In the wake of hearing the news about Josh Duggar’s child molestation charges, I posted a few things to Facebook that inevitably sparked quite a bit of conversation. I was most adamant that TLC cancel the show because it seemed to be the most and only fitting response.
Throughout the day, the one thing I heard over and over again was “What about forgiveness? God forgives him; shouldn’t we? He repented; just forgive him.”
I got tired of repeating myself in response to those questions, so I decided to write this post instead.
First of all, let me state definitively we should extend forgiveness to Josh Duggar for what he did to those girls. We should also extend forgiveness to his and their parents and authority figures who failed them by handling the situation in the way they did. I know how much I’ve been forgiven for in my own life, and it only makes me want to heap forgiveness on others.
With that being said, I think the Church tends to forget forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. God is both just and forgiving. We see it in the cross. Because He’s just, He couldn’t simply decide to forgive us; justice had to be served. So Jesus came and died on the cross where (to quote Charlie Hall) “love and justice kiss.” He took the punishment we deserved, saving us from death and hell.
Jesus did not, however, save us from the earthly consequences of our sin.
Could you imagine what we’d be like if we knew we could get away with whatever we wanted? God doesn’t have to imagine. He knows. And so while He offers grace and forgiveness, He also allows us to walk into moments where we have to humbly accept the repercussions of our actions.
I think King David gave us a perfect example of this. After he got Bathsheba pregnant and killed her husband, David confessed and repented. God forgave David (2 Samuel 12:13) but still took the life of his & Bathsheba’s child as punishment. Forgiveness and justice coexist here.
The thief on the cross who repented is another example. Jesus granted him forgiveness and access to heaven. You know what Jesus didn’t do? Help him down off the cross he was hanging on as punishment for his crimes. Again, forgiveness and justice coexist here.
When the Church forgets that these two go together, forgiveness becomes something it was never intended to be.
Forgiveness without justice tends to ignore, cover up, or excuse sin.
Unfortunately, this is often what we see in the Church particularly when it comes to situations of abuse. The victims are told to “forgive and forget” and move on with their lives. Seeking justice by speaking out or pressing charges is seen as unforgiving, and the victims are made to feel guilty and ashamed of their “un-Christlike attitudes.” Instead of providing space for healing, the Church further wounds these children (and adults) by failing to acknowledge fully the evil present in the actions done to them.
Furthermore, using forgiveness in this way does a great disservice to the sinner by enabling them to continue their behavior unchecked. If it’s not dealt with, sin will continue to have control, slowly destroying the person (and likely taking others out with them).
Instead, forgiveness must provide justice in the form of acknowledging the truth and reality of the situation. The sin must be named. The wounds must be catalogued—ideally, by all involved (victim, perpetrator, Church); at the very least, by the victim and those aware of the situation. And in the case of child abuse, the situation must be reported (and that’s not just me talking; it’s the law).
Forgiveness without justice demands too much of the victim.
Forgiveness does not happen instantaneously. It’s a process that occurs over time. It’s a choice that has to be made. Depending on the depth of the wounds, the process can take years and the choice will need to be made daily.
My mother put it perfectly when she said, “Forgiveness is something you hope victims can get to on their terms and in their healing process. Abuse is damaging, and people deserve the opportunity to heal without the added pressure of parents, authorities, or others pushing them to forgive the abuser.” When justice is removed from the equation, victims are left with this impossible pressure.
Forgiveness without justice does not acknowledge the need for boundaries.
Once trust has been broken, it can take a long time to be established again. We’ve all experienced this. In the case of abuse, that trust may never be earned back. In order to create the space to heal, victims may need to set boundaries that restrict their relationship with the perpetrator regardless of how repentant the perpetrator may be. Setting boundaries does not equal being unforgiving; it’s about seeking justice by protecting and helping the healing process.
Forgiveness without justice fails to protect potential victims.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The abuser who isn’t given the opportunity to work through his (or her) own issues will continue to abuse. The abuser who sees others “get away with it” will continue to abuse. Justice is the process by which we prevent that from happening.
Finally, justice without forgiveness is hollow.
Ultimately, the process of forgiving is more about the person doing the forgiving than the person receiving it. Forgiveness sets us free from anger, bitterness, and resentment. When accompanied with justice and not used as a rug to sweep things under, forgiveness is probably the most important aspect of the healing process. Without it, no amount of consequences for the perpetrator will ever seem like enough.
As humans, this relationship between justice and forgiveness is a tension we find very hard to manage because we are not God. But this doesn’t excuse us from seeking ways to let them coexist as they were meant to.
Please, Church, for the sake of so many within our care, we have to get better at this.