OXNARD, Calif. "Forgive-and-forget" is a platitude that has diluted the biblical response of repentance and reconciliation into a type of "fast-food forgiveness" that Dr. Leah Coulter is not buying.
She hopes Christians learn not to buy it, either.
After years of counseling victims of sexual abuse, Coulter, a professor at King's Seminary in Van Nuys, Calif., began to re-evaluate her own understanding of biblical forgiveness. The "forgive-and-forget" mantra, she soon realized, rendered many of her clients hostages of their past instead of empowered believers.
"At the bottom of emotional healing, there was an issue of someone being sinned against with no repenting," Coulter said.
As broken client after broken client struggled with the layers of childhood abuse, she determined that the common factor boiled down to forgiveness.
"I started asking, 'What does God require?'" the counselor said.
She said her personal research opened her eyes to a two-dimensional approach that she explains in her first book, "Rediscovering the Power of Repentance and Forgiveness," released this fall. A second book, focusing on the theology of the two-dimensional approach, is already in the works.
It's all based, she said, on things she learned while seeking God's face on the issue of forgiveness. The seeds of that emanated from the Scriptures. Over time, her question, 'What does God require?" was clearly answered.
"His answer to me was, "It's in loving God and loving your neighbor. There's a horizontal direction that needs to be brought into it," she said.
At the heart of true forgiveness, she said, is repentance.
It occurred to her that Christians are good at the vertical approach going to God and offering up forgiveness, because it's the right thing to do. But Coulter believes that approach, which she describes as one dimensional, is only half of the formula.
"Fast-Food forgiveness is unilateral," the Oxnard resident said. "We're not operating in a two-dimensional level."
The second dimension, repentance, cannot be glossed over.
"It's about my relationship with God, but it's also about my relationship with others," the professor said. "Forgiveness has to be defined in those two grids."
The revelation, she said, is not easy for Westernerssteeped in "religious individualism"to swallow.
"It's a between-me-and-God perspective, primarily," she said. "You can't help read the Scriptures from the worldview in which we live."
"That individualism can morph into something that is very self-centered."
Coulter is hoping her book will help usher Christians out from that unilateral perspective into a biblical worldview. She calls it a worldview that centers on both the Old and New Testament.
"Jesus teaches from a Jewish perspective," she said. "The biblical worldview is so two-dimensional."
Because we are so quick to dismiss the hurt and move on, Christians often forget about the relationships with others and how our actions, or the actions of others, affect our world.
"We look for pleasure," she said. "The ruling principle for us is, 'Is it going to make me happy?' We dispose of relationships because we are not happy.
"We're not being taught how to live in relationship with other people."
Coulter declines to blame pastoral leaders, but instead attributes it to the influence of the culture on society and the church.
"We know the gospel moves us, the gospel changes us," she said. "At the same time the gospel puts us in relationship with others."
The biblical formula
Citing Luke 17:3 and Matthew 5: 24, Coulter said it is clear that before the sinned-against can forgive, the sinner must repent.
"It says go clean it up, then come back," she said. "That's so telling. He's saying I won't forgive them on the vertical level until they have asked for forgiveness on the horizontal level."
Coulter said she believes God ordained the process to help man cope with his natural instinct for justice. Because we are molded in God's image, when we are wronged, our hearts naturally cry out for justice and justice is thwarted when sinners are unrepentant
But what happens when repentance is not possible because the sinner is dead, can't be tracked down or is unknown. Although justice cannot be derived directly, God, in his loving mercy, has created another avenue for the sinned-against, Coulter said.
Canceling a debt
She defines the process in a way most Americans understand: through a debt system.
"When there is irreconcilable wounding, the debt can't be paid," she said. "But God will. It can become a cry for justice in their hearts."
When the debt is left unpaid, Coulter said the sinned-against usually internalize their pain or turn it out, making the wrong person pay for the sin.
"People keep running it through their minds, 'it's my fault, how could it have been different?'"
The concept is simple, but the process is not. In the case of irreconcilable wounding, the sinned-against needs to transfer the debt to the Lord, knowing that he will seek righteous justice. This act, she said, allows the sinned-against to grieve and the hurt is no longer minimalized because they have a sense of power and options. The pressure then reverts back to the sinner.
"They don't feel helpless," she said. "They feel empowered."
Coulter calls it a debt transfer from the inner courts of their heart to the Supreme Court, which is God.
"He'll hold them responsible for what they remember and for what they don't remember," she said.
"People will get a release rather than pretending (with) an unrepentant person. It becomes a revoking revenge prayer model."
In the months since the book's release, Coulter said several ministries have sought more information in hopes of adopting her model. As co-pastor of Channel Island Vineyard Church with her husband, Bill, the author said her congregation is also adopting the concepts.
"It's going to raise up some ministries that we've not had in the church before," she said.
Other churches, she believes, could benefit as well.
"We need to get our eyes outside of us, even in the church," she said. "There's a horizontal level that needs to be expanded in a powerful way so that we can make an impact in the community.
"We need to revise our faith in light of that so we can begin to see what God wants us do in our relationships, our communities, our churches,
"The church needs to be a safe place where people can work this out together."
For more information, visit drleah.org.