I'm interrupting our series on saving the West to give my thoughts on this issue that affects us all from time to time.
To Forgive or not to Forgive
It is in the Lord's Prayer … “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. It is the subject of one of Jesus' most blunt parables: the Unforgiving Servant - which ends with the terrible warning “and this is how my Father will treat each one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”. It is stated in Hebrews “vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay”. Joseph says when his brothers fear that he will exact his (justifiable) revenge: “Am I in the place of God that I should do such a thing?”. It is a theme so consistent throughout Scripture that there can be no argument about the fact of it. So why can't so many Christians forgive?
My guess is this: temptation and our unregenerate nature.
Thirst for revenge seems part of our human nature. So too are most vices, but revenge is, up to a point, socially acceptable – encouraged even. Of course people taking the law into their own hands is frowned upon, and is likely to land the perpetrator of the revenge in court. But “getting even” without doing anything illegal gets a social thumbs up, and is inculcated by stories and movies. One Biblical account of bad behaviour is Lamech – who boasted that if Cain were to be avenged seven times, he would be avenged seventy seven times! An example of better behaviour is David who praised Abigail because her swift action in bringing tribute to him prevented David from sinning against the Lord by taking revenge on Nabal for refusing it.
Thus we should expect it to always be difficult to “go against the grain” of our human nature.
Second, since the Bible depicts unforgiveness to be such a serious sin, we should expect to be seriously attacked by a temptation to wallow in it. Being forgiving is part of God's very nature. We didn't just learn this in some academic way, we have been the actual beneficiaries of it: in Christ he forgave us all our sins! So in forgiving others we are being imitators of him as dearly loved children. And we are empowered to act by being recipients of undeserved forgiveness. Conversely, harbouring unforgiveness is a form of hating God's divine character. That surely cuts us off from him.
Now when we remember how insidious temptations to other sins can be, we should expect to have to face all the wiles and stratagems of the devil in this area.
One has only to read the Genesis account of Adam and Eve being tempted to see that level of cunning: gradually drawing their attention to the tree and its fruit, suggesting subliminally its desirability, and their “right” to fuller knowledge, subtly instilling doubts about God's very clear command!
So we should expect that demonic voice to be ever so kind and consoling towards us – always reminding us how much we have been hurt – trapping us in going over and over our suffering – until the hurt becomes like an old friend and no matter how great the mental anguish, we cannot let go of it. This magnifies the harm originally done to us, and prevents God healing these hurts. It gives the devil two wins with one “stone'. We, a human God loves is caused more pain, and also our animal desire for revenge grows stronger and stronger weakening our resistance to temptation. Then we can be led to doubt that it is really a sin to be unforgiving “Did God really say … ?” If we succumb then whether we go the final step to exacting revenge, or just sit under a demonic stronghold nursing our hurt, victim-hood, and supposed righteousness, the devil will have won – he will have driven a wedge between us and Christ our Saviour.
Are there any “strengthening exercises” that can help us not to fall into this temptation?
I think there are two attitudes of mind, that if practised and reinforced, will protect us – Just as Joseph was protected “Am I in the place of God?” and as Jesus, Stephen and so many martyrs and confessors since then have been enabled to pray: “Father forgive them ...”.
The first is to continually rejoice in the new world of grace into which we have been re-born.
We were His enemies by our choice and our deeds. Yet he died to blot out our sins. If that were not enough he – Almighty God - humbled himself to beg us to repent and turn back to him. But there's more: He sent His Spirit into our innermost being, and – short of compelling us – He did everything necessary for us to repent. More still: had we just been forgiven, enabled to love Him, and given a servant's place in his household, we would have been fabulously well treated. But on top of it all He called us His sons and daughters!
In the face of all this what are the “light and momentary troubles of this world” compared to the glory we share and which we are to enjoy in all its fullness forever? (Amazingly God showers favour after favour upon us, and so, yes, He does care about even the little things of this life as well – but not when they will blight our eternal joy!)
If we delight our minds on these things. If we are forever praising God for the infinite goodness He has shown us. If we are striving to imitate His moral character in this world so that we can enjoy being with him forever. We will be building the spiritual and mental muscle necessary to forgive even when we are really badly wronged.
The second mental exercise is a human commercial analogy. Some years ago our local video rental store went out of business. Some time later we (with many others I guess) got a letter from a collection agency. It said it had “bought” all the video store's debts. And going through the books they found we had owed the video store some unpaid late fines. They now demanded we pay these to them – or else! Of course having sold their bad debts to the collection agency the owners of the store could not try to collect these debts themselves - they now belonged to someone else!
Let's play a mental game. The Bible talks about us dying to our old life and being born again into a new life in Christ. Let's pretend we are the spiritual equivalent of that video store going out of business. Jesus is like the debt collectors who bought the bad debts. He took away our sins on the cross: he also bought all the sins done against us. He owns them now. He is the only one who has the right to collect them. We can't.
He can “collect” on them, or forgive them – that's frankly none of our business! We sold them. They're gone. In this analogy “forgiving” is just us reminding ourselves of this fact!
An FAQ is: Do those who wronged us have to repent, or say they are sorry before we forgive them? Absolutely not! Certainly it would be better for them if they made amends – Jesus told us so. But that is between Him as the new owner of the “sin-against-us”, and them. We have to forgive from the heart regardless and to keep reminding ourselves that we have done so simply because their “sin-against-us” no longer belongs to us but to Him.