Examines God's Word to form a theology of forgiveness, helping readers move beyond the wounds of bitterness, disagreements, and broken relationships. A helpful resource for anyone who struggles to extend forgiveness.
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About the Author
Chris Brauns (DMin, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the senior pastor at the Red Brick Church in Stillman Valley, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
How to Begin Unpacking
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Wherefore, if anyone is weary, if any is in prison, if anyone is in captivity, if anyone is in the wilderness, let him come to the blessed Jesus, who is as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Delay not, arise and come away.
I have never met Jennifer Thompson. She is from North Carolina; I grew up in Iowa. We do have this in common: in 1984 we were both working hard to graduate from college. So as contemporaries we must share some of the same memories. I assume college students in North Carolina listened to the same music we heard in Iowa: "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins, "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins, stuff like that. Styles were probably similar, though I suspect that we were a little behind in the Midwest. Fashion had a hard time finding us in the cornfields.
Then again, there's a lot that Jennifer Thompson and I didn't have in common. She maintained a 4.0 grade point average. My successes in college had more to do with an intramural basketball team called the Squids. Jennifer Thompson was Homecoming Queen. At our Homecoming, I was awarded the title of Grand Lemming. It's a long story and not as glamorous as if I had been Homecoming King, though they did play "Hail to the Chief" whenever I came into a room. Like I said, it would take a while to explain.
Still, Jennifer Thompson and I are contemporaries, and when I read her heartbreaking story, it makes me remember those days of working on resumés and trying to get job interviews or to be accepted into graduate programs. And my heart so goes out to her: to have so much ahead of you, and then to have someone do something so evil to you ... I can't imagine.
It is hard to even write about this, but here it is. One night in 1984 a man broke into Jennifer Thompson's apartment, held a knife to her throat, and raped her.
It might have finished her. But Jennifer Thompson was a determined young lady. Even in the midst of her ordeal, she studied her assailant's face looking for tattoos or scars, anything she could use to identify him. She resolved, "When and if I survived the attack, I was going to make sure that he was put in prison and he was going to rot." Within a few days she identified her rapist from a series of police photos. She picked out the same man from a lineup. Courageously, Jennifer Thompson put her hand on a Bible and testified in court. Based on her testimony, Ronald Cotton was sentenced to prison for life.
Jennifer Thompson celebrated. Now she was rid of her luggage. Ready to go on with life. Or maybe not. Jennifer could not have anticipated the weight of the baggage that she would carry through years of her life because of what happened that horrible night in 1984.
How about you? Are you carrying baggage through life? Are questions and wounds weighing you down? Maybe your baggage contains abuse or divorce or unfaithfulness or mistakes you have made. If so, are you learning how to unpack the baggage that comes with those wounds and to deal with them so they do not continue to affect how you relate to people today?
If that is where you are, meditate with your heart and mind on the invitation of the Lord Jesus Christ: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Here is help for the hurting. Jesus extends a special invitation to those who are being crushed under a load of brokenness. In the original context, Jesus offered rest to people burdened by an intricate religious system. The Pharisees of the first century had developed a complex set of rules. The rules began with the goal of helping people to be more righteous, but in the end they focused on minutiae and neglected the more important matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). Jesus said that the Pharisees were straining gnats from their beverages while guzzling down camels. And all the attention to religious trivia wore people out (Matthew 23:4, 24).
The baggage of broken relationships can be every bit as fatiguing as the religious system of the Pharisees. Are you haunted by your relationship with your father or mother? Do you feel constant guilt about a broken marriage? Are you filled with bitterness over abuse you endured? Or hopelessly disillusioned by your own failures? If so, Jesus invites you to come to him. He will give you rest. Real rest.
* * *
Unbelievably, two years after Ronald Cotton was sentenced to life in prison, he was granted another trial. Still determined that justice be done, Jennifer Thompson took the stand again. This time the defense brought in another suspect. She testified that she had never seen him. Again Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. And again Jennifer Thompson relished the justice.
Eleven years passed. Jennifer Thompson got married and had triplets. She was now well past the nightmare of 1984. But once more she was asked to assist the prosecution. This time they asked her to provide a blood sample for DNA. She agreed, confident that it would only solidify the case against Ronald Cotton.
And then the unthinkable happened.
A police detective and the district attorney knocked on Jennifer Thompson's front door. They told her that DNA testing had proven that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant. Bobby Poole (the man she testified she had never seen before in her life) was the man who had raped her.
Jennifer Thompson helped send the wrong man to prison. Her testimony had stolen eleven years of freedom from Ronald Cotton. She was devastated. "How do I give someone back eleven years?" she asked the district attorney.
Now in addition to the nightmare of having been raped, Jennifer Thompson had to drag around the luggage of her own guilt. She would wrestle with that burden for years.
As I pointed out in the Introduction, forgiveness questions can get so complicated. How do you unpack luggage like Jennifer Thompson's? Maybe your problems seem just as complex and hopeless. It feels as though there are no answers. If that's where you are, I would say to you that there are answers. You don't have to be naive to believe that. A great ending can be written to your story.
You might answer, "Well, I'm not sure I can believe that." Here is what you can do. Fix your eyes on the majestic loveliness of the One who extends an invitation to those who are weary and heavy-burdened. Get this: this One is God himself. He is the "Wonderful Counselor" (Isaiah 9:6). The word translated "Wonderful" is used in Scripture to describe miracles (Exodus 3:20; 15:11). "Counselor" refers to a giver of the kind of wisdom that helps in guidance and planning (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6). Jesus, who offers you rest, is wonderfully wise, the Lord of awesome answers, the God of incredible insight and godly guidance. He will lead you perfectly through the minefields of your broken relationships if you will come to him.
Nothing gets me more fired up about the glory of Christ than witnessing him as he unties the tightest knots and heals the deepest wounds in human hearts. In a newspaper article with the title "Even the Perfect Witness Can Make a Mistake," Helen O'Neill told the story of how Jennifer Thompson moved forward in life.
For two years after [learning that Cotton was innocent] Jennifer Thompson never stopped feeling ashamed.
Over and over she wondered: How could she have made such a terrible mistake?
And what of the man whose life she had ruined? All those years, locked away from his family. Now that he was free, did he hate her as much as she hated herself?
Then one day she stopped crying. She knew exactly what to do.
A few weeks later, she drove 50 miles to a church in the town where she was raped.
She had prayed for the strength to face this moment. She had prayed for the strength to face Ronald Cotton.
"I'm sorry," she said. "If I spent every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn't come close to what I feel."
Ronald Cotton was calm and quiet.
Finally he spoke.
"I'm not mad at you," he said softly. "I've never been mad at you. I just want you to have a good life."
For two hours they sat and talked while their families paced outside. They talked about the pitfalls of memory, the power of faith, the miracle of DNA. They talked about Bobby Poole.
"We were both his victims," Cotton said, and Thompson nodded in agreement.
As dusk fell, they made their way out of the church. In the parking lot, their families weeping, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton embraced.
In the article, there is a picture of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson sitting on a park bench. They are both smiling in a way that could not be faked, the smiles of people at peace with one another and at peace with themselves, free from weighty burdens.
You might ask, how was Ronald Cotton able to forgive the woman who had wrongly accused him? That in itself is an amazing story. In prison, Ronald Cotton hated Bobby Poole, the man who actually had committed the crime. Cotton made a blade out of a piece of metal and planned to kill Poole. But his father pleaded with him not to do it. He told him that if he killed Bobby Poole, he would be like him. Instead his father encouraged him to turn to Christ. And Ronald Cotton did. He found that Jesus was the One who could and would unpack the burdens pressing down on him. Because Ronald Cotton had himself received the gracious forgiveness of his Heavenly Father, he was able to forgive Jennifer Thompson graciously. Worn-out and broken, carrying the burden of being convicted for a crime he had not committed, Ronald Cotton turned to Jesus and found a Savior who was more lovely and gracious and gentle than he could have ever imagined. And the brilliant light of Christ shone through his own life so that he could in turn demonstrate Christ's grace to Jennifer Thompson.
* * *
Along with his matchless wisdom as Wonderful Counselor, the Lord Jesus Christ is also "Mighty God" (Isaiah 9:6). Jesus rules with complete power. There is nothing he cannot accomplish. Think of what a tremendous combination his almighty power is with his wonderful wisdom. Not only does Jesus always know the right thing to do, he can always do it. Nothing in heaven or hell could ever thwart his purposes. If God be for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)? Jesus can do for you what he did for Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson.
Think again of the invitation of Jesus. This time, read the following two verses as well.
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28–30)
Just for a moment now, block out all your concerns about whatever fight you may face at home or at church or in the world. Consider Christ even more deeply. Even as I have reminded you that he is the Wonderful Counselor and Almighty God, notice that when Jesus invites you to come to him, he describes himself as "gentle and lowly in heart." Though he is supremely exalted, Christ is not a vindictive taskmaster who would rub your face in your mistakes and beat you down over your failures. Such a combination isn't possible in the Savior of the Bible! He stands ready to help. He is gentle and humble in heart. Why would you not accept his invitation to unload the weight of your burdens?
How to Accept Jesus' Invitation
But wait. Before you accept Jesus' offer to find rest, read the invitation closely. Jesus does not invite worn-out people to take a nap. Nor does he suggest that if we will chant a one-time prayer, refreshment will be granted automatically. No; Jesus says to assume his yoke and learn from him. Jesus invites those who need rest to come work with him.
Jesus' offer of discovering rest by means of a yoke is a paradox. A yoke is a harness used for labor. You might legitimately ask, how in taking on Jesus' equipment would I find rest? The answer is, as we follow Jesus and learn from him, the Holy Spirit graciously operates in our lives. This is how we who are weak can move forward — not in our strength, but in his. This is the kind of thing that Paul pointed to in Philippians 2:12–13 when he said, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." The reason Paul told the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling is that when they do, God will graciously work in and through them. God works in and through us as we cooperate with his gracious work in our lives.
A sailing illustration might help make this point. Suppose you are in a boat and you have to travel an incredible distance. And to further complicate things, you don't even know there is such a thing as sailing.
What would you do? You would try and propel the boat in all kinds of futile ways. You might lie on your stomach and paddle over the side. If you were a little more creative, you might use a stick as an oar and row in circles. But soon you would be worn-out and frustrated.
But then imagine that someone stepped onto your boat and said, "I see that you are exhausted. How about I teach you how to get somewhere?" He would then show you how to raise a sail and catch the wind.
You get the picture. Sailing is still hard work. There is a reason that sailors like Popeye have big forearms. But it is not futile hard work. Hoist a sail into the breeze, and soon you are gliding forward in a strength that is beyond yourself.
This is the invitation that Jesus gives. Are you tired of trying to work your way through forgiveness with one oar? Are you worn-out from trying to paddle with your hands? Come and sail in the wind of his strength. Soon you will be gliding forward in the breeze of his grace.
Of course, that brings us to the question, how do I work in such a way that God gives me strength and grace? How specifically do I assume the yoke of Jesus and learn from him? How do I raise a sail into the breeze of God's strength? The answer to how is that God works in our lives through certain appointed means. Sometimes theologians call these "means of grace." Means of grace are how God pours out his grace into the life of a Christian. These means of grace include his Word, prayer, fellowship with other believers, and worship. When you participate in any of these means of grace, you hoist your sail into the wind of God's love and favor. If you have been trying to work through forgiveness without consistent involvement in the means of grace, you are only paddling with your hands.
The way to accept Christ's invitation to find rest is to be in his Word, to listen to biblical preaching, to pray, and to be sharpened by other Christians. While at first it may seem like you are moving only a bit, before long you will be sailing forward, ridding yourself of the baggage that weighs you down.
You may object at this point, "I have already tried the Christian way of unpacking my burdens, and it didn't really work. I tried Jesus! He didn't give me rest."
Did you really? Did you really assume Jesus' yoke, his instrument of work, and learn from him?
Have you been involved consistently in a local church where the Bible is preached? Have you participated in Sunday school or small groups or whatever Christian education opportunities your church offers?
Do you pray consistently in a disciplined way? I'm not just talking about praying in the car on the way to work. Have you really gotten down on your knees and earnestly prayed?
Are you involved in a Christian community or fellowship? Are you sharing your life with other Christians?
Do you worship Christ on a regular basis? Do you take part in Christ-centered worship and listen to Christ-centered preaching? Have you identified with Christ in baptism? Do you faithfully participate in observing the Lord's Supper at your church?
These means of grace are how we take Christ's yoke upon us and learn from him. Christ's way of unpacking forgiveness is not three easy steps. It is a way of life, following Jesus, learning from him, being involved in his church, hearing his Word preached. Apart from consistent involvement in these disciplines, you are trying to paddle with a stick. And that just won't work.
The most important line in Jennifer Thompson's story is this one: "Then one day [Jennifer] stopped crying. She knew exactly what to do." She took action. Jennifer Thompson was able to unpack her baggage because shemade a decision to deal with it. How about you? Are you ready to decide? Are you ready to accept the invitation that Jesus offers? Be assured that everything you want in a Savior is found in Jesus! Why not take action — take on his yoke and learn from the "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace"? Why not determine to cooperate with his grace in your life. My goal in this book is to help you do just that. Together let's drench ourselves in the Word. Let's prayerfully learn from him so we can unpack the baggage that weighs us down.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unpacking Forgiveness"
Copyright © 2008 Chris Brauns.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Forgiveness Quiz,
1 How to Begin Unpacking,
2 Motivation to Unpack,
3 Defining Forgiveness: The Divine Pattern,
4 Defining Forgiveness for Christians,
5 More Than a Feeling,
6 The Way Up Is Down,
7 Unpack with Great Urgency,
8 Should I Just Get Over It?,
9 How Should I Go about It?,
10 What If I Won't Forgive?,
11 How Should I Respond to the Unrepentant? Two Principles,
12 How Should I Respond to the Unrepentant? A Third Principle,
13 How Can I Conquer Bitterness?,
14 How Can I Stop Thinking about It?,
15 What If Christians Cannot Agree?,
16 Final Thoughts,
Appendix 1: More Forgiveness Questions,
Appendix 2: What Other Authors Say about Conditional Forgiveness,
Appendix 3: Biblical Words for Forgiveness,
What People are Saying About This
"Offenses will come. It's a given. Unpacking Forgiveness wisely prepares us for the aftermath. Grieving the loss of our six children in a van accident and then being reminded of that loss throughout thirteen years of subsequent battles forced us to search the Scriptures concerning the issue of forgiveness. Chris not only has confirmed answers that we had found but has thoroughly sorted out what it takes to be right with God and man. This is a diligent work with heart."
"Forgiveness of one another is one of the most important subjects in the Bible, and yet one so often misunderstood. Now Christopher Brauns has done a magnificent job in helping us understand the true nature of biblical forgiveness. Every Christian will profit from reading and applying this book."
Jerry Bridges, author, The Pursuit of Holiness
"Here is a book that lives up to its title. Forgiveness remains a distant dream for many people precisely because they don't know what it means, where to begin or what to expect. Blending contemporary stories with the teaching of the Bible, Christopher Brauns unpacks forgiveness so that we can be set free from bitterness. I especially appreciated his emphasis on coming back to the character of God and learning to delight in him as the only way forward when we have been deeply hurt. A book to be read on your knees. It could change your life."
Ray Pritchard, President, Keep Believing Ministries; author of Credo, Discovering God's Will for Your Life, andThe Amazing Journey of Faith
"There is no more common or urgent pastoral need in the church today than to cultivate the gospel practice of forgiveness. Christians need to know what the Bible teaches and live it out, radically. Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is an engaging, convicting, but emphatically encouraging treatment of this hugely important (and sometimes mind-bogglingly challenging) part of life. Dr. Brauns writes from the standpoint of a faithful, wise, experienced, and caring pastor who has seen the heartbreak of an unforgiving spirit at work in the lives of people, but also the power of grace in the hearts of Christians who have learned to forgive and be forgiven."
J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor, CEO, and John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary
"There are few things more unnatural and few things more holy than forgiveness. Living as we do in a fallen world, we are given endless opportunities both to extend and to seek forgiveness. In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns eschews the easy answers and looks to the Bible to provide God's wisdom on how and when we are to forgive. Relying on his experience as a pastor and his deep knowledge of Scripture, he provides what is a logical, well-illustrated book on the subject. With humor at times and appropriate gravitas at others, Brauns leads the reader first to understand and then to apply what the Bible teaches on forgiveness. Because it deals biblically with a subject of universal importance, any reader can benefit from reading Unpacking Forgiveness. I recommend that you do just that."
Tim Challies, blogger, Challies.com
"Using the parameters 'forgive as God forgives,' this book describes something other than a cheapened, 'automatic' forgiveness. Dr. Brauns lays careful gridlines that are 'dripping with Scripture,' as he puts it, for working through complex and deeply painful situations. Unpacking Forgiveness offers a tender hand of guidance to those who ache to unpack what life has flung at them and awakens a longing for the happiness that only forgiveness can bring."
Shannon Popkin, speaker, freelance writer, blogger
"In a culture that all too often embraces oversimplistic remedies for forgiveness and reconciliation, Brauns provides a truly helpful and honest discussion about biblical forgiveness. Unpacking Forgiveness will be an essential resource for small groups, students, and ministry leaders (seasoned or newcomers) because it wrestles with the intellectual, emotional, and biblical issues of living in redemptive relationships in a fallen world."
Peter G. Osborn, Vice President for Adult Learning, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
"Unpacking Forgiveness is a must read for every believer. All my life I was told to forgive, and now Chris Brauns tells me how. This practical and powerful book paints a penetrating picture of the forgiving Christ, my model on how to forgive. I cannot escape the bold and beautiful biblical truths within these pages. As a Christ-follower, I know exactly how to respond to those who have hurt me, and each action response sets me free . . . indeed."
Doug Fagerstrom, Executive President and CEO, Marketplace Chaplains USA
"Traveling through life cannot be done without 'unpacking forgiveness.' This is as good an explanation on what true forgiveness is and how it is accomplished as I have ever read. All interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God an be helped by reading this book. Unpacking Forgiveness is a compelling read."
William K. Bernhard, Lead Pastor, Spring Creek Church, Pewaukee, Wisconsin; Chaplain, Milwaukee Bucks
"Biblical, accessible, thorough, and practical, Rev. Brauns builds from the Scriptures a solid model of forgiveness that is clear, engaging, and convincing. He tackles the issues, answers the questions, and provides the guidance needed to forgive even the hard cases in a Christ-honoring way. Highly recommended!"
John N. Day, Pastor, Bellewood Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Washington; author, Crying for Justice
"Chris Brauns has written a twofer. Unpacking Forgiveness not only challenges popular, therapeutic notions of forgiveness, but it also supplies practical, step-by-step instructions for those who aren't sure how to begin. Grounded in Scripture and sharpened by ministry to hurting people, Brauns's godly counsel will inspire many to shake off years of guilt and bitterness and begin the long, healing journey of forgiveness."
Mike Wittmer, Professor of Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary; author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth and Don't Stop Believing
"With pastoral realism, biblical conviction, and thoughtful reflection on wide reading, Brauns masterfully unpacks the complexity of Christian forgiveness. His humor and liveliness, with a striking story-telling gift, disarmingly navigate beyond the popular 'therapeutic model' into a deeper understanding of biblical forgiveness. From the opening quiz you know his approach is different, and you will likely find your questions both asked and answered by this powerfully practical book. Taken seriously it will revolutionize your life."
Michael Quicke, CW Koller Professor of Preaching, Northern Seminary, Lombard, Illinois