In the Bible it is written: “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.” (Mk 11:25) This text indicates much about the nature of a child of God, and gives needful practical insight into a very foundational concept: forgiveness.
When should we forgive someone and under what conditions? How often should we forgive? How do you know if you have forgiven someone? What are the consequences of unforgiveness? Must one forget in order to forgive? How should one feel when walking in forgiveness? Does it mean we are to walk in unconditional vulnerability to the abuses and cruelty of others? In order to understand these things, one must understand what forgiveness is.
Webster defines forgiveness as: giving up the right to get even. Very simply, one may consider unforgiveness to be the intent to avenge one’s self, having the motive to retaliate against another due to a perception of having been wronged by them.
This definition is aligns with scripture, but differs from what is commonly taught. Common instruction on forgiveness, that we should treat the offender as if they have not offended, regardless of any repentance, is simply unwise. A lack of understanding of these concepts, and how God intends for us to walk in them, brings great discomfort and damage to children of God, and much confusion in the congregations of the saints. Here, we carefully distinguish between two related concepts: forgiveness and bitterness, and elaborate generally upon the dynamics of dealing with personal offenses according to the Bible.
The text with which we began indicates that if one walks in a state of unforgiveness, then one will not be forgiven by God. Since we know every child of God is forgiven by Him for the sake of Jesus Christ, we may conclude that no child of God abides in unforgiveness as a manner of life.
Refusing to forgive is equivalent to walking in vengeance: intending to hurt or damage another as recompense, retaliation, or repayment for their wrong-doing. It is setting one’s self up as a judge in the matter of a personal offense, determining what another’s punishment should be for their offense, and then intending to act as the enforcer of this penalty. These things are forbidden of God, as He reserves the right to vengeance only to Himself: vengeance belongs to God.
Such behavior springs from unbelief in the perfect justice of God. If we know that God is just (Ro 2:2), that He will recompense to everyone according to their works, and that He will do so perfectly, we will not be so tempted to take matters into our own hands.
No child of God can be in the habit of taking vengeance as a manner of life. Anyone doing so violates an explicit command of God, and takes something that rightfully belongs to God. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Ro 12:19) Those who do this as a manner of life are children of disobedience, not children of God. (1Jn 3:10)
As with any sin, one may fail here and there during the course of life, but to abide in any sin as a manner of life, avidly committed to it and unrepentant, is inconsistent with the indwelling Holy Spirit. This simply does not occur in any child of God. “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1Jn 3:9) Children of God will generally walk in a state of forgiveness towards those who have sinned against them.
The implication of this truth is that when someone offends you, if you are a child of God you will generally yield up to God any desire to actually punish the offender. You are not to decide what they deserve by way of retribution for their offense. The right of judgment and payment for wrong doing belongs solely to the Eternal God. He decides what each and every offense merits and retains to Himself the right of executing the sentence. No child of God will persistently walk in disobedience to God here. But what should a child of God do in addition to giving up the right of retaliation?
Going to the other extreme, should a child of God always treat others as if they have not sinned against them, forgiving and forgetting every offense regardless of the danger or damage potentially or actually threatening their welfare? Should we just turn the other cheek whenever someone abuses us?
It is very easy to misapply the principle of forgiveness and teach that we cannot defend ourselves and loved ones from attack, lock our doors, or discipline our children. The command to forgive may be construed to imply that we must continually subject ourselves to the abuses and harassments of the wicked in a mindless and irresponsible manner, and to let those over whom we have authority defy us in brazen insolence. This immediately counters a natural and healthy instinct in us, and appears to contradict many of God’s commands.
One must be careful to distinguish between personal retribution which is forbidden, and both God’s vengeance through delegated authority and common personal efforts in deterrence: taking action to prevent further wrong doing. Without this distinction, we would lose both the concept of personal self-defense and the legitimate restraining duty of governments and parents. If it were wrong to remove violent criminals from a society to preserve its integrity, wrong for duly constituted governments to punish indiscretions and willful disobedience to God’s laws, wrong for parents to discipline children for inappropriate behavior … then the laws and principles God has given to maintain cultural and domestic health would be in violation of his command to abstain from vengeance.
Clearly, governments are ordained by God to punish evil: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” (1Pe 2:13-14) Civil governments are sent to punish wrongdoing, as a matter of divine vengeance and as a deterrent to temporal wickedness. They have this duty given to them by God so their actions in punishing and deterring social disorder and rebellion are not in conflict with God’s command to refrain from taking personal vengeance. The same truths are applicable to parents.
Further, all the saints of God will one day partake in administering the vengeance of God upon the wicked: “Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand; to execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all his saints. Praise ye the LORD.” (Ps 149:5-9) This is also not in contradiction to God’s way. Being honored by Him to carry out His own decree of vengeance according to His purpose, pleasure, and explicit command is both godly and upright.
Perhaps not so clearly, there is valid evidence in the Word of God that we should take precaution to prevent the wicked from doing us harm: “he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” (Lk 22:36) We should secure our homes and personal effects appropriately to protect them from vandals and thieves, and we should be capable of protecting ourselves and our loved ones should some villain seek to do us physical, emotional, or spiritual harm.
Consider the attitude, disposition, and behavior the apostle Paul displayed toward a very wicked man, Alexander the coppersmith. “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words.” (1Ti 4:14-15) Paul evidently did not trust this man, Alexander, called upon the Lord to repay him according to his deeds, and encouraged Timothy to beware of him. Is this attitude consistent with forgiveness?
Clearly, Paul did not express any warm affection for Alexander, Paul was not willing to fellowship with Alexander in his current state, and Paul had not forgotten Alexander’s wrongs toward him. He went so far as to inform another about the dangerous threat which Alexander posed, and encouraged others to maintain concern and caution in any dealings with him. Had Paul been walking in unforgiveness toward Alexander?
Based on the common understanding of the nature of forgiveness, one certainly might conclude that Paul was in sin by refusing to treat Alexander the Coppersmith as if he had never sinned against him. Most people define forgiveness as treating an offender as if they have not offended, forgetting the offense and renewing fellowship and personal acceptance with the offender as if nothing at all has happened. Paul certainly was not doing this. Yet, we know from our theme text that no child of God can walk in unforgiveness deliberately and persistently over time, for those who do so will not be forgiven by God. How do we resolve this?
Simply. The common definition of forgiveness being taught in our day is wrong. Forgiveness is not treating an offender as if they have not offended. It is not forgetting the character and nature of the offender, and it does not imply becoming irrationally vulnerable to continued abuse from one who has shown themselves to be abusive. Forgiveness is simply … giving up the right to get even.
We have no hint that Paul wanted to avenge himself upon Alexander, nor did he intend to do Alexander any personal harm in response to having been wickedly persecuted by him. Neither was Paul consumed with hatred, bitterness, resentment, or turmoil over the memory of Alexander’s sin. In fact, Paul’s attitude appears to be quite healthy considering the circumstances. Though Paul is even calling out to God for justice in avenging the Alexander’s violent persecution, it is not inconsistent with Paul’s expression to expect that if Alexander had repented and evidenced a change of heart toward Paul, to find that Paul would have promptly received him with warmth and affection. Paul was not walking in unforgiveness; Paul was walking in wisdom.
Consider also the admonition immediately following God’s command to abstain from vengeance. “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” (Ro 12:20) If your enemy is dying from starvation or thirst, you are to seek his temporal welfare and provide his basic necessities until he is able to recover himself. It is irrelevant how much your enemy has wronged you, or how violently they have persecuted you. This is an application of the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
The story is told, apparently truly, of a saint fleeing persecution, hotly pursued by an oppressor in the dead of winter. The saint forded a rather large stream and was able to continue fleeing, yet soon heard behind him his oppressor falling into the stream. The saint heard the cry of his enemy, and determined that if he did not help his oppressor that the man would certainly perish. The saint pondered momentarily the words of Jesus Christ, “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.” (Lk 6:27) He returned, rescued his enemy, and so was promptly captured and eventually tortured to death. Was this appropriate for the saint to do? It is consistent with loving your neighbor as yourself to rescue those in true need, regardless of their personal disposition towards you. Our saint acted righteously, though it were to his own peril.
However, it is an altogether different thing to invite such a one into your home unchecked, or to remain in open and indiscriminate vulnerability to their persistent attempts to abuse you. God does not call us to this. He does not say, if your enemy wants to pillage your home and family, that you should open the door of your home and turn your back. Neither does it commend inviting continued emotional trauma from those who love the power of the tongue. Our natural discretion in avoiding and deterring such unwarranted abuse is not unhealthy, it is upright and wise.
Consider the teaching of Christ, “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” (Lk 17:3-4) Jesus did not say that we are to just lie down and let our brother or sister walk all over us unhindered. Such a demeanor is inconsistent with one’s dignity. We are to rebuke those who offend us … not simply ignore their trespasses. If they repent, we should forgive them and restore our fellowship with them as well as we are able. If their offense was out of character we can let it go, but if it has been a pattern then we should not expect them to act differently and treat them accordingly.
Supposing that our offender does not express any repentance? Technically, we should still forgive, we must forgive, whether or not there is repentance. We must always give up any thought of retaliation, yet we are commanded to treat the unrepentant as if they are unbelievers and disfellowship them from the church. (Mt 18:17) Clearly, discretion must be used in restoring the relationship. We are to treat others according to their current character as we are able to perceive it, and not walk in self-imposed blindness to the ways of those about us. This is the calling of wisdom. “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.” (Pr 22:3, 27:12)
Looking further, there is so much more to our response to an offense than vengeance. There are potent feelings of resentment, bitterness, grief, sorrow, anger, and betrayal. We are tempted to be harsh, reproachful, and indignant. Are these feelings wrong? Are they unhealthy? How do we recover from the bruises left upon us by an offender even after we have given up the right to avenge ourselves? This is extremely important.
God warns us to put away these unpleasant side effects of the sins of others upon us. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Ep 4:31-2) We are also commanded to avoid bearing a grudge against our neighbor. “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” (Le 19:18) “Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.” (Ja 5:9) In short, we are encouraged to be strong enough to bear the sins of others against us without falling into sin ourselves. We must not be affected by the wrongs of others such that we ourselves fall into bitterness, anger, resentment and defeat. We must continue to walk in fellowship and strength with God, and continue to love our neighbor as ourselves. In order to do this, we must look beyond our enemies, and well beyond ourselves, for this strength. We must look to God.
Bitterness is a particularly devastating sin, which can easily spread among those in close community, polluting and defiling the spiritual life. (He 12:15) It is a feeling of anger, hurt and resentment due to being treated unjustly or unfairly. As forgiveness is primarily horizontal, directed toward people, bitterness may ultimately be more vertical, directed toward God and how we feel He’s treated us. It springs from a belief that God has not dealt fairly and lovingly with us (Ru 1:20)
Though our bitterness may be directed towards God, it is only in God Himself where we find the cure for bitterness. Bitterness and resentment steal our joy, our worship and our praise toward God because it is fundamentally directed towards Him and not towards those who wrong us.
Bitterness denies that the sufferings God allows in our lives are part of His faithful lovingkindness. (Ps 119: 75); it fails to perceive and believe that God is in control of our lives, that He loves us dearly, and that we have a unique purpose in His plan. When we remember these three things and contemplate them, asking God to deliver us from our pain and hurt through the healing power of Jesus Christ, the truth sets us free and delivers us from the bondage, clamor, grudging and evil speaking that springs from bitterness, self-pity, wrath and anger.
Knowing God is completely and utterly sovereign is foundational to dealing with bitterness, wrath, and anger. Until one can see that all of the trouble and difficulty in life is permitted and ordained of God there is no sense in looking to God for deliverance and protection and purpose in the trials He permits. One must understand God’s capability to order the affairs and events of life such that one can rest in joy and peace in the midst of tribulation. Without this knowledge, there can be no comfort to deal with the wounds of an offense, regardless of an awareness of the love of God or of His purpose in us. If He is not sovereign, utterly and entirely, then He is in fact impotent to protect and defend us from the will of the wicked. When we fail to understand God’s sovereignty, we become vulnerable to attack from our enemy and become prone to despair or mindless ignorance. Knowing that He is sovereign means that we can look patiently to Him in any manner of trial and wait on Him to work His good pleasure in us, delivering us in His time.
In addition to knowing that God is in complete control of the events that surround us, it is also needful that we perceive His unique purpose and calling in our lives. God Himself “hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” (1Ti 1:9) Though armed with an awareness of His control, if we are not also convinced that our suffering has a purpose and a particular end to bring glory to God, the feeling of being wasted and lost amidst our suffering can be overwhelming. Based upon His promise that He has a unique purpose in us, we can rest assured that He is at work in us to complete it.
One must never lapse into a state of mind where one loses sight of the ultimate purposes of God. Our Father is continually and vigilantly at work to make us more like his beloved Son, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ep 2:10) “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” (He 12:11) Do not become bitter in trial; remember that God has a plan for your life and that He is now bringing it to pass.
Remembering the love of God is the crowning step, built upon the truths of His ultimate sovereignty and purpose in our lives, upon which one can reach up into the celestial realms for strength, peace, and joy in tribulation. Armed with a knowledge of the sovereign capability of our heavenly Father, and a perception of our unique purpose and place in His eternal plan, we come to remember and deeply appreciate that God loves us unconditionally … far above our natural ability to conceive or comprehend. He seeks our welfare without regard to our behavior and disposition, because He has adopted us and fully received us as His children for Christ’s sake, and He has a tender affection for us as His dear children. Whether He is gently comforting us in sorrow, encouraging us in trials and tribulations, or severely chastening us when we fall into disobedience, all of God’s intent toward His children springs from His Fatherly love for them.
It is also helpful to remember the mercy of God, in the context of His love. His love is completely undeserved, unearned, and unmerited. No one alive has been dealt with unfairly by God, given worse than they deserve. (Ps 103:10) If any human being received what they really deserved, they would immediately plunge unsheltered into the fiery blasts of an eternal Hell and begin to suffer the infinite fury and indignation of the Lord God of the universe. This contrast makes the love of God that much more precious and sacred to us.
The extent to which we perceive and rest in the incredible love of God, grounded in His sovereignty and purposes in our lives, this is the extent to which we are able to endure suffering with patience and joy, rather than falling into despair and anguish. This, appropriated in the power and renewing of the Holy Spirit, is the only cure for bitterness, resentment, and despair. Knowing the height, breadth, and depth of the love of God fills us with all of His fullness, regardless of the sins others perpetrate upon us.
The importance of this concept motivated Paul’s earnest prayer for the Church that they be filled with a supernatural perception of the love of God. “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ep 3:14-19)
These truths are great and precious; they are the key which frees us from the misery and bondage of bitterness, discouragement, and depression. Even so, it is often beyond my strength to appropriate them. Somehow, when caught off guard and deeply wounded, I find that the bitterness and bondage resulting from the offence actually blinds me to these truths and they fall quite beyond my reach. I think of them mechanically … yet continue to wallow in pain, confusion, and turmoil. I lack the strength to believe and appropriate the healing of these promises, as a soldier fallen and captured in battle that can no longer reach his sword and shield; I become crippled in soul and spirit, captive to my pain, and need more than spiritual tools and weapons … I need to be rescued, I need healing.
It is then that I cry out to God to deliver me from my pain so that I can see, to open my eyes and lighten my soul. I ask others to pray for me and with me. I wait on Him to heal my wounded spirit and to bind up my broken heart so that I can function again. This He does by His Spirit, through His Word, through the prayers and encouragements of others. He has born my griefs and carried my sorrows, and He proclaims my deliverance … purchased for me in Jesus Christ and offered freely to me as I need it. I obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
One particular thought has been quite helpful here: “If God is not mad at you I shouldn’t be … and if He is, I don’t need to be.” This thought has often helped me avoid the temptation of bitterness and exasperation that accompanies a perception that my enemies prosper in their sin. God’s timing and tactic in dealing with an offence is generally not my own, and so very much better. I must trust that He knows best, and that His purposes in allowing my suffering are ultimately good in order to avoid becoming bitter.
Walk in Love … and Wisdom
Armed with these truths in the power and liberty of the Holy Spirit, we can look an offender in the eye in love, do so wisely, and know that God will ultimately be glorified in their offenses toward us. We can rest in safety in the love and acceptance of God, knowing that any further wounds coming to us from others can only come as they pass the permissive hands of our loving Father. Without a change of heart in our offender, we can stand in wisdom and discretion, and wisely seek to avoid being hurt further without being retaliatory, bitter and unforgiving.
It is only as we build upon the solid foundation of the strength, purpose, and love of God in our lives that we find the ability to endure the persistent attacks of our enemies and continue in health. God must fill us with His Spirit and keep these basic truths continually before us, enabling us to endure fierce suffering for His name’s sake with dignity and joy. Stand strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of your enemies. Put away all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, and all malice, and be kind to others, tenderhearted, forgiving others, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.