March 27, 2023 Andrew Kitchen
You need to forgive and move on. Right? Or maybe it’s actually very wrong. Someone has said terrible things to you, accused you, treated you harshly, possibly spiritually abused you in a church setting and now you are being told to forgive your perpetrator, because, … you know, forgiveness is what Christians are supposed to do.
This scenario has played out on more than one occasion. It’s common! So how to deal with it when it comes your way?
The first thing to recognise is that this kind of language is very simply an extension of the original abuse. It is a simple bid to excise the perpetrator from any repentance or restorative action. It’s a lot easier to trundle out these seven words than to perform any serious introspection. Hey, if it works five times out of ten it’s worth it. If it works one time out of ten it’s still worth it. Avoiding accountability for actions has a big payoff.
But, holy smokes…the carnage. The damage. The destruction. The trauma. For. Years. There is a very cynical, carnal, demonic play going on here. ‘If I can just put it back on them to grapple with their not so-well-informed notions around their need to forgive, I stand a pretty good chance of manipulating up a leave pass.” See it for what it actually is people. I hope this article fleshes out a framework for you to deal with these manipulative and abusive calls for “forgiveness”.
Even God can’t forgive without repentance.
God, who by nature is the very definition of love (1 Jn 4:8) requires atonement for forgiveness of the wrong to be possible. The gospel declares this price was paid by Jesus on our behalf because we simply don’t have the readies. And from our part, we have to at least apprehend that fact and completely re-orient – otherwise known as repentance. So, any idea of “forgive and move on” didn’t work with God, so perhaps it doesn’t need to work with you either.
If your brother or sister sins against you (Lk 17:1-5)
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!
The first thing to notice here is that Jesus is on the side of the stumbler. If someone causes a follower of Jesus to stumble (one of the little ones), Jesus takes detailed notice of that. He expects that this will happen, but he is extremely unhappy with the perpetrator. Drowning would be a better end for them. That is how Jesus feels about someone who causes another to stumble.
So, what to do about it? Well, here Jesus invites you to rebuke them, to turn them back. The language here is “what you are doing is not right”. If someone sins against you they have violated someone created in the image of God. This is an affront to the owner of the image, which is why the owner is giving the authority right here in this passage to rebuke the perpetrator. Your job then is to forgive, if they repent. It’s conditional. “If” is a conditional word. This is what Jesus is saying. Until they repent, they are owing a debt.
Further to this, Mt 18:17 encourages us to point out to the perpetrator their sin against you:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they 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 they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Mt 18:15-17)
The Biblical advice here is to go and point out their fault. This is language such as: “when you said/did x to me you have sinned against me/acted unlovingly/were harsh with me” etc.
Again, Jesus sets the expectation that this may not work the first time, but at least you’ve said it.
Step two is to take one or two others with you for a second encounter. You are revisiting the same charges in this meeting as this is still an unresolved matter. If still unresolved, go wider again to the community. If still unresolved you are under no obligation to fellowship with them or be near them. Hopefully church discipline will come into play in solidarity.
All very well in theory I know. But what if this person is a spouse or a church ministry leader of some kind and it’s not so easy to get away from them? There are no simple answers here. You may have to leave for a time, but get good, trusted advice before doing that. There is a consistent teaching here on the importance of speaking directly to the perpetrator and stating their specific sin. This of course can seem like an impossibility, the cost of the blow-back might seem too high. Perhaps write a short letter. Again get some trusted advice if you can. Shouldn’t be this hard of course but toxic situations are not absent in churches unfortunately.
Restitution is a very clear concept found in the Old Testament. Exodus 22 talks a lot about this concept. For example:
Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. (Ex 22:3).
Wow. This restitution thing is hard core. There is no getting away from it. Sell yourself if you have to, perhaps you will learn not to do it again.
In Leviticus, restitution is linked with their guilt offering. So, someone has stolen or extorted something, or lied. They must make restitution -- pay it back plus 20% on the day they present their guilt offering. This action pre-supposes repentance. You are not going to accept the responsibility and cost of the guilt offering if you have not repented. And you are not going be able to simply “go quietly” with hush money. You have to publicly declare you acceptance of personal wrong-doing AND make restitution at the same time if you are the perpetrator.
While we are in Leviticus it is worth noting that if you kill an animal you must pay restitution. If you kill a man, you must be put to death. (Lev. 24:21). This goes to the point of the gross offence of laying a hand on the Lord’s image-bearer noted above.
This concept continues on in Numbers:
The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the LORD is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged. (Num. 5:5-7).
Again notice the link between wronging another person, confession and admission of guilt by the perpetrator, full restitution plus damages to the person they have wronged.
What about Matthew 5? (And Matthew 6, and Matthew 18)
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Mt 5:14-15)
See also Mt 6:14-15, and Mt 18:21-35 – Parable of the unmerciful servant.
It could be argued, and likely has been argued, that restitution, public confession and so forth are Old Testament teachings that no longer apply, and that now, in the New Testament, you “just need to forgive” 490 times.
Yet, somehow that interpretation doesn’t feel quite right now does it? So, where are the Scriptures and what is the argument in the New Testament then?
In 1 Cor 5:10-11 Paul is dealing with the case of the unrepentant man who is sleeping with his father’s wife while happily continuing in fellowship with the church. This is a bridge too far as Paul writes:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Cor 5:9-11).
But Paul, shouldn’t you be forgiving this person? Well, apparently not. What he is advocating is that any one inside the church claiming to be a brother or sister, but is sexually immoral, greedy, idolatrous, a drunkard or a swindler, doesn't need to be in that fellowship. Why? Because they will cause harm. Reputational and/or actual harm. The required action is for them to repent, and the clear withdrawal of fellowship helps them to move in that direction.
You’re just bitter.
See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Heb. 12:15)
You bitter trouble-maker you. Your bitterness will defile many it says. But maybe your unresolved feelings are not the same thing as what this passage is talking about. Manipulators are great at performing sleight-of-tongue pivots on words. Watch out for that.
The previous verse has just been saying:
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Heb 12:14).
If Heb 12:15 is to apply to you, then Heb 12:14 applies to them right? Is every effort being made here to live in peace and be holy? Every effort? Any effort? Is there unholiness going on here?
As to what the bitter root actually is, see Deut 29:18:
Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
So unless you are actively in the business of worshiping other gods and luring others away to do the same, your feelings of deep injustice don’t really meet the Heb 12:16 criteria.
In your anger, do not sin. (Eph 4:26)
You shouldn’t be angry you know. It’s not Christian….
Except for the fact that the founder of Christianity got angry over justice and abuse issues himself:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me. (Jn 2:13-17)
You guys shouldn’t be doing this here. Get out!
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mk 3:5)
I want to heal this guy and you don’t.
God got angry too (Heb 3:10-11).
Sometimes anger is warranted. Just don’t get there too quickly:
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (Jas 1:19-20)
Jesus cares about injustice, because he is God and that is God’s heart too.
Back to Ephesians 4 now. The full passage is:
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 4:25-32)
So many points here:
- Again the need for truthful feedback, although difficult, is clear (4:25).
- In your anger do not sin is a quote from Ps 4:4. It speaks of trusting God and deep reflection. Must get to the point of control over the anger. Not even passive aggressive speech needs to pass your lips.
- Don’t let the sun go down. Don’t let it fester. Deal with issues promptly. Same day if possible. (Eph 4:26)
- Don’t give the devil a foothold – best done by keeping accounts short and using frank communication. (Eph 4:27)
- Actual repentance is required, on everybody’s part. (Eph 4:28)
- Watch the speech! What people say is important. If there is abuse coming your way that person is in violation of this verse. The command here is to build others up not tear them down. But same goes for you too. (Eph 4:29)
- This kind of stuff grieves God. It’s serious. (Eph 4:30)
- Get rid of the bitterness and the rage, the slander and the malice. Get rid of it. Again, if it’s coming your way, the fault lies with the perpetrator. They need to deal with whatever sinful motivation is producing this kind of behaviour. (Eph 4:31)
- What relationships should be looking like: kind and compassionate. Everything else is an aberration. (Eph 4:32)
A final word
Jesus was deprived of justice, he knows what it is like:
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth. (Acts 8:33)
Nonetheless the cornerstone of his kingdom is justice:
But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy. (Heb 5:8-9)
What we are looking for here from abusive perpetrators is repentance that leads them to want to see justice done.
See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:11).
So, the next time you are expected to “just forgive” an unrepentant, gain strength and conviction from these Biblical teachings. Rebuke calmly and frankly. God is on your side.