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Do you have to forget to forgive?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Handcuffed hands of a prisoner behind the bars of a prison (Credit: ViewApart via Fotolia)

The idea of paying your debt to society is supposed to mean that when you finish your prison sentence, you should be free to resume your life. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Former convicts often find that the mistakes of their past continue to haunt their present and future even after the government has declared that their debt has been paid.

As Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey, recently wrote in an article for CNN, “Over 650,000 people are released from prison each year in the United States, and many of them have worked hard to turn their lives around. It’s in their interest, and in all of our interest, that they’re able to do so.”

Booker goes on to cite the way that hiring practices often perpetuate the problem. A University of Wisconsin study, for example, “found that a person’s chances at a callback interview for an entry-level job dropped by 50% when that applicant had a criminal history.” Moreover, that bias was exacerbated by race with 17% of white applicants that had a criminal record getting a call back versus only 5% of African Americans in the same situation. While it would perhaps be overly simplistic to say race was the only reason for the discrepancy, it would also be naïve to conclude that it didn’t play a role.

However, some companies are taking steps to rectify the situation. Businesses like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot have joined many states, cities, and counties in removing the question regarding previous criminal convictions from their job application forms. While those convictions are still likely to come up in subsequent background checks, the idea is that the reformed individuals’ first impressions will not be colored by their past. Instead, they will be judged by the degree to which their present skills and qualifications fit the job for which they are applying.

Sadly, the government has long lagged behind the private sector in addressing these concerns. However, a recently introduced piece of legislation called the Fair Chance Act, of which Booker is the chief sponsor, seeks to accomplish the same kind of reform on the Federal level. If passed, federal employees and contractors would not be allowed to include questions regarding an applicant’s criminal history at the introductory stage of the hiring process.

The hope is that a day will soon come when reformed convicts can live out the truth described by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Institute: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

While Stevenson is correct and speaks a truth we all want to apply to ourselves, how often do we apply it to others? How often do we define other people by their worst moments? As C. S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” And while that is far easier said than done, scripture teaches that offering such forgiveness to others positions us to receive forgiveness from our heavenly Father (Matthew 6:14-15).

The difficulty comes when offering that forgiveness would seem to open us up to getting hurt. Is that risk simply a necessary consequence of following God’s command in this area of our lives? In a sense, it is. However, that danger can also mitigated to some extent with a proper understanding of biblical forgiveness.

In Craig Denison’s First15 series on the subject, he makes the point that God calls us to forgive the person rather than their actions. That was an invaluable revelation for many reasons but chief among them was the understanding that biblical forgiveness does not mean saying that the wrongs perpetrated against us are permissible or ignoring the fact that a sin was committed. Rather, forgiveness means choosing not to define the person by their mistakes but rather see them from the perspective of grace.

That said, it also does not mean having an unrealistic view of the person. Christ calls us to love those around us as he loves us (John 13:34). That love means that we care for others in spite of their faults but it does not mean that we ignore their flaws. After all, not all people learn from their mistakes and it would be an error for us to act otherwise. However, for those who do, we must recognize that the person they once were is no longer necessarily the person we see today.

In the context of hiring reformed convicts, it means giving them a chance to demonstrate the ways in which they’ve changed instead of defining them by the mistakes of their past. In the context of our everyday interactions with others, it means giving those around us a similar chance to show that who they are today is most representative of their true character. Ultimately, that is how we want to be treated and, more importantly, it’s how God has treated us.

So who do you know who needs the opportunity to demonstrate that their past does not define them today? If it’s you, know that we serve a God who is ready and willing to wipe the slate clean for those who are genuinely interested in following him. And if it’s someone you know, pray and ask the Lord to give you wisdom, discernment, and mercy in your interactions so that you can demonstrate God’s grace today.

As William Blake once said, “The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.” How are you going to conquer for Christ today?