“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis
What is forgiveness exactly? Forgiveness is an evolution of an emotional state and attitude toward an offender. It is intentional, voluntary, and different from reconciliation, as reconciliation involves relationship repair. Forgiveness, on the other hand, may not involve repairing or even continuing a relationship. It nurtures mental health, as it allows anger to dissolve and promotes happiness.
God instructs us to both grant and seek forgiveness. God forgives us for our wrongdoing and Christ instructed us to forgive those who wrong us (Matthew 6: 14, 15). Forgiveness is good for us, and it is something we need to practice as Christians.
Litigation, however, is incompatible with most models or ideas of forgiveness. Litigation is the process of taking legal action. Here are some aspects of litigation for Christians to keep in mind.
LITIGATION IS NECESSARYMany people do not agree with the idea that legal action is a necessary part of life. In fact, most people would likely say that it is to be avoided. Yet, legal action, or litigation, is generally how people resolve disputes. Litigation collectively defines the limits of conduct in society. Litigation also provides a funding mechanism whereby someone who has suffered financial loss can recover from the party who the law deems to be at fault. In spite of its abuses, legal action and litigation serve a civilized purpose in that many other methods of dispute resolution are more destructive.
LITIGATION IS NOT FORGIVENESSLitigation is not designed to facilitate forgiveness. While the goal may be to get the truth through advocacy, many attorneys and parties lose sight of reality or truth in pursuit of the clever presentation of facts whereby, in many instances, the truth is buried. Helpful facts are overstated and detrimental facts are hidden to gain advantage.
Blame, which is also incompatible with forgiveness, is necessary in successful litigation. Litigation involves accusations and placing blame on others in order to extract or avoid payment. Courts and society engage in mental gymnastics in order to blame the party who can pay. The blame game, a foundational element of successful litigation, utterly destroys the idea of personal responsibility. It subordinates the human need to seek repentance and grant forgiveness. Forgiveness in the maelstrom of blaming or being blamed becomes almost impossible.
Guilt also plays a large role in litigation. People file lawsuits for money, but there may also be emotional reasons, including escaping guilt. Many claims are presented by parents for injuries to their children. These claims are presented in spite of the parental involvement in supervising or lack thereof, and in some cases, actually injuring the children. Greed drives some of this, but we have seen many instances where guilt plays a larger role. A parent who feels the sting of failing a child will seek refuge in blaming others.
Litigation is a process to validate blaming someone else, possibly to assuage guilt. If the judge says it is the church’s fault, it cannot be the parents’ fault. The problem with this type of thinking is, no matter what the court system decides, the injury remains. Moreover, the parental behavior and motivation may be laid bare in the court proceeding. This does not facilitate forgiveness, but causes bitterness and resentment.
True repentance and forgiveness must involve a realistic assessment of blame, which necessitates each person or party owning their respective degree of fault. It rarely means that someone is completely blameless or blameworthy. Litigation creates a narrative where blame is placed completely on someone else. It seeks to blame others to either be paid or avoid paying. Litigation focuses on who must pay. Forgiveness and repentance focuses on healing and possible reconciliation.
HANDLING LITIGATION FOR CHURCH LEADERS
Refrain From Taking SidesAt some point in your ministry, you may be involved in litigation. For many, involvement will come in a domestic case where testimony from a teacher, principal, or pastor will be sought by one or both sides in a divorce or custody battle. For others, exposure to this world will come when members sue each other over a contract, an injury, or an abuse matter.
It is difficult to offer spiritual guidance to people involved in a lawsuit. Many times all parties in a lawsuit are all members of the same church family. As a general idea, the pastor needs to continue to be the pastor to all parties. This is hard as litigation lends itself to the notion of taking sides. Kindness shown by the pastor to one party can create resentment from an opposing party or a supporter. Be prepared to explain that providing spiritual leadership does not involve taking sides.
Continue to reach out to all parties and provide spiritual leadership, but be on guard to avoid discussing the lawsuit. This can be extremely difficult as parties in litigation are very consumed by it. Thus, when speaking to a party in a lawsuit, the conversation will likely come around to the lawsuit. Church leaders must deflect all attempts to be dragged into discussing the litigation.
Seek AssistanceChurch leaders should seek guidance from conference leadership when facing these challenges. While this is easier said than done, it is completely necessary. Seek help when you need it. The conference, local conference attorney, or the legal team at Adventist Risk Management, Inc. can provide guidance.
Not all pastors or lay leaders will face the challenge of dealing with a lawsuit that directly impacts the congregation. As the frequency of lawsuits continues to grow, the odds of facing this particular problem grows as well. Without strong, Christ-centered leadership, these circumstances may rip your congregation apart. Yet, God can even use a lawsuit to His glory.
For more information, consider reading “When You’ve Been Wronged: Moving From Bitterness to Forgiveness” by Erwin W. Lutzer and “The Forgiveness Project” by Michael Barry.
In Part Two we discuss how to return an offender back to fellowship following litigation and after trust has been violated.