I have often witnessed a touching scene on the TV news, or read about it in the papers – a grieving spouse or family who have lost their loved ones in some kind of tragedy, saying that as Christians they find it in their hearts to “forgive the ones who did this”.
As noble and moving as this is, and well-intentioned, is it a misunderstanding of biblical forgiveness? Just saying that a person is forgiven doesn't RESOLVE the problem. Often it doesn't resolve the bad feelings either.
I don’t want to belittle the sacrifice that others have made. Nor can I know their hearts. However I think as Christians we need to know what God meant when he called us to forgive freely “from the heart” and what he did NOT mean.
We are in danger of mixing up sentiment and commandment. We may indeed (for our own peace of mind) decide to "forgive" such people, but it's not the end of the matter as far as God or the world is concerned. A criminal still needs to be brought to justice and jailed; an abusive parent still needs to be exposed; a slanderer still needs to be rebuked (and so on.) Otherwise there is no true justice.
I have heard harrowing stories of abused children who have sought help from their church elders, being forced to meet with their parents and say that they "forgive them". This is without any sign of remorse from the parents.
I know of a man whose daughter was violently raped by a pervert who went to prison for the crime. He was told by a Christian that the biblical command was to "forgive" the rapist even though he showed no regret for his actions!
We're using the wrong terminology. What families are actually saying when they publicly "forgive" the man who murdered their daughter is "I won't take matters into my own hands and wish upon you the evil that you have done to us. I won't have a heart of revenge and rage towards you, because I care about my own spiritual health, and don't want to think evil of anyone - if I do that, I'll be sinning against God myself. So I chose not to have feelings of vengeance towards you."
That isn't forgiveness, it's FORBEARANCE! And in some cases of people being urged to "forgive" it's mental gymnastics. I'm saying this so we can look at what biblical forgiveness really IS, and know how to benefit from it.
Let's not mix up tolerance and forgiveness. When Jesus commanded we go beyond the written law (go the second mile) and "resist not the evil" (Matt 5:39) he was preaching patient endurance and kindness. He was not asking us to CONDONE the evil, nor even to FORGIVE it as the bible understands forgiveness, but to ENDURE it patiently so that God can judge without your getting involved.
The world, too, seems to demand that we as Christians forgive all offenses immediately and permanently, without the need for repentance. Is this scriptural?
Both unbelievers and Christians are commanded to have remorse, repentance, contrition as the basis of God's mercy. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart --
These, O God, You will not despise." (Ps 51:17)
Forgiveness from GOD comes from confession of guilt, humility and conversion (turning around and walking away from sin).
2 Chron 7:14-15
if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, THEN I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
Forgiveness from MEN comes from repentance, admission of guilt and genuine remorse.
If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him."
Is there forgiveness without repentance? In the letters to the churches in Revelation, almost every church is called upon to REPENT or else the prophesied rebuke will befall them. As we know from Rev 9:20-21 and similar passages, despite many warnings mankind does not repent of its evil deeds. What is the result? Judgement and death!
I learned about forgiveness when I contemplated my childhood.
As a believer I was counselled to “forgive” those who seemed to wrong me, reject me, fall short of loving me. I knew that in order to be at peace with God and my own soul I had to forgive those who misunderstood me and accused me wrongly.
With a great amount of prayer and soul-searching, and with a mammoth effort, I did indeed (over the years) make every attempt to do so, achieving a measure of peace in my heart and release from anger. It didn't change the circumstances, but it changed my attitude.
But somehow, it never seemed quite enough! I still seemed to carry about a sense of grievance, and the consequences of these hurts. I still had nightmares about it, still felt inward anger and hurt. Was it possible to be entirely free? Was it possible to forgive entirely, so that the matter never arose again? Seemingly NOT!
It’s not a feeling (this I already knew – despite our feelings we can still make a quality decision to forgive.) But also, it’s not a resolution of the matter! This was very important to understand. Without release and resolution - "closure" as it's called today - we can't really move on.
This is the core of the matter: SIN IS DEBT.
You may rightly say "Oh, but Jesus paid the price for all my sins". Yes. Your debt had to be accounted for and Jesus stepped in and paid the price. But here I am talking about the debts that accrue in our day to day dealings with eachother, as human beings. How do we settle those disputes?
Matthew 6:12 "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
"Our debts [Greek ofeileemata ]. In the ancient Greek ofeileema is common for actual legal debts as in Rom 4:4, but here it is used of moral and spiritual debts to God. "Trespasses" is a mistranslation made common by the Church of England Prayer Book.... See Matt 18:28,30 for sin pictured again by Christ "as debt and the sinner as a debtor". We are thus described as having wronged God. The word ofeilee for moral obligation was once supposed to be peculiar to the New Testament. But it is common in that sense in the papyri (Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 221; Light from the Ancient East, New ed., p. 331)."
"Sin is pictured as a debt, and the sinner as a debtor (compare Matt 18:28,30). Accordingly, the word represents sin both as a wrong and as requiring satisfaction. In contrast with the prayer,"Forgive us our debts," Tholuck ("Sermon on the Mount") quotes the prayer of Apollonius of Tyana, "O ye gods, give me the things which are owing to me." Forgive [Greek afeekamen ] is literally, to "send away," or "dismiss.""
When we wrong another, a debt accrues to our moral account. We become in debt to them. We owe them something that has been robbed from them – perhaps their good name, their reputation, their peace of mind, their ability to love…in so many ways we can damage others by wronging them.
And when somebody wrongs you, they "owe you"!
A transaction has begun, when people wrong one another and do not make recompense in any way. Sometimes this is because they have no idea they have done wrong. Sometimes they are aware, but incapable of putting it right.
Sometimes many decades have passed, or the people involved are even dead, and that sin-debt is still outstanding. As long as it’s “on the books” there is NO resolution, and the matter remains open. Jesus used a parable to describe sin as debt:
Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
"But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."
So forgiveness can be described as the writing off of a debt. Somebody took something from us, and we want it back. This can only be resolved in two ways:
- The debtor pays up (repentance and restitution)
- The debt is written off (forgiveness)
[By the way, if you're wondering how the second line differs from the stories above, when I said it was forbearance and not forgiveness to tolerate a crime or a wrong without revenge, then read on. It's all about a LEGAL requirement.]
After putting ourselves through a mental wringer and coming up with some compassion, we do soften and put up with wrongs. This we then call "forgiveness" and think it's over. It's not. All too often we continue to nurse the debt, waiting for recompense. The resultant grievance from a perceived wrong, is a demand for restitution. We silently mumble “you OWE me!”
We look back over and over, dwelling on how we have been wronged (robbed) and thinking over and over of the debt that is owed. We want to be repaid! Nothing else will ease the pain and give closure. You can say the words as often as you like, you can picture the person forgiven, you can even feel warmth and understanding, but until the moment that the debt is wiped off the books, there is something held over that will trip you up eventually. So debts need to be repaid.
The restitution that we hope will come to us, after being wronged, could be various things including:
- A sincere apology
- Return of goods, money, possessions or property
- Criminal proceedings, in the case of legal wrongdoing, and perhaps compensation
- A warming of the heart and return to loving ways, after coldness
- A change of heart, meaning that the person no longer says or does that particular thing
- A change of behaviour so that the person is no longer unloving, hurtful, spiteful, dismissive or whatever
- An admission of guilt, that is, recognition that the person was in fact wrong, in thought word or deed
- A general feeling of “wrongs righted” in a sort of mistaken “karma” way. (Tit for Tat)
- Consequences occurring to the other person, that they are found out, criticised, or made to feel bad
- And so on (make up your own personal list)
However bizarre and unlikely it is, in all these ways we do wait for the payment of the debt, for year after year. We seem to be able to bring to mind small incidents long after they have been forgotten by others. Why? Its because we are waiting, waiting, waiting for the payment due!
This is of course usually futile. How many people actually realise they have hurt us? How many are aware of their words or actions? How many (even if they know) are willing to change? How likely is it that people will seek you out and apologise to you? How often has stolen property been returned by the person who stole them?
Waiting for a debt that can never be repaid is fruitless, a waste of time, and very draining on our mental and spiritual energy. All the while we are waiting, not being able to let go, we are mouthing pious words about forgiveness and trying not to feel hateful. This is beside the point, when the debt is still outstanding! The ONLY true way to be free ourselves AND to let the debtor off the hook, is to WRITE OFF THE DEBT.
I believe it's a mistake to counsel those who have been wronged (abused, lied about, mistreated, robbed, rejected, damaged or whatever) to "just forgive". This is not possible and not even scriptural. All it achieves is adding psychological torture to the wrong, whereby the person feels bad about the sin, and now feels doubly bad about NOT being able to forgive it!
This mistaken counsel just drives the problem underneath, into the subconscious, where it is no longer available to the Christian and hence remains a stinking sore for ever. These debts are not paid off or written off, but become by incorrect counsel festering wounds that are not bandaged, eased or healed!
What happens when a person doesn't find out how to forgive, in a truly biblical way?
He or she goes on NURSING the grievances in the vain hope of resolving them one day.
It's like a person incubating eggs. This person has an incubator full of grudges (unpaid debts) and cannot resist inspecting them from time to time. He peers closely at his rows of eggs, guards them jealously, cares for them, rolls them in his hands, pokes and prods, watching for any small sign of development "is there a sign of remorse here? Any movement towards recovery there? Is there any change? Is there an alteration in feeling or behaviour on the part of these little eggs?" Will he get what he's owed?? All too often NO. But it doesn't stop him sitting up late at night, and waking up early in the morning to think about it.
Some of these eggs are dinosaur eggs. They have been in that mental incubator so long they are ancient, but still they sit there, representing a debt owed. So what is the biblical answer. How can we be free of this mental torment.
Didn't God say that if we don't forgive we will be handed over to the tormentors? That is JUST the case. And there is always the danger that hidden unforgiven wrongs can fester to the point that they attract the "flies" of the devil, demons that move in to make the situation much worse. If we don't heal these wounds and especially if they are driven inside and forgotten, we become bitter, cynical, untrusting, unable to love and closed to God.
Heb 12:14-16 "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled."
Unforgiveness is a sin that cuts us off from God. (Matt 6:15). We can spend so much time and energy tending to our incubator full of eggs that we no longer hear God's voice. This is because we are eaten up by secret feelings of anger and bitterness, and revenge. God cannot break through this dark foreboding cloud of anger to speak his words of calm into our souls, as long as we are nursing grudges.
So, the big question is: what's to be done? How can we forgive in a proper effective biblical way?
Go to Part Two