Luke Marshburn

Luke Marshburn

Let’s first address what this shouldn’t mean. A brick is sometimes used as a weapon of blunt-force trauma; crack someone over the head, and they’re left unconscious and bleeding.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen forgiveness used in this way.

My favourite verse in the Bible, Proverbs 25:21-22, is sometimes interpreted like a weapon. The verse goes like this: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For in doing so, you will heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord will reward you” (AMPC).

Heaping coals of fire, how painful. When we have enemies—people who slight us, slander us, harm us with their words and deeds—we, as good Christians, turn the other cheek. Give them food and drink, take the shirts off our backs to make sure their needs are met. In doing so, we will prove ourselves better than our foes. Where they are rotten, we are righteous.

From that viewpoint, the forgiveness of Proverbs 25:21-22 becomes a tool of retribution. And why shouldn’t it? Just as a brick scrapes flesh and bone, coals of fire ought to scald the scalp, sear the skin, a redress that dresses in ash. Our actions coming from a place of revenge, we expect shame to linger on our enemies. They’ll feel guilt over mistreating us. We, in effect, kill them with our kindness and expect God to be pleased with our actions.

But a brick can have multiple uses, and so too can coals. Looking at Proverbs 25:21-22 as vengeance may not be the best interpretation. Coals are also a tool of purification. Witness the vision of Isaiah as he bemoans his unclean lips, the sin that permeates his life.

He notes, “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’ ” (Isaiah 6:6-7 NIV).

Here, the brand of a coal is far from vengeance; it is a balm, a healing flame that removes the impurities in our lives. Coming from a place of love, wanting the best for those who are touched by fire.

Forgiveness like a coal is not meant to scar; it is meant to purify. Forgiveness like a brick likewise is not meant to break, but to create.

It is the image of a builder rather than a bludgeoner. Christians in communion work hand over hand, each act of forgiveness stacking on each other. And not just one person’s forgiveness, but all of us doing for each other as has been done for us.

Just as we all fall short and harm each other, so too do we each have our own share of bricks to lay. We speak out of turn—and are forgiven. We steal from each other—and are forgiven. We wound each other—and are forgiven.

We all have our moments of weakness, and we all are called to act in compassion towards each other, forgiving our falls. In this way, we together build a wall, a house, a village, even a city.

Christians in community.

Imagine if it were the opposite! What if we didn’t live in a city built by forgiveness? One slight, one wound, and we say we are done.

Rather than remain in the relationship, we might choose to keep our bricks in a pile, a rough pillow for our heads. The house never erected, bitterness replaces love as the core of our actions.

Left unsheltered, would any of us truly feel a sense of belonging, of safety, of being home and amongst loved ones?

For this reason, forgiveness is like a brick, the stability that keeps us from facing the harsh storm alone. And for this reason, I will also point out one more way that the two are similar. Bricks are tangible. Physical. They have heft, they can be touched.

Forgiveness is the same way.

So many times I hear “forgive and forget” as the ideal. While I firmly agree that refusing to let anger and pain control our actions is a great goal, “forgive and forget” strikes me as too simple. Take it to the same extreme as unforgiveness: What if we, in our infinite forgiveness and forgetfulness, ignore the behaviour that needs to be forgiven? We steal from each other—and we pretend it never happened. We wound each other with words and deeds—and we act as if it never harmed us.

If we never address the problems, can we expect the problems to end? This is forgiveness like straw, inconsequential and flippantly plastered. When the winds blow, the house shakes, collapses. Then we fling the flimsy material back into place, pretending that we are a sturdy community because we forgive all slights.

On the contrary, I don’t believe forgetfulness is the best policy. Take, for example, Paul talking about those members of the church who sin. He does not tell us to forgive and forget; he asks us to confront: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11 ESV).

Here we have noted the behaviour, we want it resolved, and if it doesn’t resolve, we don’t pretend that it isn’t happening.

We are called to action. We are to stop associating with the member, to remove the issue or remove ourselves from it, for the good of the body.

Does this conflict with forgiveness? I don’t think so.

None of this implies that we do this removal from a place of unforgiveness, nor from seeing the person as unforgivable.

The person has been given chances (Titus 3:10). If they later change their behavior, there’s no reason to think they shouldn’t be welcomed back into the group.

But it’s important to remember that forgiveness does not necessarily mean submissiveness, nor forgetfulness. The bricks have substance; we stack them with the understanding that we are all called to act with love towards each other. Those of us who need the forgiving act with love by reducing the amount of forgiveness we need to receive.

When someone else sins, we don’t withhold our forgiveness, but stack with mercy—expecting that the behaviour will, Lord willing, not need to be forgiven again and again with no sign of improvement.

I should caveat that this view of forgiveness is not necessarily universal. In particular, it may not address how Christians should react to non-Christians.

As Paul says, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’ ” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13 ESV).

Similarly, this analogy doesn’t help explain which things truly need “forgiving,” or if we as people simply need to grow more tolerant of the behaviour of our neighbors. Does eating food sacrificed to idols count as a sin that needs forgiveness? Does listening to the wrong kind of music count as a sin that needs forgiveness? Paul goes into this topic, which I call “relative sin,” in 1 Corinthians 8, but that goes far beyond the scope of this article.

If you want to know my current stance on relative sin, check out the article “A Sin, But Not,” published in October of 2020.

Rather than delve into that, I will merely repeat what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is a brick placed with love. Each act of forgiveness moves us towards the end-goal, a life where we’ve learned to treat each other with love in all our actions.

Growing together, compassion our mortar, we can build ourselves a home, binding together community.

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