A character on a television drama had lived through the anguish of the murder of his mother. Because of this, a friend asked him if he approved of capital punishment. The question was put this way: “Would you want the government to kill your mother’s murderer?” His response was calm, but calculated. “No,” he said, “I would want to do it myself.”
When we are wronged, our natural tendency is to desire revenge. We may call it justice, but far too often we are really seeking vengeance.
That may be what we want, but it is not a solution that brings healing to our devastated hearts. How can we move out of our human tendencies and into Christlike responses?
THE CHALLENGE OF BIBLICAL FORGIVENESS
Up to this point, some may think we have relied more on psychological insight than Scripture. They could fairly ask, “Wait a minute! You talk about denial and other issues, but didn’t Christ clearly and directly teach us to forgive those who sin against us? Didn’t He tell us in Matthew 6:15 that if we don’t forgive others, neither would His Father in heaven forgive us?”
This is a common view of Christ’s words, and it raises serious questions that force us to consider our responses to mistreatment:
• If Christ told us to forgive, how can we talk about holding out for a change of heart?
• If we do withhold forgiveness, how do we resolve the feelings of anger and resentment that remain?
• If we don’t forgive, how can we keep from being eaten up by our own bitterness?
• And, at the very heart of the issue, what really is biblical forgiveness anyway?
We must allow these questions to drive us to the Scriptures. It is there that we find the answers and the comfort offered to us by the true Shepherd of our hearts.
THE CHALLENGE TO UNDERSTAND THE SCRIPTURES
A good place to begin is by reading one of our Lord’s own statements about forgiveness. In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus said to His disciples:
Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves. 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 to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him.
With all the previous questions still fresh in our minds, this text raises two very basic questions that are vital to our practice of biblical forgiveness and genuine restoration.
The Question Of Confrontation And Conditional Forgiveness. First, if our Lord wanted us always to unilaterally forgive those who harm us, then why did He say in this teaching, “Rebuke [lovingly confront] him, and if he repents, forgive him”? If we can set aside, for the moment, the question of how to get rid of our anger when the offending person doesn’t have a change of heart, it is clear that Jesus’ teaching here is consistent with other scriptures. Notice:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Mt. 18:15-17).
This isn’t seen just in the teaching of Christ. According to the Bible, God’s own example is to forgive us when we acknowledge our wrongs and express our trust in His Son. Look, for example, at two important areas of God’s dealings with people:
The Conditions For Salvation. “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man . . . went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18:13-14).
Jesus’ parable of the tax collector is a reminder that only when we acknowledge our spiritual failure can forgiveness of sins occur.
The Conditions For God’s Forgiveness. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
The apostle John affirmed that sins that disrupt our personal relationship with God can be resolved only by confession—agreeing with Him about our wrong actions and turning from them.
In both cases, God’s forgiveness is conditional, dependent on the acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the sinning individual.
This principle is clearly seen in what Jesus said to one of the two criminals who was crucified alongside Him. One of the criminals mocked and taunted Jesus. The other acknowledged his sins and asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. It was to the second man that Jesus offered comfort and forgiveness when He said, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). No such hope was offered to the unrepentant criminal.
The Question Of Unconditional Love. Second, if God’s offer of forgiveness is conditional, does that mean His love is conditional as well? Here the answer is clearly no. While God has a special affection for those who repent of their sins, He loves everyone unconditionally. This is the wonderful assurance that Jesus used when He taught His disciples to love not only their friends but also their enemies.
Repeating this point, Jesus said:
Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. But I tell you who hear Me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” lend to “sinners,” expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:26-36).
The words of the Savior are a reminder of the very nature and character of God the Father. While unconditional love is the heartbeat of His passion for people, God’s perfect character also requires that sin be resolved—not glossed over or excused. It was this same passion that made Him willing to send His Son to the cross to make true forgiveness possible. That is unconditional love.
This unconditional love is the key to all that follows here. Seeking the highest good of another is the test for deciding when to forgive and when to lovingly withhold forgiveness, when to forgive and move on, and when to confront and go deep—deep into the heart of the one who did the wrong as well as deep into the heart of the one who was wronged.