Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Write-Up: Piecing Together Forgiveness

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 meaning.”

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.

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