions in the middle, and that could be confusing.
At the same time, there are positives to this book. Burchfiel is
honest about her own struggle to forgive. She is also a gifted
storyteller: her story about Paul being haunted by his past and moving
on was especially compelling.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.