Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Forgiving People Who Do OTHERS Harm

Let's take another moment to examine this idea of forgiving a mass murderer.

You have heard people talk of our need to "forgive" the young man who brutally murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech.

Once again I think that words are important because they communicate ideas. The wrong use of a word very often leads to misguided and wrong opinions and those lead to wrong responses or actions. Such is the case with this talk of us having to "forgive" this or any other person who does someone else grievous and often deadly wrong.

As you know, I am a pastor and a person who takes the teachings of Christ seriously and a person who is just as challenged as you are in applying them to one's own life.

First I would note that Jesus DOES command us to forgive. In teaching us to pray, there is that clear part that says "...forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us..."

But take another good look at that command. It does NOT say that we are to forgive those who sin "against others" but who sin "against us." This leads us to the first responsibility Jesus lays on us of WHO we are to forgive: those who sin "against us" personally.

From this, it is clear from the teaching of Jesus (as well as common sense, at least to those who still have theirs!) that a person NOT directly sinned against DOES NOT have either the right to forgive that wrong-doer NOR the responsibility to do so.

Now don't get all worked up! I'm not done yet!

Think about it: If Person A sins against Person B, what right does Person C (who was not DIRECTLY wronged) have to absolve Person A of guilt and need of punishment? Example: If someone steals your identity and ruins your credit, what right or responsibility do I have to forgive them of this grievous wrong? NONE ! The wrong was done against you, not me. And what does my "forgiveness" of them accomplish for them? NOTHING! In fact, it may just give them reason to do it again to someone else, since I am in such a mood as to forgive them, like nothing happened!

"But, but", some of you will say, "but I know about what happened to that other person and it hurts me that they did this wrong, so I have to forgive them!"

Look, there is a HUGE difference between the harm that person did to someone else and the side affects it has on you. They are NOT the same thing and so the response is not exactly the same.

True, if you are emotionally effected you have to respond PROPERLY to the evil done or else you will either become a basket case or you will become bitter. But the issue is NOT having to "forgive" the wrong-doer but choosing not to allow hatred and bitterness to govern your life, nor to poison other people with your excessive anger at wrong and evil!

Now let us also note that the parents, siblings, spouses, etc of those who were murdered at V. Tech. WERE directly affected by this young man. They will have to deal with the grief and pain. But is FORGIVENESS what they need to express?

NO !

You cannot "forgive" a dead person, folks!

Let go of the garbage psycho-tripe that you have been taught! You cannot "forgive" a dead person for there is nothing that it does to HELP them! They are DEAD! And YOU are not God, who alone can forgive sins finally and ultimately.

The purpose of forgiveness is NOT PRIMARILY for your benefit but for them. It's purpose is to "clear the slate" and make it possible for renewed friendship and fellowship. But how can you have restored fellowship with a dead person?

Forgiveness's effect on you is totally SECONDARY to the issue of forgiveness! As needful as having a forgiving, gracious attitude is, as wonderful as the relief that comes from true forgiveness, it is SECONDARY to the purpose of forgiveness.

Let me give you an example: Let's say someone abused you as a child. Let's say all your life you were never able to come to grips with confronting them about their sin. And they never repented of it, they never asked for forgiveness, they never expressed grief over what they did. And you know that as a result you either had little or no relationship with them of any value. NOW, let's say they died. NOTHING has changed in them and yet psycho-babble says, "Now you can forgive them!" WHAT? WHY? Are you going to absolve them eternally of their unrepented sins? Have you forgotten that they also sinned against God in doing this to you, that you are not the only one they wronged but a holy God as well?

"Oh, no, you misunderstand", says the psycho-babbler, "forgiveness is about letting go of the past and moving on!"

Once again, words have meaning and to make forgiveness about YOU is to destroy the very essence of forgiveness as a concept!

No, the need is not that you forgive them but that you choose not to dwell upon it any more, leaving that person in the qualified hands of Almighty God who is the Judge of the universe. It is now past. That person is now in the hands of God who will justly judge and punish them for their sins. Let go and let God take care of them (Romans 12, later part of the chapter, read it, PLEASE!) God has BETTER things for you if you will allow Him to handle the issue now! His peace can be yours now.

So in closing on this post, let's stop using the word "forgive" in relation to a dead person. Instead let us apply the truth to our hearts that we need not concern ourselves with the dead because they are in God's hands now.

He can "wipe away the tears from your eyes" as you choose to focus on His will for your life and His love for you, rather than the hurts, direct or indirect, from those who are now dead.


  1. Good article. I know this is 2 years old, but what do I do with the built up feelings from someone who has hurt me repetitively and sought no repentance?

    I try focusing on God, but the feelings keep bubbling up to the surface anyway

  2. Sorry for the delay in responding! Since I do not know all the circumstances surrounding your situation I can only offer general advice (which I hope is biblical, not personal opinion.)

    First let me say that we all wish that we could live at peace with everyone. But because that is not always a reality it is quite natural to have "feelings keep bubbling up to the surface" when we are reminded of their sins against us (because we see them in person, or think of it because of something else that happens.) To have no feelings would not be natural. Even God, though He loves, is "angry with the wicked every day" (Psalm 7:11) because love cares, and love seeks to protect what is good and those who are good. Obviously, God does not "take it out" on the wicked every day (though sometimes we wish He would!) So how does God keep from being "an angry God" 24/7? He chooses to focus on His beloved children. I appreciate your comment of "I try focusing on God..." Good! But I would also encourage you to focus on those about you who are growing in the Lord and are an encouragement to you in Christ.

    Remember that while feelings come...they also go. As you center your life more and more around the Lord and His people who love you and care for you, then you will find that you can more quickly "let go" of those feelings of hurt. We are not to be lead by our feelings but by our faith in the Lord.

    Secondly, the gravity of the sin done against you is an important consideration. Let's face it: sometimes we make "a mountain out of a molehill." (I am not saying that you have in this case, but far to many people do.) Some things we must plain overlook (Proverbs 19:11). Some things we must grant patience and longsuffering to another because of the circumstances they may be going through (Colossians 3:13 New Living Translation or 1 Peter 3:7 for example.) Some times we have to take into account their level of spiritual maturity (I would grant a new believer more time to change, for example). We must seek the Lord for grace to be patient and "suffer long" with them, just as the Lord does with us.

    However, when the sin is truly, biblically grievous and cannot be "overlooked" any more then one must approach that person (Matthew 18:15-16) seeking reconciliation (not retaliation!)
    This is no guarantee of success, but if we do our part God's way then there is a higher degree of success.

    But if it fails then God has not left us without instruction or hope (Matthew 18:17; Matthew 5:43-45; Romans 12:17-21)

    (more to follow)

  3. Again I do not know your exact circumstances but let me assume for the moment that you are an adult and that other person is NOT related to you by marriage. If the feelings occur because you see them often (and you have sought humbly and biblicaly already to reconcile with them) then you must make the difficult choice to remove yourself from their presence (1 Corinthians 15:33) until they "get it", confess and repent. This does not mean that you are "harboring resentment" against them (that is not biblically allowed) but that you must avoid people and situations that are temptations to sin or give into sin.

    However, if you are an adult and are related to that person by marriage, and you have applied the biblical techniques of reconciliation (but they refuse to acknowledge their guilt and repent) then it depends a great deal as to what the sin is. Modern day divorces that are "no fault" are not biblical. People divorce without biblical due-process and a lot of marriages could be salvaged and made even stronger than they were before if they only sought out biblical, wise counseling...and that sooner than later. Marriage is God's way of purifying selishness out of a person's life. Like Jesus we are often called upon to say "Lord, not my will but thy will be done." The same is true in the marriage relationship: not everything has to be done "my way". Sometimes the other spouse only learns from the bad consequences that result from their wrong (or unwise) choices. Pray for your spouse. Be faithful to God and seek to be what you are supposed to be in His eyes.

    Finally, let me just point out that we must pray what David prayed in Psalm 139:23-24. The old saying "It takes two to tango" applies to far more conflicts in family, friendships and marriage relationships than we are ready to admit. We need to ask the Lord to point out to us our part in the conflict or situation, where we have acted (or reacted) sinfully, selfishly, proudly, or foolishly. God will honor our prayers only to the extent that we own up to our role (even if it is only a small piece of the pie).
    Matthew 6:12a and Matthew 7:3-5)