Practical Forgiveness

By Rhonda Maydwell

DISCLAIMER: When discussing the Christian response towards one who has sinned against us, it is imperative that it be said plainly at the outset that Christians are not commanded to remain in a dangerous situation or to not involve police or protective agencies when danger is present or possible. While forgiveness is vital to the Christian's spiritual health, physical, emotional, and mental safety are paramount. While we leave judgment and vengeance to God, that does not mean that we avoid authorities who can keep ourselves and others safe. This article is intended to provide a roadmap to a biblical response to sins against a person, and is NOT intended to suggest that victims of abuse or violence should remain in a situation that presents or threatens danger to themselves or others.

One of the most difficult challenges Christians face is responding in a Christ-like matter to someone who has grievously hurt us. Sometimes we question the proper Christian response. In church and our Bible reading we learn to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and leave vengeance to God (Romans 12:19). If we are honest, we have questions such as, "Is it okay to want God to punish the one who offended me? Is there anything I can do to punish or discipline the one who has sinned against me?" When approaching these questions, as I do with other questions I have regarding my response or actions, I look to the example Jesus left us in His teachings and responses during His time on earth. In my personal experience, when dealing with sins against me, I try (and often fail) to act as Jesus does with me when I sin against Him (which, again, is sadly, too often). I don't need the lofty, churchy answer; I need practical wisdom I can apply immediately. In studying Jesus' response to sinners, I find exactly what I am looking for.

First, when someone sins against you, admit that it hurts.
It makes us angry, we feel betrayed, and disregarded when someone sins against us. I imagine that must be very close to what God feels like when I sin against Him, but in His perfect way. God hates sin, it is true. Sometimes I think I forget just why that is — He does not hate sin because of what it does to Him, He hates sin because of what it does to you and me. Sin separates us from His presence (Isaiah 59:2). So our first check when someone sins against us is to question if we are angry at the sinner, or if we righteously want the sinner to be restored to God through repentance. Am I angry at what has been done to me, or do I care about the sinner's salvation or walk with the Lord? Let us not sin in our anger (Ephesians 4:26). God's desire is for the sinner to repent and accept His salvation, and our hearts should be aligned with His. This attitude can only be accomplished through the Holy spirit (Galatians 5:16).

Second, take it to God.
Don't suppress your feelings. God is a safe place to let out your hurt, anger, and frustration when someone has sinned against you. Several Psalms and other passages of the Bible contain imprecatory material — that is a prayer for judgment and vengeance on an enemy. Reading these passages (i.e. Psalms 69:19-28) can be very uncomfortable for the modern Christian, especially when we are taught to love our neighbor, forgive, and show grace to sinners. A proper attitude towards these passages is described by commentary provided by
Contemporary readers, particularly those in more affluent societies, can allow these prayers to help them enter the suffering life of the people of God, to transport them from their relative ease into the ghastly suffering and consternation of persons who have been uprooted, mocked, or abused. These prayers awaken the conscience to the human cry for redress, the cosmic demand for moral order and justice. They can lead one to feel as deeply as one ought at the horrendous insult to Yahweh and his creation perpetrated by those who lie and cheat and kill and abuse and blaspheme. Made callous by exposure to continual evil, one may lose the sense of outrage these evils deserve, whether done to us or to others or to God. These prayers awaken that outrage, which is to be offered to God and which motivates to redemptive action. (Emphasis mine; Asbury Bible Commentary: Part II: The Old Testament)
These prayers are important because they are spoken to God, not the enemy, and they allow for a righteous anger, demonstrate the believer's understanding of God's justice, and lead to redemptive action.

God can handle our big feelings. Pray these prayers with a humble heart that remembers your own forgiven sins against God and others, thanking Him constantly for His mercy and patience with you. Expressing your feelings to God, even passionately, is not the same as wanting God to punish the sinner, however. To want God to punish the sinner is to step into judgment, a job that is reserved for God alone. Christians are wise to heed the words of Jesus in Matthew:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Matthew 7:1-5
If I want God to blot the name of one who has sinned against me from the book of life (Psalm 69:28), am I not then asking for the same treatment if I sin against another or God (gulp)? Is it possible that I am looking so closely at the sin done to me that I am missing my own sin in the situation? If you are anything like me, the answer is "probably so."

Finally, take it to the offender.
So we have determined our response should be one of wishing the one who has sinned against us will find true repentance. We have taken our pain to God, and now we need to know how to respond to the one who offended us. A good illustration for just that is to look at Jesus confronting a sinner. The Book of John tells the story of a woman caught in the act of adultery brought before Him by the Pharisees (John 8:1-11). The Pharisees demanded the woman be stoned as was commanded by the Law. Jesus' response was interesting and new to these Old Testament Jews. Before He uttered a word, Jesus stooped to the ground and began writing in the dust. What was He writing? Many Biblical scholars believe He may have been listing sins: gossip, slander, theft, hate... Jesus then agreed to the punishment with one caveat: The one without sin must throw the first stone. Then he continued writing in the dust. ... coveting, envy, lust, jealousy, rage. Slowly each accuser slipped away, I picture it in my head more as a slinking away. I know I would be. Who am I, a lowly sinner, to pronounce judgment and punishment on another wretch like myself? I find it very telling that the oldest, perhaps the wisest and most mature of the group, left first. Jesus then looks up from His writing. He is now alone with the woman. He stands up, brushing the dust from His hands, and asks her if no one is left to condemn her. She replies there is none, correctly identifying and addressing Jesus as "Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I. Go and sin no more." He forgave her and turned her from her sin. Forgiveness is the saints' response to sin, even sins committed against us.

Forgiveness does not mean approval of or allowance for the sin. Jesus named the sins in the dust and did not dispute that the woman sinned. He did not pretend the sins never happened. He forgave, but that doesn't mean the sinner won't face consequences. Natural consequences such as loss of confidence in the offender is understandable. Some sins against a person result in loss of relationship. You can forgive someone, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're obligated to keep that person in my life, or at the same status or level they once filled. Someone who has stolen from me will not enjoy the same level of trust or access they may have once held in my life. Unless we are in a clear relationship of authority over the sinner (child, employee, pastoral flock), it is not usually our role to discipline, or punish one who sinned against us. And for those who do fall under our authority, we are charged to protect, serve, and pray for the spiritual well-being of those in our charge — discipline would be directed towards restoration.

So, in short the answers to my questions are:

1. As a Christian walks his or her faith towards righteousness (aka, be like Jesus), his or her response to sinners should be a desire for repentance and for the offender to be restored to God and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). Judgment will come, and our desire is for all to know Christ as their Lord and Savior.

2. Like we do to God, sinners will continue to fail (hint — that means you and me). Forgiveness is the response of the one offended by sin, and helping the sinner to seek repentance, even if only in prayer. Unless specifically placed in authority over a person, it is not a Christian's place to punish a sinner. The one offended may certainly find it necessary to take measures to protect him or herself from being continually offended by a sinner.

I find I fall short of God's plan for my life all too frequently. When confronted with one who has harmed or hurt me I wonder why it is that I want God's justice for them, but His mercy and patience for myself? This is my prayer today:
Lord, help me to be more like You every day. Give me Your eyes to see others as You see them — as ones dear to You, and ones You want for all eternity. Father, give me the patience and mercy for others that You shower on me daily. Forgive me when I fail and sin against You and others. Lead me away from the temptation to sin when I have been hurt or angered. Help me to forgive when it is hard, and I really don't want to. Provide for me, opportunities to seek restoration in broken relationships. Thank You, Jesus, that You demonstrate Your perfect love and ways for me to follow. Your amazing grace gives me life. In Jesus' name, Amen.
By demonstrating grace and mercy to those who mean us harm, we are the face of Jesus to a hopeless culture, and we may just gain a brother or sister (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Published 3-13-17