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Remembering Tim Keller, One Year Later

Remembering Tim Keller, One Year Later

Sunday, May 19 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Timothy Keller, author and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Under his leadership, Redeemer grew to become one of the largest and most influential churches in New York City. He was also the best-selling author of several books, including The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and his final book, Forgiveness. Keller became known for his stance on a “winsome approach” of evangelism, arguing that Christians should not give in to cultural wars and rather engage with others in a non-hostile way.

Keller spoke with RELEVANT about his final book in November 2022 on The RELEVANT Podcast. He spoke about the importance of seeking forgiveness and justice simultaneously, how to address church hurts, and how to reconcile with people we’ve wronged. 

Here’s a small portion of that conversation. You can hear more of our final conversation on today’s episode:

(Note: The transcript of this conversation has been lightly edited.)

People argue it’s better to pursue justice over forgiveness, or vice versa, but you write in your book that we should pursue both. Why is that?

If you’re going to put this in a nutshell, I’ll say it this way and then we can unpack it: Forgiveness is not the opposite of doing justice. Forgiveness is not only not a contradiction of pursuing justice; it’s actually a precondition for pursuing justice. Because if you don’t forgive before you start to pursue justice, you’ll actually be pursuing vengeance.

You know, the Bible has a statement called Lex talionis, which is “a tooth for a tooth.” You’ve heard that? Well, the reason why that was a legal rule—a tooth for a tooth—is that if somebody knocks your tooth out, you don’t want to just knock out their one tooth. You want to knock all their teeth out because vengeance almost always goes beyond justice. You want the person to suffer, you want the person to hurt. In fact, you usually want them to hurt a little more than you were hurt because they started it.

So, two things about vengeance: vengeance always goes beyond justice. Well, I’ll say three things about it. It tends to go beyond what justice requires. Number two, it very seldom really is successful because vengeance is easy to see. So if you’re going after a perpetrator and you’re trying to just make that person suffer, that person is not going to respond well to you. They’re not going to repent. They’re not going to admit they’re wrong. They’re going to see that it’s a vendetta and they’re just going to get their backup or even retaliate. And last of all, vengeance eats you up with anger. I mean, it just consumes you. What you ought to do is get control of that anger by forgiving and then pursue justice. And then you will do it well. You will do it in a just way. A big part of the difference between vengeance and justice is motivation.

Here’s the last thing I’ll tell you about this. Why do I want justice? Why do I want that person to admit they are wrong and maybe have some consequences? I could be doing this for God’s sake because God is a just God. I could be doing it for even the perpetrator’s sake because it’d be great to see that person change so that they don’t do this again. I could be doing it for the sake of other victims so that nobody else gets hurt. So I could be doing it for God’s sake, for justice’s sake, the victim’s sake, or the perpetrator’s sake. But in vengeance, you’re doing it for your sake. It’s really all about you. It’s very self-absorbed. You hide behind the idea of justice, but what you’re really after is wanting this person to suffer at least as much as they made you suffer. Therefore, forgiveness is changing your motives, getting control of it, and making it possible for you to actually pursue justice. It’s not the opposite. It’s not like if I forgive, I can’t pursue justice. Who says that? Why? That’s not in the Bible. It doesn’t say you can’t pursue justice.

What’s the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? 

This is a great question because here’s a second issue. If I forgive somebody who’s wronged me, that doesn’t mean I automatically trust them. See, if you forget—so, for example, if I forgive, let’s say, a kind of abusive parent—I mean by abusive, I’m talking really more about verbally abusive. So let’s just say I’ve got a verbally abusive parent who tends to just haul off, and you decide, I’m going to forgive my mother for verbally being abusive. On the other hand, I also know that even though I’ve forgiven her, she’s still the same person probably. She may have even asked, “I’m sorry,” and she said, “Please forgive me.” What if she says, “Please forgive me?” And I say, “Okay, I will forgive you.” But what if she even repented? And yet I know that that’s her habit, her whole habit. So I need to say to her, “I will forgive you, but I really don’t want you to keep doing it. It’s wrong. It’s absolutely wrong.”

I knew an adult who once did this, a woman, by the way, who did this with her father. He would get verbally abusive, and what she would say is—and this is an adult woman with an older father—”Dad, I’m going to call you every week on Tuesday night because you’re my father and I’m your daughter. But I want you to know that if you start getting verbally abusive to me, I’m not going to warn you. I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to give you warnings or get into arguments. I’m just going to hang up. I’m just going to say, Dad, you’re doing it, I’m going to hang up. But I’m going to call you back the next Tuesday night. And if you start doing it, I may end up hanging up. But the point is, I forgive you, I want a relationship with you, but I’m not going to let you send it to me. Now, it’s not good for you or me or anybody else.” Now, that was, I thought, a tremendous example of someone who was saying, look, I’ve forgiven you and I’m opening the door for a relationship, but you have got to earn my trust. And the only way to do that is to stop verbally abusing me. And so every single Tuesday night, she was giving her dad another chance. It’s amazing. So there’s got to be a way to, on the one hand, say, “Look, you have to earn the trust. You have to do something if we’re going to be reconciled. This is not something that I can pull off. You’ve got to do something.” But at the same time, keep the door open for it. To let people know, “You know, I’m always open if you’re ready to make the changes you need to make.” So the answer is yes. There is definitely another step. It has to be done in reconciliation. There has to be an offer where you show the—and you have to explain the offer that you make, and you have to show what the conditions are, and then the other person has got to meet those conditions.

So many people talk about the church hurt they’ve experienced over the years. How do we encourage someone to forgive the church without causing further damage?

Well, I mean there’s forgiving a group, or you might say corporate forgiveness for forgiving a group. You mentioned the church, and I’ll get to that in one second. Miroslav Volf wrote a book some years ago called *Exclusion and Embrace*. Miroslav Volf is a theologian at Yale, but he’s Croatian. And back in the early ’90s, he wrote that book about forgiveness, but he was thinking about what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, where in Bosnia and Croatia, the Serbians were coming and they were just wiping people out—ethnic cleansing. And the real question is, how do I, as a Croatian, not hate every Serbian?

And so let me just say that book is a kind of academic book. It’s nowhere near as easy to read as my forgiveness book. I’m a pastor and he’s a theologian, and it was much more challenging. And yet, in there, he does a really good work. The term “exclusion and embrace”—what he’s saying is an embrace is a way of opening your arms to somebody, but then at the same time being open to them, even though they may not change, they may not embrace you back. But there’s a way of extending your arms. So he was trying to talk about how, as a Croatian, he had to forgive the Serbians or at least give them an opportunity to change, to give them an opportunity to reach out to him.

So it was a great book and pretty difficult to read in many ways. I think a lot of African Americans or nonwhite people in general can feel the same way about white people. Now, you brought up the other issue, which is I know these people have been hurt by the church, and I’ve seen them respond negatively to me because they don’t even know me, but I’m a pastor and I represent the church. So I think you’re right in saying I don’t think we can force people to simply—you can never force somebody to forgive. What you ought to do is you ought to try to explain that what we’ve already talked about, in fact, you’ve gotten some great stuff out of me here, is that you need to forgive the people who have wronged you so that you don’t let them control you the rest of your life.

Some years ago, I remember trying to get a guy who lived right down the street from our church in Virginia to let his kids come to a vacation Bible school. So we went there, we knocked on the door, and we said, “Hey, you know, we’re having vacation Bible school. We’re very happy to come by and pick up the kids and take them to vacation Bible school every morning at nine and bring them back at twelve.” It was right down the block. And he said no. He said, “My father made me go to church, forced me to go to church, and it was a terrible church, and I’m never going to let any of my children go to church.” And I’m thinking, okay, okay, I didn’t say this to him, but I was thinking, you know what, because you haven’t forgiven your father or that church, here you are 30 years later being completely controlled by them. In other words, you’re not letting your children do this or that because of what happened to you. You’re under their control. And I think the thing to say is you do need to forgive the people who have wronged you.

What I’ve seen now, and this is in the book, is I’ve seen women who are abused in the church, sometimes sexually but very often more spiritually abused in the church. And then when the abuser says, “Oh, I’m sorry,” everybody says, “Oh, you have to forgive him.” And what that does is it silences her, and he stays right in power. And that is not biblical forgiveness, as I’ve tried to show you. Forgiveness and seeking justice go together. But what a lot of people have done in the church is they’ve used forgiveness to silence victims. They’ve used the idea of forgiveness to silence victims. And if you felt like that, then you leave the church and you feel like, “I just can never trust the church again.” The only thing I would want to say to them is you do still have to forgive internally so that you don’t get controlled by them for the rest of your life. And then secondly, remember that all churches will not do that. So try to find a church that is not going to abuse you.

If you’ve had a bad experience with doctors, that doesn’t mean that you should never go see a doctor again, because you probably need a doctor. So the same thing is if you had a bad experience with a church, I think you still need to find a church somewhere and not let it just push you away completely.

What is the first step in forgiveness? 

So, well, here’s the funny thing. The first step in forgiveness is to name the wrong as a real evil. That sounds weird, but the difference between forgiveness and excusing is a very big difference. See, a lot of people, especially me, frankly, I used to do this a lot. I used to say, when somebody said, “Oh, I’m really sorry for what I did,” and I’ll say, “Oh, forget it, don’t worry, no problem.” I used to think of that as forgiveness. But what I was really doing was excusing it, like no big deal. It’s very typical of a lot of guys to do that, no big deal. But actually, the first step in forgiveness is to say, “Yes, what you did was wrong.” You can’t forgive something unless you admit that it was an evil. So you first have to name it.

Second thing, and this is from Miroslav Volf, by the way, is I need to remind myself that I’m a sinner who actually also needs forgiveness from God and other people. The first step is this person did wrong. This is an evil. Name it. The second step is to remember, however, that you also live by forgiveness, and that sort of softens you a bit. Then the third thing is, and here’s what I say, I’ve said this to so many people as a pastor, forgiveness is granted before it’s felt.

See, if you try to feel the forgiveness before it’s granted, that usually means, “I can’t forgive because I’m angry.” Well, see, what you’re doing is trying to feel forgiven before you grant it. That’ll never happen. I’d say grant it before you feel it. They said, “Well, how can I grant it?” I said, “Well, make a commitment, and that commitment is not to try to get revenge. Whatever else you’re gonna do, you’re not gonna try to get revenge because Jesus didn’t take revenge on you for everything you’ve done.” And here’s the way you cannot take revenge. One is, when you see the person, you don’t throw the thing up in their face. Secondly, when you’re talking to other people, you don’t try to ruin their reputation by talking about it. And thirdly, don’t keep bringing it up to yourself. I would say to grant forgiveness is a promise—not to keep bringing it up to the person, to others, or to yourself.

Like, for example, if my wife one day says, “I can’t believe you big blue turnip, you did that,” and then after she says, “I’m very sorry for calling you a blue turnip,” and I’ll say, “I forgive you.” But what if a month later, I’m unhappy with her, and I say, “I remember when you told me that I was a blue turnip,” and she said, “I forgive you, big blue turnip.” And the answer is, see, what have I done? I haven’t forgiven her. I’m using it now on her. So forgiveness is granted first. I promise not to bring it up to you, to others, or to myself. And if you keep with that discipline, eventually you start to feel it. And never call me a blue turnip. Never. Because it just never ends well.

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