The Essential Art of Forgiveness in Ministry
I’ll never forget where I was when I nearly quit the ministry: sitting in my office at church, weeping. My wife was out of town with our children, ministering to a friend whose husband had just died from cancer. It was very early in my first pastorate. Being a senior pastor was new, different, and somewhat frightening.
I was experiencing the betrayal of a church leader close to me, someone who had discipled me, mentored me, and ordained me for ministry. What began, I thought, as constructive criticism, soon turned into private and public slander.
This new opposition wasn’t the kind of friendly and constructive criticism I’d expected and sought from people I’d grown up idolizing. This wasn’t coaching from older, wiser, pastors. This was jealousy, bullying, and threats. And it was deeply personal.
His disapproval of me had not stemmed from integrity issues, doctrinal issues, or even leadership failures. It was simply a difference in ministry model. I chose to pursue a style of leadership that departed, in some ways, from his. Having been his disciple, he had expected me to lead just like him in my own ministry.
I remember thinking in this moment, I think I’m going to quit. Maybe I’m not cut out for church leadership. Maybe they are right.
I replayed the conversations with this person over and over in my head. You are not cut out for ministry. You are an embarrassment. You will never make it without us.
That same day I called up a friend, a respected and experienced pastor. I was trembling when I called him and told him about the situation. I told him I was pretty sure I would leave the ministry.
Rich, my friend, responded that day with two statements that changed my life and ministry forever:
“Dan, you can’t quit. I won’t let you quit. You are right and they are wrong.”
“Dan, you must also forgive them.”
The first word was one I wanted and needed to hear. The second … well, I didn’t like hearing about forgiveness so much in this moment. But Rich was right.
I had always spoken and preached and taught about forgiveness, but perhaps it was in a sterile, academic way. I really had not had occasion to practice forgiveness. I’m not talking about letting go of petty hurts and insults—the kind of daily rhythm of forgiveness and repentance that oils relationships—I’m speaking of painful and difficult hurts.
How do you forgive when you’ve been so deeply wounded? I would learn this in a personal way over the next year as my reputation was maligned and I lost many friends. No longer was forgiveness a sterile topic for a future lesson.
Calling out evil
In the story of Joseph—dreamer, slave, brother, wrongly accused, prime minister, son—I discovered a powerful secret about forgiveness and leadership. The story of Joseph’s epic fall and rise had been a staple of my growing up years in church. I knew the contours well and saw in Joseph not only a powerful tale of God’s provision and protection, but a beautiful shadow of Christ. Christ was the better Joseph, wrongly accused, imprisoned, then exonerated by resurrection and exalted in glory.
But there is something about the God-given forgiveness displayed by Joseph that I hadn’t seen until my current trial. In those famous words, Joseph says:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20 ESV)
Two things strike me about Joseph’s passionate words to his brothers. First, Joseph didn’t minimize the hurt against him. He pointed to his brothers and said to them, “you meant evil against me.”
We too often skip past this part and get to the good stuff: the forgiveness. Perhaps it’s our desire to see resolution and reconciliation that causes us to minimize real hurts. I think we do this in our own lives as well. As Christians we are so wired for forgiveness that we forget to look at evil—evil done to us—and call it what it is.
But to minimize sin—even sin against ourselves—is to hollow out the gospel message that offers forgiveness in the first place. Christ, in his death and resurrection, offers forgiveness for those who repent and believe. It’s free, but it cost Christ his life. The sins we committed against God were heinous violations of his holiness and tragic trespasses against our fellow man.
The only way we can begin to offer forgiveness is if we call our hurts what they are: evil. In a way, reading Joseph’s words freed me to move forward. It gave me permission to own what had happened to me.
Some slights are mere slights and many insults are petty. But real, honest, genuinely evil things done against us are not things to be dismissed lightly. Forgiveness is not a pass. It’s not a wave of the hand with a shrug, No big deal.
God meant it for good
What happened to me—this was big deal. It was evil—not simply by my own flawed accounting—but by numerous godly people who knew the situation. Owning this helped me to appreciate the next piece of Joseph’s forgiveness, the theological truth that formed the ground of my ability to forgive.
But God meant it for good. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty generates a lot of heat. Theologians have argued about it since the first century. But for me, this was no longer a sterile chapter in a systematic theology textbook. It was life.
Joseph’s words are beautiful declaration of the tension between human responsibility for sin and God’s sovereignty. His brother’s intended evil. They worked and schemed against their brother, denying him human dignity, abandoning him for death, and selling him, like property, to the highest bidder. They intended but God superintended.
God used human sin to accomplish His purposes in the world. Joseph’s ordeal is a shadow of another, betrayed by his brothers, sold for thirty pieces of silver, wrongly put to death. In Christ, Peter declared on Pentecost, we see the same tension:
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:23-24 ESV)
Man schemed, God superintended for good. I can’t fully explain this mystery. But it does cause me to worship and it gives me grounds for repentance. I know that the evil done to me—pedestrian when compared to the evil I’ve committed against God—is not random. It’s not out there somewhere. It’s being used by God for his glory.
Sometimes we see, as in the life of Joseph, this being fully worked out. Mostly though, we won’t see the full flower of Christ’s kingdom restoration until He comes back in victory. I’ve seen God use this difficult season to draw me closer to him, to sharpen my leadership, and to allow me to build new friendships with people I’d never know if I wasn’t hurt so deeply.
Forgiveness as vital to leadership
Forgiveness is not ancillary to spiritual leadership. It’s vital. A leader’s ability to forgive others directly impacts his ability to lead others. I’m convinced of it, not only from the life of Joseph who became a wise and capable leader in Egypt.
I had to forgive those who had hurt me deeply not only for my own personal spiritual growth, but also because I had a congregation of people watching me. How could I preach of the forgiveness Christ offers and yet harbor bitterness in my heart? How could I help my people apply the gospel to their own relational struggles if I ignored what the gospel was telling me?
I’ve seen bitterness tear at the heart of a leader and poison his leadership. I’ve seen it up close in ministry and I’ve read about it in countless biographies. Look closely at tyrannical leaders–in ministry, in government, in business, anywhere—and you’ll find a common trait. Somewhere in their past was a deep hurt that wounded them so deeply they couldn’t move on. Bitterness and cynicism became embedded in their psyche, making them insecure and power-hungry.
When we can’t or won’t forgive, we communicate something other than the gospel we claim to declare. We say, with our lives, that God is less than all-powerful and that our circumstances are outside of his control. What’s more we offer a limited gospel, one that only heals certain kinds of pain. Ultimately, we lead our people away from the living water their hearts crave.
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation. It doesn’t always mean every relationship is put back together perfectly. It doesn’t mean we ignore abuses or criminal acts. What it does mean, however, is that we don’t shut off our hearts from the gospel’s healing, cleansing flow. It means we trust the evil done against us, not to our own limited and faulty vengeance, but to the powerful justice of God.
This article was originally published here.