Forgiveness is the greatest virtue! What do you make of that statement? Is there any scripture to back up this claim, that forgiveness is the best virtue, the greatest good work? It’s not in there explicitly, but some parts of the Bible do suggest it. First, unforgiveness is regarded more severely than other sins. Jesus says that if you do not forgive others their sins, God will not forgive yours (Matthew 6:15). So unforgiveness, along with the more mysterious blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31), are both unforgivable sins. Sometimes, people talk about “the unforgivable sin” as though there were only one: the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But there are two. Does it follow from the fact that unforgiveness is among the two sins that our Creator regards most severely, mean that forgiveness, its opposite, must therefore be among the best or even the greatest virtue? it doesn’t mean that necessarily, but it does make sense to think so. In an evil world, full of offenses, forgiveness is the life-blood of love. No love can exist without being fueled by forgiveness. “Love covers a multitude of offenses” (1 Peter 4:8). What is the mechanism by which love covers a multitude of offenses? It can only be forgiveness. It is impossible to be loving in this world without being forgiving. The second reason I think the Bible suggests that forgiveness is the greatest virtue, is that it stands at the very heart of the Christian faith. The Cross is just one massive, cosmic act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the means by which God saved the world, the crucial element of his plan, the linchpin. The forgiveness of God is the thing that overcame Satan and all human evil, the weakness that overpowered the strong, the foolishness that shamed the wise. There would be no Christianity without forgiveness. There would be no grace, no favour from God, no mercy, no heaven, only torment and destruction and hell.
Secular Distortions of Forgiveness
There can be some confusion as to what forgiveness is. As a result of that, I’m going to take a look at some secular versions of forgiveness. The first and most prominent may be “sentimentalist forgiveness”. The idea behind sentimentalist forgiveness is that you forgive in order to effect some sort of catharsis and to make yourself feel better. In this way of thinking, forgiveness is mainly a therapeutic tool. The Christian idea of forgiveness has little to do with emotion ( although it’s not irrelevant, since you have to resist bitter feelings when you decide to forgive). Forgiveness is primarily a decision of the will, but this will have an outworking in your inner life as well as your outward actions. I certainly believe that if forgiveness is practiced as a discipline, it will eventually lead to emotional peace about the event that required forgiveness, but that isn’t the point of it and not the main goal. Anyone looking for immediate catharsis and peace when deciding to forgive is likely to be disappointed ( though they may not be). The second secular distortion of forgiveness is “egoistic forgiveness”. This is the idea that your forgiveness is not for the person you’re forgiving, but for yourself. You’re forgiving only or mainly to help yourself “move on”. Once again, it is certainly true that forgiveness does help you move on, and a life where someone has chosen to forgive will probably look a lot better than the one where they have refused to do it. So it is definitely in your interest to forgive, and it is good to use the the fact that it will be better for you as incentive to forgive, but it is not only for yourself. If you only forgive for yourself and not for the person who wronged you, then you are, in an important sense, missing the whole point of forgiveness in the Christian sense. There is a difference between forgiving someone and the purely pragmatic decision to let it go. The Christian who forgives in obedience to Jesus will forgive even if it has no effect on their emotions and they remain tormented by the event, and even if vengeance would actually improve their life. That is because the Christian who forgives does so primarily out of submission to God’s commands. Another secular distortion of forgiveness is that forgiveness is optional, or that you can forgive “in your own time” or “when you’re ready”, or that forgiveness is optional for large wrongs but obligatory for small wrongs. It’s impossible to be in relationship with people at all without being at least a little forgiving, being patient and forbearing. As we’ve already covered, in the Christian sense, not only is forgiveness always obligatory even in the case of severe wrongs, it is also the one virtue that you don’t want to compromise, given the dire consequences. Finally, another secular distortion of forgiveness is “excusing”. In this vein, people will excuse the person’s actions rather than forgive the action by implying that the wrongdoer wasn’t really responsible. People will sometimes say that determinism, which implies that we are not morally responsible for our behaviour, is the more compassionate view than free will, because you’re not blaming people when they behave wrongly. It makes sense to think of reasons why someone might have acted in the way they did in order to help yourself forgive them, not to mitigate their responsibility, but to help yourself identify with them. In this way, they seem less like a devil and more like a human being. However, it shouldn’t be thought that people don’t have responsibility for their actions. The forgiveness of God and our forgiveness does not say that someone isn’t responsible. It affirms their responsibility absolutely, but then demands no retribution.
What is Forgiveness?
Now that we’ve looked at what forgiveness is not, let’s look at what it is. In order to do that, let’s look at Jesus’s teaching on it.
Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times.“For this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his master commanded that he be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the master of that slave felt compassion, and he released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling, and went and threw him in prison until he would pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their master all that had happened. Then summoning him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his master, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he would repay all that was owed him.My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”Matthew 18:21-35
So the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (the passage above) is full of this concept of debts. The wrongdoing that is forgiven ( or not forgiven) is represented by a debt of money that you owe someone else. The implication of this is fairly clear. Whenever you wrong someone, a debt is created and the worse the wrong, the larger the debt. This is lex taliones. Whatever you took can rightfully be taken from you, life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise (Exodus 21:22-25). And the Bible recognizes the validity of this principle.
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.Hebrews 9:22
So whenever you do wrong, whether against God or human beings, a debt is created, a debt of blood. And that debt must be balanced, one way or another. No debts will remain outstanding. This principle forms the foundation for the Cross or Jesus’s sacrifice for our sin. If we repent and put our faith in Jesus, then we have forgiveness of our sins through Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. That means that if we’ve received forgiveness from God for our blood debts, there can be no business of demanding that others pay their blood debts to you. If you receive forgiveness for your blood debt, then demanding payment from others serves as an implicit rejection of God’s forgiveness, because God doesn’t apply different standards to different people. God doesn’t show favouritism. So, rejecting mercy for others is a rejection of mercy for yourself. If you reject mercy for others, you have rejected the gospel and are now an apostate, unforgiven by God.
So if you demand that others pay their debts of blood, God will also demand payment from you. You cannot live in light of God’s mercy while demanding that others live in light of God’s justice. But you don’t want to live in God’s justice. You can take a look at the world before Christ, the ancient world, and you have some small inkling of what it is to live in God’s justice rather than his mercy. Not to mention, if you want to live in God’s justice, then your destination is hell. So, Jesus’s principle of forgiveness is primarily about vengeance, quite literally about “getting even”, about attempting to balance moral debts yourself, about attempting to punish others for what they’ve done to you, about trying to “teach them a lesson”. Forgiveness for Jesus is refraining from vengeance. So, according to the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, forgiveness is primarily about moral liability and not directly related to relational reconciliation ( though it’s not irrelevant to that either, as we will cover later). But notice the statement right at the end of the passage quoted (Matthew 18:35): “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” So there is emphasis here on forgiving the other person “from your heart.” This is to be expected. One important thing that sets Jesus apart from other moral teachers is that he places a great deal of moral significance on the inner world of intentions and motivations, on cleaning the inside of the cup, so that the outside will also be clean (Matthew 23:25-26). In the same way, he says that not merely murder, but being angry with someone will bring you into judgment (Matthew 5:21-22). John says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). So clearly, forgiveness cannot be merely outward. If you’ve forgone vengeance outwardly, you must forego it inwardly as well. If you don’t commit vengeance or don’t try to, but you still fantasize about it, indulge bitter feelings, and nurse a grudge, then you have not truly forgiven. In other words, you must forgive “from your heart” as Jesus says in the final verse of the parable. If you only forego vengeance outwardly, but not inwardly, you are like a Pharisee who is clean on the outside, but full of hatred on the inside. Forgiveness is primarily a matter of the will, because we have minimal control over our emotions. The crucial thing is to make the decision to forgive and not to attempt to punish your wrongdoer. We can’t help bitter feelings that arise, but we can control whether we indulge them ( which we must not do).
How does one forgive? The most obvious way is simply to avoid vindictive actions as well as bitter thoughts and feelings. But there is another teaching of Jesus that seems quite relevant to forgiveness.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:21-26
So here we have a clue. Who is your enemy but the person who wronged you, the person who you’re trying to forgive? Based on the fact that these are different passages, I don’t think we should say that you will not be forgiven by God unless you pray for your enemies, or that forgiveness necessarily requires praying for enemies. The crucial thing is to refuse vengeance in both thought and deed. Failing to do this will result in God’s refusal to forgive you. However, failing to pray for the sake of the person who harmed you will not result in God’s refusal to forgive you (as far as I can tell), but it is still commanded (which means it is not optional). We are commanded by Jesus to pray for our enemies, and our enemies most naturally applies to those we are trying to forgive, or those who have wronged us most severely. Therefore, we are obligated to pray for those we are trying to forgive. So you must pray for the person you’re trying to forgive and wish them well ( which is what is implied in loving your enemy and praying for them). I believe that praying for your enemies and wishing them well is, with the help of God, the thing that eventually sets people free from their hurts, both volitionally and emotionally. Learning to develop goodwill for the person who wronged you is important. All of this must also be covered in prayers for God’s help, because no one can forgive without God’s help.
Am I Unforgiven?
Anyone who reads Jesus’s saying that God will not forgive those who refuse to forgive and who takes it seriously may worry that some unforgiveness in their past has now ensured an irrevocable one-way ticket to hell.
For if you forgive other people for their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses.Matthew 6:14-15
Interpreting that saying as meaning that any form of unforgiveness on our part immediately results in eternal damnation, seems like an extreme interpretation, or the most unfavourable interpretation one can take. If that is what it means, then we are all doomed, because it’s probably true that every person has indulged unforgiveness to at least some extent. Any times you’ve lashed out in anger, any time you’ve indulged a fantasy of vengeance, this would then mean you are now hell-bound and there is nothing you can do about it. This seems to mean that no one will be in heaven or only the very, very saintly. An interpretation that makes more sense is that you are unforgiven by God insofar as you refuse to forgive. This means that if you at one point in your life refused to forgive and committed vengeance, then, for that period of time, you were unforgiven by God (an apostate or false Christian). But, then you made the decision to forgive, you repent of your unforgiveness, and now you are forgiven again.
There are few things that so clearly invites terrible consequences into someone’s life as unforgiveness that has been pursued. People who indulge their unforgiveness become consumed by personal vendettas and it eats up their lives. It truly has the wrath of God written all over it. But does that mean there is no hope for such a person? No, if they repent of their unforgiveness, and make the decision to forgive, they will again be forgiven by God. The wreckage of their unforgiveness is still there, but God will also make all things new. The more you indulge unforgiveness, the deeper you dig the pit in which you stand and the deeper you dig your pit, the more difficult it is to get out. Eventually, if you dig deep enough, the pit opens up into hell. But praise our God who can save people from even the deepest pits! No matter where you are, don’t despair, God is holding out his hand to you.
Is Christian Forgiveness Conditional or Unconditional?
Forgiveness, in the sense described here by Jesus, the foregoing of the blood debt, or the foregoing of vengeance in both thought and deed, must be unconditional. There are some people who believe forgiveness must ( or can be) conditional, but that unconditional forgiveness is optional and there are some Christians who believe this. Conditional forgiveness means that someone first has to express repentance in order to be forgiven by you. It is possible that their conception of forgiveness is really relational reconciliation (which is not the definition Jesus seems to give in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant). But if that is not the case, if they agree that forgiveness means the foregoing of vengeance, then conditionality in forgiveness must mean that it’s okay to commit vengeance until someone repents. Tim Challies here argues for conditional forgiveness based on a three scriptures (Matthew 6:12, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13), which all repeat the idea that we must forgive as God has forgiven us. Tim Challies interprets that as saying that our forgiveness must look exactly like God’s (implying that our forgiveness must be conditional). Once again, it looks like Challies is defining forgiveness as relational reconciliation, which isn’t the biblical definition of human forgiveness. The “as” in these passages are ambiguous. It makes more sense to me to think these passages are saying that we must forgive because God has forgiven us, not that we must forgive in exactly the same way as God. This interpretation has support from the Parable of Unmerciful Servant. The king in the parable believes that the forgiveness he conferred creates an obligation on the servant to forgive others as well. Thus, the king says in Matthew 18:33, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” The context of the parable makes it clear what the king means, simply that the servant hadn’t forgiven as he had been forgiven. For example, if I tell you that you must give me a present “as” or “in the same way” I gave you one last Christmas, I don’t mean that you must give me exactly the same present in exactly the same way ( that you use the same wrapping paper, that you give it at the same time, at the same place, surrounded by the same Christmas decorations). I just mean that, since I gave you a present, you should give me one too. The rationale for forgiveness in one of the passages that Challies cites supports the interpretation that the “as” is denoting the implication of an obligation based on God’s forgiveness. Matthew 6:12 is one line in the Lord’s prayer, but Jesus further explains this statement a verse later:
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’
For if you forgive other people for their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses.Matthew 6:12-15
So, it’s clear from the explanation Jesus gives in verse 14 and 15, that the forgiveness “as” God forgives, is to forgive because God forgives you. If you haven’t forgiven, God will not forgive you as you have not forgiven others. But if you do forgive, God will forgive you as you have decided to forgive others. The prayer “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” is implying that we only get God’s forgiveness to the extent that we have forgiven others. That is the meaning of the “as” here. So the rationale is: “Since you’ve been forgiven by God, you must also forgive”. The rationale is not: “Your forgiveness must be exactly like God’s forgiveness in every way.” Furthermore, we cannot forgive in the same way God forgives. God’s forgiveness provides absolution. Ours does not. God forgives people when they both repent and place their faith in Jesus. Does that mean we should only forgive people who wronged us when they become Christians (i.e. when they become believers?). So this way of thinking doesn’t make sense.
But apart from that, there are several problems with conditional forgiveness. Firstly, conditional forgiveness ( if forgiveness is conceived as forgoing vengeance) implies that vengeance is acceptable until the person repents. However, the Bible categorically rejects vengeance. Romans 12:19 says “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Paul goes on to quote Deuteronomy 32:35, which says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay…” Leviticus 19:18, Proverbs 20:22, Proverbs 24:29 all contain the same repudiation of vengeance. The Bible is very clear that any form of revenge is wrong and that taking revenge is to do something that is reserved for God alone ( and thus usurping his position and authority). This also means that you must always, regardless of whether the person has repented or not, keep yourself pure from fantasies and deeds of vengeance ( and refuse to indulge feelings of vindictiveness and bitterness). What else can it mean to say that you can be unforgiving until someone repents, but to say that you can take revenge until they say they are sorry? If it’s not that, it isn’t clear what exactly you’re giving yourself license to do if you say that you only have to forgive if someone repents.
Furthermore, conditional forgiveness requires disobedience to other parts of New Testament teaching. To enjoy fantasies of vengeance or to jump at the opportunity to take revenge is clearly to hate someone, to desire their suffering and destruction and even to take pleasure in this. To hate someone is to be guilty of murder and to be bereft of eternal life (1 John 3:15). Jesus also said the person who is angry with someone else is subject to judgment ( Matthew 5:22). Conditional forgiveness also violates Jesus’s command to love and pray for and do good to enemies (Matthew 5:43-48, Romans 12:20). The passage in Matthew 5:43-48 (quoted earlier) requires doing and wishing good on those who are still busy wronging you. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is present tense. In other words, you are to pray for those who are at this moment persecuting you ( and therefore, clearly have not repented). This passage also perfectly contradicts Challies’s rationale for conditional forgiveness ( in saying that we should forgive conditionally, because that is what God does), because Jesus’s rationale for why we should love and pray for enemies and those who persecute us, is “so that you may be like your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:45-48). Challies is, however, correct that God’s forgiveness is conditional. Does that really mean that God is demanding a standard from us that he does not himself meet? No, because God’s forgiveness means something completely different than human forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is absolution from moral justice, while human forgiveness is not that. If you forgive someone they are not absolved from moral justice and if you refuse to forgive someone that doesn’t mean that absolution is refused them. God is not letting go of some grudge when he forgives. We’ve already read, from Jesus’s teaching, that God blesses and loves both the evil and the good, so it’s clear that God does forgive the wicked in some sense without their repentance, because he does good to them. But he does not grant them absolution from moral justice without their repentance and faith. God may bless them in various ways, but without repentance and faith, they are still under God’s judgment and hell bound. God’s unforgiveness also doesn’t imply a vindictive wish and the taking of pleasure in someone’s destruction ( as it does in the case of the unforgiving human), because he prefers that the wicked repents and lives rather than come under his judgment and die (Ezekiel 18:23). So God’s “unforgiveness” contains no pleasure in destruction and death, no bitterness, as human unforgiveness does. The only ground for our forgiveness, according to the Bible, is that we must forgive based on the fact that God has forgiven us, not that we must forgive based on the repentance of our wrongdoer. This is very clear from the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant and Colossians 3:13. The scriptures that Challies appeals to are echoing this principle. So the idea that Christian forgiveness is conditional is untenable for multiple reasons.
Does Forgiveness Always Mean Non-Retaliation?
As we’ve covered, Jesus’s teaching of forgiveness is about foregoing vengeance, about not attempting to punish our wrongdoer, and not being motivated in any way by ill will and bitterness in our behaviour toward them. But does that mean that we are never to take any action that may disadvantage our wrongdoer? If nothing must be done from an attempt to punish, if nothing must be done from a motivation of vengeance, then there could be some basis for action against them ( but not for the purpose of vengeance). Furthermore, in Matthew 18:15, there is a conflict resolution process that someone can ( presumably legitimately) follow, which includes escalating complaints if someone refuses to repent for something wrong they did to you. So, this seems to imply that Jesus didn’t believe that forgiveness was incompatible with such a complaint. Clearly, if we have truly forgiven we will be reluctant to do anything that may hurt our wrongdoer and we will wish them well. However, Jesus did teach explicitly about non-retaliation, separately from his teaching about forgiveness:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.Matthew 5:38-42
So this isn’t directly about forgiveness, but it seems relevant. There are some Christians (like Quakers and the Amish) who have taken these principles absolutely. One thing, as already mentioned, that qualifies the above is the conflict resolution or excommunication process in Matthew 18:15, which instructs someone to complain to the church about wrongdoing against them if they failed to repent when privately rebuked. This is a type of retaliation. Jesus chased merchants out of the temple (Matthew 21:12) which seems to be a form of resisting evil people. As Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers says, both Jesus and Paul protested when struck (Paul quite vehemently), but did not respond violently (John 18:22 and Acts 23:3). So it is qualified, but if these are legitimate qualifications, should we assume they are the only legitimate qualifications? Some people have used these principles to argue for pacifism as political policy. But we should know that if non-retaliation is to be our public policy, then it implies not merely pacifism, but anarchism, because then, retaliation against criminals and the violent subjugation of them by the state, would be immoral as well. It doesn’t seem like this is what is implied, because Jesus did not frame his teaching as political policy. It was aimed at the individual as they went about their daily lives, their personal motivations, and their dealings with their friends, acquaintances, family and others who cross their path. That doesn’t mean that Jesus’s teaching is irrelevant to public policy. Certainly, Jesus’s teachings means that a war of vengeance is out of the question. There should be a very good reason not based on recompense for injury. Also, it’s possible to punish criminals in a spirit of forgiveness with humane punishments. The officers of the law ( police, prosecutors, judges and prison guards) should not be motivated by hatred against the criminals. And there should be an attempt made to reintegrate them into society, and certainly into churches, when they have served their sentence. (Of course, church should ideally be available in the prison as well). The officers of the state are also said to have divine authority and are agents of God’s wrath (Romans 13:2-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14).
But if we say that Jesus’s teachings are aimed at the individual, that doesn’t entirely solve the non-retaliation conundrum. It’s all very well and good to say that societies should have police that enforce the law, but when is it okay for a Christian to enlist the police against someone else? What about self-defense when you are in imminent danger? Is it okay to phone the police or to seriously injure or kill your assailant? I’ve always been taught that this is justifiable, and perhaps because your hurting the other person is based on a desire to save yourself not a desire to destroy the other. But is it justifiable based on the teaching of non-retaliation? None of the scenarios that Jesus appeals to for non-retaliation are life-threatening, as is pointed out here. It may be that Jesus is mainly talking against the impulse to retaliate in response to personal humiliation and insult or petty litigation and similar wrongs. Craig Keener highlights the fact that Jesus may also be referring here to the practice of vindicating your honor through retaliation.[i] What about acting on legal claims? What about pressing charges when you’ve been the victim of a crime? What about lodging complaints against someone at your church or workplace?
We can divide these issues into two categories: one where you stand to get something back and another where you don’t. The cases where you stand to get something back, such as when people are still busy wronging you and you want to get them to stop ( so you complain), or something important ( like your savings) was stolen from you and you want it back (without desiring negative consequences in the life of the thief). Another category is where people are no longer wronging you, and where you don’t stand to get anything back, but you are considering complaining. The first scenario is more easily justifiable than the second. But does that mean the second is necessarily unforgiving or against Jesus’s teaching of non-retaliation? These are difficult questions and I’m not going to attempt blanket answers to them. What we can say based on Jesus’s ethic of forgiveness is that nothing should ever be done from a motive of vengeance, i.e. from a desire to destroy the person who wronged you. So make the decision to forgive first, and then decide what you’re going to do. Secondly, I think it’s good to push the ethic of non-retaliation as far as you can in your personal life and to err on the side of non-retaliation. This is the advice Paul gave the Corinthians who were suing each other in secular courts:
Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather suffer the wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves do wrong and defraud. And this to your brothers and sisters!1 Corinthians 6:7
But being forgiving doesn’t mean being unwise. If someone is repeatedly stomping on your foot, it isn’t unforgiving to take your foot out of the way and to put your foot where it isn’t vulnerable to more stomping. Avoiding danger from evil people is just a sensible thing to do.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wary as serpents, and as innocent as doves.Matthew 10:16
It’s easy to get caught up in the “hard cases”. Jesus’s teachings often resist reduction to a moral calculus or formula, which will tell you exactly how to behave in different scenarios. You may never have to face any of the hard cases, and even if you have in the past, does that mean you will in the future? Commit to following the principles in your daily life without worrying exactly how you will have to apply them in extreme situations.
Forgiveness in Relationships and Community
Sometimes, when people say “forgiveness” they mean (or they think you mean) remaining in relationship with the wrongdoer or relational reconciliation. Jesus’s teaching of forgiveness, as we’ve covered, is about vengeance, not specifically about relationships, which means that it is not necessarily unforgiving to end a relationship after a wrong. For example, Jesus said that divorce is legitimate for sexual immorality (Matthew 19:9), but ( my belief is) that it would still be commendable to remain married even if there was sexual immorality. Clearly, forgiveness is relevant to relationships, especially when it comes to family. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul says that people who fail to take care of their relatives have denied the faith and are “worse than an unbeliever”. So, even if you’ve ended relationships with relatives, that doesn’t mean you have no obligation to them. The Christian duty of love and mercy extend to all, whether or not you are in a relationship with them (but especially to family). Instructions for relational reconciliation are not explicitly given in the Bible (as far as I know), so these are my thoughts on the matter, informed by Christian morality more generally. Relationships are of different kinds. We should strive for an attitude of unconditional reconciliation with our spouses and family members, except maybe in the cases of severe wrongs. Other relationships are more superficial, and ending such relationships are not a big deal. In fact, they often end on their own. Friends grow apart or you move to a different place and lose contact. Forgiveness is relevant in that you’re not going to end (serious) relationships for small wrongs. If you do end the relationship from a desire to hurt the other, or from a motive of vengeance, then you have violated Jesus’s teaching of forgiveness. In most cases where forgiveness is required, the person who wronged you probably has no inclination to seek friendship with you, so this will not be a common thing. But if they do, showing kindness to someone as a friend rather than merely as a stranger, is something I believe God will reward (but once again, it’s important to do so with wisdom while having regard for your own safety if there is need for such concern.) Finally, there is also “forgiveness” in terms of community. The Bible addresses this in terms of the church community, which is also conditional. This refers to excommunication and when it is terminated ( which will happen when the person who was excommunicated repents).
One unfortunate part of Western society is the proliferation of victim narratives and the promotion of victim mentality as a way to respond to wrongs. No matter how severe the wrong that was done to you, probably the worst and most self-destructive way you can respond to it is to develop a victim mentality or a grievance mentality. When you develop a victim mentality, you define yourself according to the wrong that was done to you. Everything bad in your life, maybe even all your own bad decisions, are explainable as outcomes of this wrong ( or wrongs). Victim narratives tend to focus on an oppositional superstructure that constantly causes people to hold you down. Alternatively, you believe that the trauma that is the result of the wrong holds you down and makes your life miserable from day to day. This means that your whole identity and self-concept becomes built around that wrong or wrongs, or the fact that you are oppressed by this societal superstructure. This also means that you will by definition never be free of the wrong, because you’ve defined yourself by it. To the extent that you’ve defined yourself according to a wrong, it will be much more difficult to forgive it, because your self-concept is now tied to it. The wrongdoer is seen as being responsible for “destroying your life”, not merely the thing they did, which makes it harder to forgive them.
Your responsibility to God’s commands become secondary to your victimhood. You’re not responsible for what you do, because it is just the result of people holding you down or your trauma. If God is compassionate, surely he doesn’t blame you for it? No, but he does. Any compassion that absolves someone of responsibility for wrong action is always a perversion of compassion. It is a dehumanization. God’s forgiveness never excuses us, or tells us that we’re not really responsible. God’s forgiveness affirms our responsibility absolutely and without compromise, and demands that we do so as well, and then forgives us without reprisal. If you’re hearing a voice that tells you that your suffering justifies a wrong action, that is not the voice of God. It is the voice of false compassion. In this way, a victim mentality creates backsliding and apostasy, because if you don’t believe you are responsible for your sins, you will not be repentant for them. A victim identity creates the illusion of innocence. The victim narrative focuses on the archetypal innocent that is preyed on without provocation by the oppressor or victimizer. We are all looking for justification, for release from our shame and guilt. A victim mentality is one way to do that, and that is why it is attractive. It is a way to render ourselves innocent. But this is another place where a victim mentality is incompatible with Christianity. The gospel says that we are all sinners deserving of hell and we only have justification, only have vindication, and only have innocence in the mercy of God and in the person of Jesus. There is no vindication for us in God’s justice, only punishment.
Even though Matthew 18:15 makes provision for complaints, it’s good to beware of complaints that become vendettas that never end. By “never” I mean literally “never”. People become consumed by the fact they were wronged, and exchange an identity in Christ for an identity as victim. Since they’ve defined themselves by the wrong that was done to them, they are never able to move beyond it but remain tormented by it into eternity.
[i] Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1999) Kindle Edition, Location 5832- 5943