IS THAT SO EVIDENT?
Good relations with each other and with God!
For good relations with each other and with God we need to learn to forgive each other. This is so important for God that He makes it a condition for us to actually receive forgiveness ourselves. Jesus said this in Matthew 6:12, 14,15.' If you forgive people their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive them, your Heavenly Father will not forgive you either.'
How should we forgive?
Forgiving can be very liberating. But sometimes the above quote of Jesus can appear as very threatening. This comes from the impression that we must always to be able to forgive everyone. This is a misunderstanding. Because the question is -how must we forgive? As God in Christ has forgiven us, it says in Ef.4:32.
When we sin against God that brings a wall between us and Him, it breaks the relationship with Him. God can and wants to forgive us very much, but not just like that. He can only forgive when sins are recognised and given up. The aim of forgiveness is the removal of guilt so that the relationship is restored and we can go on with a clean slate. This is how God forgives us. And so this is how we are to forgive others.
No repentance, no forgiveness
God loves the world and wants to forgive everyone. But He can only do so when there is repentance and conversion, sorrow and a turning away from the sin. His love is never at the cost of His justice and righteousness.
And it is just the same in relationships between people; when there is conscious wrong or injustice done between people that must be talked out and an end put to it. The one who has suffered injustice must then forgive. And the suffering that was a result must be accepted. That's the price that has to be paid with forgiveness just as Jesus has also done for us.
Love your enemies
We must love our enemies, bless them and pray for them, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But this does not mean that you can automatically forgive them. God can't do that either. He lets His sun rise over evil and good alike. But He can only forgive sin when the sinner confesses his sin and repents.
And so we too are expected to act towards those who have acted unfairly/unjustly towards us: we may pray for them, bless them and love them. But we can only forgive them when they ask for forgiveness, want to make peace with us and put away their enmity.
No regret, sorrow or contrition
But what happens when the other person doesn't want this, refuses to recognize guilt and won't give in that he is in the wrong? Jesus speaks about this in Mat. 18:15-18 and in Luke17:3,4.
‘If your brother sins (against you) go to him and sort it out with him - the two of you together. If he listens to you, if he shows contrition, forgive him, then you have won your brother. And even if he sins against you 7 times a day, and comes back to you 7 times saying I am sorry, you are to forgive him. If he doesn't listen, then take 2 or 3 others with you... if he doesn't listen to them then tell the church. If he doesn't listen to the church then he is as a pagan and tax collector to you.'
In such a case Jesus doesn't speak anymore about forgiving.
But if forgiveness is not possible because the other person refuses to accept any blame and instead continues in his position, does this mean we have to go around with a bitter heart and feelings of revenge? Thankfully not. No, we must act as Jesus did. 'who, when he was accused, didn't answer back, and as he suffered didn't threaten, but gave it into the hands of Him who judges righteously' is written in first Peter 2:23.
The aim is that we learn to give our issues of justice over to God when we cannot forgive.
God is a righteous Judge
We can go to God with the unfair treatment that we have received. The kingdom of God is namely a court of justice where the judgment rests with the most ideal power of justice there is, God, the All-knowing and Almighty, the complete and perfect neutral judge, who wants the very best for all parties.
And the more we begin to realize His perfection as Judge, the easier it is to completely give our grievances over to Him. He knows everything, about us as well as our enemy. Also all the mitigating circumstances of our enemy which are unknown to us. So if we trust all our issues to Him we know for certain that He will deal with everything in grace and justice. And we don't have to add one more thing to His judgment.
The more we are able to see God as our righteous Judge the more we are able, just like Jesus, to let go of all our bitter angry thoughts and feelings and to completely give them over to God. It is enormously liberating to know that God will deal with our issues completely correctly and with perfect justice. That can make us so free that, to our complete surprise, we are even able to give our enemies food when they are hungry. And to give them drink when they are thirsty. So we triumph over evil with good, and hard hearts are touched/broken, writes Paul in Rom.12:19-21
In practice there are wonderful examples of this. As soon as we trust our case to God our attention is no longer fixed on the opposite party or on the injustice. It is then our attention is fixed on God. Then we are open to Him so that He can let us see things as He sees them. Also with regard to ourselves; our eyes open to the things that are possibly wrong with ourselves, a beam or a splinter! This we can then confess to the opposite party. Maybe this might even be the first step in the process of reconciliation!
In addition to this God can then begin to work in the heart of the opposite party. For, because we are no longer standing up for our rights, but have trusted our case to Him, then we no longer stand in His way, as you might say, and He has the opportunity to intervene.
Forgiving or handing over
Thus, where possible, forgive. And when that is not possible, hand over to Him who judges righteously. In both cases the result is a great inner freedom towards our fellowman, also in the small things.
Unconditional forgiveness and its consequences
Many Christians live with the thought that God asks us to forgive everyone at any time unconditionally and one-sidedly. Unconditional forgiveness is the forgiving of a wrong that has been done to you with no question of regret or repentance on the part of the opposite party.
Also in pastoral care we often come up against the belief that unconditional forgiveness is seen as the only way to be delivered from bitterness, revenge and feelings of hate. Here we must not forget several things:
1. With unconditional forgiveness you are concentrating more on your own importance than that of the other party. You forgive to be delivered - delivered from revenge, from a feeling of hurt, of injustice and from a longing to have redress. And also especially, to be considered able to be forgiven by God. Compassion and love for the opposite party hardly play any role at all. This can hardly be described as the proper use of forgiveness.
2. When you have to forgive, no matter what the attitude of the opposite party is, you will be confronted with a feeling of powerlessness. And also of unwillingness because what you see before you is not fair and is unjust. This brings you into conflict with God who demands from you that you forgive, no matter what. The result is you will blame the opposite party, along with the wrong he is doing to you, for being the origin of the conflict you are experiencing with God. This makes the forgiving even more impossible. It fans the flames of reproach, and hate arises instead of love: a vicious circle.
3. Forgiveness does not liberate from hate, reproach and revenge. When you have revenge in your heart and are bitter, then you cannot even begin to forgive. Hate, reproach and revenge, which are the result of past injustice, only disappear when your healthy God-given sense of justice is satisfied, either that the opposite party changes heart and comes to ask for forgiveness, or that God, as righteous Judge, takes the case in hand. A sense of justice is not something wrong. On the contrary, God also has this quality, it belongs to His character. Only, with us, it must not lead us to take things into our own hands! That must be left to The One who can do it much better than we can. He is all-knowing and totally just! He will even ask us to give an account of every frivolous word. This is why Paul writes:
‘Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written: "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord." Romans 12:19. We should even rejoice in this, is written in Psalm 9.
Our God-given and created sense of justice is completely satisfied when we realize that God takes our plight onto Himself and that justice will run its course. Then we will realize that it is no longer our responsibility.
In every other case the disappearance of hate and revenge is only the result of repression of feelings or due to surrender to the injustice with all the effects this entails.
4. When injustice must be forgiven unconditionally this leads, very easily indeed, to repression of feelings. When the injustice, for instance, is not dealt with or taken away, then the forgiving party has to, in one way or another, put the matter out of their minds and make it disappear. Because forgiveness is impossible when you are constantly confronted with the injustice, you have to try to close your eyes to it. When that really happens there is great danger that it is repressed – with all the damage this entails.
5. Through the demand for unconditional forgiveness the sense of guilt comes to lie on the wrong shoulders. The victim feels judged because he doesn’t have the ability to forgive from the heart. And the guilty one takes it for granted that everything should be forgiven.
6. The teaching of ‘always forgive everyone no matter what the attitude of the opposite party is’ makes it impossible for the victims of wrongdoing to call on God as Righteous Judge and Avenger against evil, as is written in Romans 12:19
So this teaching leaves them with no rights; God is, for them, on the side of the strongest and judges them as weak because they have given in to injustice and the perpetrator of it, and accepted them as if nothing has happened. And this on penalty of the loss of their own right to forgiveness by God.
7. By giving unconditional forgiveness the actual origin of the problem is never solved. Forgiving of itself does not take away the injustice. Injustice only disappears when the culprit has repented and left his sin behind. Only when this happens does forgiveness have any meaning so that a new beginning can be made with a clean slate.
Forgiving and handing over?
Is it not then possible to do both: to hand over the injustice to God and then forgive the culprit yourself? That would look like the ideal solution. But we shouldn’t forget that forgiveness not only affects the person who forgives but also the perpetrator.
1. Forgiveness means that you free the other person from the guilt he bears regarding you. You put everything that has happened behind you, you no longer blame him for anything, you close your eyes to the injustice in which he continues to persist. If you really forgive him then you accept him just as he is and how he behaves. The logical consequence is that he loses all sense of guilt. That is actually mostly the effect of forgiving and even the aim of it: forgiveness exonerates the guilty one of all blame.
2. After forgiveness has been demonstrated there is actually no more necessity for repentance, confession of guilt or conversion by the perpetrator. He knows he is accepted by the opposite party in his course of action. In essence forgiveness for him means actually that: freedom from the duty of recognizing guilt and stopping his wrong way of behaviour.
3. Christians who have a bad conscience and are accustomed to practising injustice often look (in their unconverted state) for sympathy and the acceptance of other committed Christians. This gives them a false sense of peace and the idea that it’s actually quite okay with them. It is for this reason that Paul writes in 1 Cor.5:9-13 that you must not even eat with such people, let alone forgive them when they do not repent.
Forgiveness and acceptance without conversion blunts the conscience of the perpetrator. Christ will never accept us when we persist in sin. He will not be a servant of sin.
4. Unconditional forgiveness can therefore never happen in the spiritual interest of the culprit. It blocks the way to conversion and cleansing. That is the reason why this form of forgiveness is not mentioned in Scripture.
Forgiveness, by definition, absolves the culprit from guilt. A blessing for those who recognize their guilt and are converted, a license for him who wishes to persist in evil-doing.
5. When we forgive the other party that has to be possible in heaven also. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ Matthew 18:18.
But that is impossible when our forgiveness does not run concurrently with God’s forgiveness. We must only forgive when God can forgive. Only when there is a question of recognition of guilt and letting go of sin can we so forgive the other party that God can crown it with His blessing.
It sounds uncompassionate: only forgive when there is the certainty of recognition and conversion, and otherwise hand it over to Him who judges justly. But the opposite is true. When this is put into practice the way is made free for compassion and love for the opposite party.
A practical example
Imagine that a woman has to forgive her husband because he is having an affair with the neighbour and he just says ‘I do stupid things at times, you must forgive me for this!’ They come up against a brick wall. She is in conflict with her husband who persists in his wrong behaviour. She is in conflict with God who will be angry with her if she does not forgive spontaneously. And she is in conflict with herself because she sees a deep aversion growing in her heart, both for her husband and for God.
When she, however, sees that God wants to be a just Judge for her in the conflict and that she can give everything into His hands, then something very different will happen.
Firstly, there is now an open relationship with God, in which He can make it clear to her what is not right in her life in relation to her husband.
Secondly, she does not have to violate her sense of justice anymore because justice will prevail.
Thirdly, she will also realize the danger in which her husband is in. She has called upon God who will judge adulterers and fornicators and she knows how much the Lord is to be feared. If her husband is not converted from his sin he will face judgement. The love she once had for him will be rekindled and in her concern she can pray for him, “Lord, open his eyes so he might wake up and be saved.’ She doesn’t see her husband anymore as her enemy or a culprit, but as a lost sinner who must be saved.
This is now the process that leads to triumph of good over evil of which Paul speaks in Rom. 12:14-21. Only in this way in our lives can there be a good balance between love and justice/righteousness just like the case was with Jesus and Stephen who could both, deep from their hearts in all honesty, ask for forgiveness for their murderers. They did not say ‘We forgive you!’ But they asked God to forgive them. They asked this for those who did not know what they were doing. At Christ’s crucifixion it was the Romans, and at the stoning of Stephen it was, among others, Paul. He also wrote later that ‘Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.’ (1 Timothy 1:13)
In practice, too much tolerance regarding injustice means that there is increasing room made for the strongest at the cost of the weak. We often see, for instance, that there is so much understanding drummed up for the perpetrators of injustice while hardly anyone looks at the victims of their evil.
We must watch out that such injustice and lawlessness does not infiltrate our Christian thinking. Compassion must never be shown at the cost of justice. If this happens then the weak will always be the victim and end up with no rights. Mercy, when it is not accompanied by justice, results in moral decay.
Persistent prayer for redress
Therefore Jesus rouses us in Luke 18:1-8 to make full use of God’s “Judge-ship” and His offer to take care of our lawsuits and to procure our justice. We are not to make use of this for ourselves alone but also for others. When we see how injustice in the world is constantly growing, then it could well become our task to call on God’s judgment. Why should we, for instance, not ask God to send out His judgment on the producers of and those spreading pornography, and to curse their companies and profits? When God’s rules are adhered to in the world the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness, is written in Isaiah 26:9. And thus it can do no harm to ask specifically in our prayers, quite the opposite in fact. Maybe the fast growth of this evil could be the result of our failures in this area. When no-one in our society uses the justice system anymore then injustice will take over society infinitely much faster than is now already the case. Is this not the same in the Kingdom of God? Certainly.
‘Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”’ Luke 18:7,8
Let‘s become confident in this so that the answer to Jesus’ question, regarding us, will be positive.
The family as ‘ a rule of law’
These principles above ought to be applied, in smaller groups, also in the family. The family is a ‘rule of law’ situation in miniature. Children have to learn not to take the law into their own hands, but to trust their “issues/lawsuits” to their parents. The parents ought to take this so seriously that the children’s’ sense of justice it completely satisfied and they are totally at peace regarding their parents in all that has to do with this. This means it will not be difficult for them to apply this then later in their lives with God and to trust Him with the things that really matter to them.
(used with agreement)
“Dick, I am still shocked over the misery that can come out of indiscriminately mixing the concepts of ‘forgiving’ and ‘handing over’ together. One day before you wrote your letter I wrote the following in my diary:
--- After what John said over one-sided forgiveness I was very down.
A feeling of “everything for nothing.” My whole fight existed from out of the concept that I had to forgive and that I couldn’t and somewhere the sense of not wanting to because it wasn’t fair.
Now I think that God wants you to be forgiving, that at the moment you are asked for forgiveness you also want to give it. Until the rule is: "He who sins shall die" and "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay."
I have demanded too much of myself, gone against a universal law and have hurt myself. Uncharitable for myself and for the other party.
“My own efforts for nothing” – down. In fact, a deliverance and a reassurance. God is forgiving for the entire world but you only receive this when you have asked for it. Probably this is why my feelings of powerlessness and also of hate and revenge have been so strongly awakened. That feeling of ‘unfairness’. An excellent chance for the Enemy to get me riled up, to provoke me. This is much more relaxed ---
…What I am most shocked about is that there is so little clarity over the fundamental things of the gospel. At least 3 highly-regarded Christian pastoral counselors have not uncovered this in helping me. They just say: It is for your own good that you forgive, you must forgive…..”
I am now convinced that this is the truth which makes me free. The first thing that I maybe noticed when it first became clear to me how often forgiveness is wrongly dealt with, was the fact that I felt incredibly relieved, free. I had heard much about forgiveness in the counseling sessions. These always made me feel guilty. The reasons are well explained in the piece above – ‘Forgiving and handing over’. I will give some examples from my own life of things that were absolutely impossible and things that I can suddenly give place to.
… Different people in the past had told me I had to forgive. Sometimes they only knew a part of my story, sometimes they knew more and the ‘have to forgive’ was softened to ‘learn to forgive’. A couple of years ago I gave in to their insistence, but each time the feeling of guilt overwhelmed me. I became at one point so hard that I didn’t want to do anything anymore. I didn’t set one step towards God anymore. He could just look after it! I held God responsible for my misery, said not one more word to Him. Things have begun to change in my situation especially in the past year – very slowly, for example, I no longer set myself against God, but I still didn’t dare to draw near to Him. Afraid of His love, I think. Afraid also that too much pain would surface all at once.
… In essence it boiled down to the fact I had to (learn to) forgive my mother. I was always full of revenge and hate towards her. To forgive her was, in my eyes, that I would still have to do something “good” towards her, namely cancel her debt of guilt to me. And that’s the reason, indeed, that it has been explained that I was not forgiving her for herself but for MYSELF. I was otherwise just lengthening my own prison.
I had often heard how unforgiving I was. Now that I am writing this I do actually notice that I find the situation quite difficult. On the one hand I was, and am, very relieved that God has everything under His control and can set my case in motion. On the other hand, now as I write this, I become quite angry about what has all been said to me. And above all, there is also the anger for all that has happened to me in the past.
There is one difference, a very important one; now that I know in practice what God wants with forgiveness and handing over I HAVE been able to hand over the situation: I have been able to say to God that He alone must judge.
Above all, I am now able to pray for my mother – sometimes to just ask God to bless her, sometimes more, something that I never could do without guilt, without having the feeling that with praying for her I was giving her something that, in my eyes, she hadn’t earned…
…Just learn to forgive – I am so happy that this is not necessary. Happy also that God has seen everything. I often think that she doesn’t even remember that she molested me. It didn’t happen often, mind you, but the consequences were radical, especially with everything that had already happened. For a long time I was so ashamed about everything that I considered myself in no fit state to tell her what was bothering me, didn’t want to see her again. So, that made forgiving even more impossible. But, then I was told, even if you never see or speak to someone again, you can still (learn to) forgive them, can’t you? “Do you want to learn that?” Yes, if it helped me, yes, definitely!! I am so happy I never pronounced that I had really forgiven….
…Essentially, when it comes down to it, when you HAVE to forgive then handing over becomes an impossibility. That’s my experience: a pure result of the revenge/hate that rose up against God…
…I still think a lot about what happened at that time. I realize also very well that prayers can be answered over a long period of time……I can’t do anything about it, but I am constantly amazed with the sudden breakthrough – it’s just as if I have come to faith all over again….”
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© 06/00 Dick Baarsen,
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English translation: Lorna Verlinden
Philip Yancey on this article:
"I appreciated the thorough, scholarly work done on the subject, but it is also apparent that the author knows this subject intimately and personally.
As I scanned through the pages, I kept coming across the phrase about God being our righteous Judge, and when we have done all we can do to forgive and keep peace with our neighbor and still the relationship is severed, our further recourse is to turn it over to God our Judge and Avenger. I think that's what Paul meant in Romans when he says "Do not take revenge but leave room for God's wrath." I found much to mull over in the article, and will continue to do so. Michael Henderson, Desmond Tutu and especially Lewis Smedes (Dutch heritage!) have been very helpful to me in this topic. Now the author of this work joins the group.
He's done a marvelous job explaining the nuances of forgiveness. Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness in sending the article to me."