forget about forgiving everyone

A few times a year, Jim Tune asks me to write something for the Reignited journal. Here’s my latest article.

Matt recently preached on forgiveness, and after the service a thoughtful guy named Eric caught him near the coffee and carbs to question his message.

“I think you’re wrong,” Eric said. “God doesn’t ask us to forgive everyone. He asks us to forgive like he does—which means forgiving anyone who repents.”

From our earliest days in church, we are taught about a God who has forgiven all people, and we are told that being a follower of this God means we, too, must forgive everyone else. But is this really true?

What the Bible says

We love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 because of its promise that if God’s people will pray, he will “hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” But leaving aside for a moment the (significant) fact that this promise was given to Jews during the time of Solomon and not Americans during the time of Obama, it’s also important to note this forgiveness and healing is promised only if the people first “turn from their wicked ways.” Repentance precedes forgiveness.

The same is true in other encounters with God. In Jeremiah 5, God says he’ll forgive Judah even if only one person follows him—but he can’t find one. “Why should I forgive you?” he asks. “Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods” (5:7). In 2 Kings, he communicates the same message: “For [Manassah] had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive” (2 Kings 24:3-4).

Oh, but that’s the Old Testament, we say. That God was CRAZY. In the New Testament Jesus says we’re to forgive seventy-seven times, or seven times seventy, or……well, a lot.

True, that is recorded in Matthew 18. But Luke’s version of the same teaching gives us even more: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (17:3-4).

In other words, we are called to radical forgiveness. Jesus is saying here that even if some fool hurts you several times a day, day after day, to the point where you want to drive little pointy tweezers under her fingernails, you are to forgive her. (A rough paraphrase–this is why Matthew and Luke got to write the Gospels and I didn’t.)

This incredible grace is achievable only with God’s help, and practicing this kind of forgiveness is part of what it means to be made in the image of God (who, by the way, was EXTREMELY gracious and forgiving to his people in the Old Testament). But first the person must admit he’s done wrong and express remorse for it.

IF he repents, Jesus says. And if not?

What the culture says

The idea that we must offer blanket forgiveness to everyone who’s hurt us persists among Christians in part because we do not read passages like these carefully. But we also recoil against the thought of “withholding” forgiveness from someone because the need to forgive has become part of a broader discussion about physical and psychological health.

Research by groups like the Stanford Forgiveness Project repeatedly show the benefits of forgiveness. “Study after study has found that forgiving is good for the body as well as the soul,” says Harriet Brown in (of course) an article on Oprah’s website. “It can lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. People who forgive generally have more and better relationships with others, feel happier and more hopeful, and score higher on just about every measure of psychological well-being.”

On the faith side, theologian Lewis Smedes is perhaps best known for his observation that “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” In his book Boundaries (of which I am otherwise a raving fan), Dr. Henry Cloud writes, “Forgiveness gives me boundaries because it unhooks me from the hurtful person, and then I can act responsibly, wisely. If I am not forgiving them, I am still in a destructive relationship with them.”

Almost instinctively, we understand that holding on to anger, resentment and bitterness can deeply hurt us, and the idea of not forgiving someone seems like signing up for months or years or a lifetime of unresolved pain. This is where the self-help books get it right—you do have to “let go” and “move on.” God is not asking you to keep hurting indefinitely or be a prisoner of destructive emotions. But even though forgiveness of a repentant person and letting go of the anger toward an unrepentant person may both lower our blood pressure and lengthen our life, they are two very different things.

So what do we do?

The Greek word for “forgive” appears 146 times in the New Testament but is translated as “forgive” in the English versions only about three dozen times. In a 2011 Huffington Post article, Maria Mayo says this word, aphiēmi, can also mean “to remit (a debt), to leave (something or someone) alone, to allow (an action), to leave, to send away, to desert or abandon, and even to divorce.” Like the Christian teaching about love, it’s clear that forgiveness is an action.

After his conversation with Eric, Matt emailed one of his seminary professors to ask for the scholarly opinion. Dr. Cottrell responded, “Forgiveness is a two-person act. It must be given by the one offended and received by the offender. If the offender refuses to receive this gift of forgiveness, then it cannot be given, by God or man. God forgives only those who prepare their hearts to receive it, but he is always READY to forgive. Likewise we must always be ready to forgive.”

God demonstrates this throughout the Bible. He is grieved by our sin, he expresses his anger and sadness, and he ultimately makes a way to offer us complete forgiveness and resolve the relationship. He stands ready to forgive—and then the choice is up to us. So if we are called to forgive like God does, we too must own our feelings, express them if possible, and stand ready to forgive. Like God, we must take action.

This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s significant, I think, that right after Jesus teaches the apostles they must genuinely forgive repentant people again and again and again, they respond, “Increase our faith!” They get it—great faith (and character and maturity and patience) is needed to “stand ready” with this kind of forgiveness.

It is one of the most difficult things God asks us to do. But it is not the same as trying to force reconciliation with the unrepentant.

By all means (almost literally), do your best with God’s help to acknowledge and then let go of anger and bitterness. You do not have to live your life as a prisoner to those who have hurt you and walked away. But you also do not have to be more forgiving than God.

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