September 8, 2020

Forgiveness and Abuse: Do I Have to Forgive? (Part Two)

This is part two of a five-part series looking at the issue of Forgiveness and Abuse. You can access the whole series here.

God’s forgiveness, as we saw yesterday, is immense, amazing, scandalous. The natural question that follows is: Are we called to forgive in the same way that God does? If so, what does that mean? Well, in Matthew 6:14–15 Jesus states: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Forgive Like God?

Now, on first reading, Jesus seems to be saying that God will only forgive someone if they are willing to forgive others. In other words, God’s forgiveness is conditioned on their forgiveness of others. But the problem with that reading of the text is that God’s forgiveness becomes a payment, not a gift. Further, it means that God’s forgiveness can be taken away at any moment; that Jesus’ blood hasn’t covered all of our sins. This would lead the Christian, and in particular the victim of abuse, to a place of doubt over the certainty of their salvation.

Imagine you’ve been abused as a child. Your uncle systematically beat you and made you perform sexual acts. You’ve now become a Christian, and your head is daily filled with thoughts of your former abuse. Anger wells up inside you every time you think about the past, and on a bad day, you can think of nothing but vengeance. Would that mean that God withholds His forgiveness from you until you can muster enough strength to forgive the wrongdoer? This would mean that God’s forgiveness is undone on a daily basis. This cannot be what Jesus means here.

In order to understand Jesus’ words, we must consider the context. Jesus says these words off the back of the Lord’s prayer and in the middle of His sermon on the mount. The sermon on the mount is Jesus inaugurating the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17). In other words, Jesus is telling His disciples what following Him is going to look like. And we must remember He is heading to the cross, where He will die to forgive the sins of His people which will, in turn, enable them to be a forgiving people.

So, Jesus is not communicating that God’s forgiveness is dependent on theirs. Far from it. He is communicating that God’s forgiveness enables them to forgive those that sin against them. In other words, we should read the ‘if’ clauses as “this is likely to occur”, rather than the pre-condition of God’s forgiveness towards us.

How God Forgives

Think about it like a circle: God forgives us, and that frees us to forgive those that sin against us. Therefore, forgiveness of others confirms that the Spirit of God dwells within us and that we have been forgiven. Leon Morris writes: “It is not that the act of forgiving merits an eternal reward, but rather it is evidence that the grace of God is at work in the forgiving person and that that same grace will bring him forgiveness in due course.”

In fact, our struggle with forgiveness is often due to the fact that we have forgotten the scandal and immensity of our own forgiveness. We are stuck in disbelief. Luther writes:

“The outward forgiveness that I show in my deeds is a sure sign that I have the forgiveness of sin in the sight of God. On the other hand, if I do not show this in my relations with my neighbor, I have a sure sign that I do not have the forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and am still stuck in my disbelief.”

In other words, the evidence that God’s grace is at work in our lives is the extension of God’s mercy and grace to others. As Mark Beach notes, we are “forgiven people seeking forgiveness and seeking to forgive others.”

This passage is fleshed out in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35). In this parable, a servant owes the king a huge amount—10,000 talents—that he can’t pay back. When he is called to settle his account, the servant grovels before the king and the king, out of pity, forgives him the debt. The king is extravagantly generous.

However, when this same servant comes across another servant who owes him a much smaller amount (100 denarii, which is still a sizeable amount), that he is unable to pay back, he shows no mercy and throws him in jail. This servant is then reprimanded by the king and thrown into jail until he can pay back the whole amount. The contrast is clear: the servant owed an insurmountable amount to the king and yet was let off his debt. Yet when he came across another who owed him money, he did not reciprocate the generous and forgiving spirit of the king.

Debt Forgiven

The point is clear as well. As Christians, we were up to our eyeballs in debt, and not just with an earthly king, but the King of the universe. We had sinned against Him. What we deserved from Him was nothing but hell. However, in Christ, God has wiped away our huge debt and has credited our account with Christ’s righteousness. He has been unfathomably generous to us.

Therefore, in light of His gracious pardon, we are to forgive those who sin against us. We are to let off the small debts (in comparison to the debt God has let go) against us. In other words, the Christian is called to echo the forgiveness of God. The Christian is called to be generous and free others from the obligation of punishment. They are to forgive, as they have been forgiven in Christ. And this will include the abused forgiving their abusers.

Now, I know that those reading who are victims of abuse, might be thinking at this point: He has got to be joking. Forgive my abusers, you’ve got to be kidding! I was raped, I was molested, I was shamed, I was humiliated, I was taken advantage of, I was beaten, I was urinated on. You don’t know what I’ve been through! You don’t know the things that people have done to me!

Let me say at this point: I don’t know what you have been through. I’ve never been abused. My family was loving and kind. I can’t imagine the psychological and physical pain you’ve endured. I can’t imagine the feelings of shame. It makes my stomach turn whenever I hear a story of abuse. I’m not saying any of this is easy, and I’m not saying any of this happens overnight. Forgiveness is a costly act that takes a supernatural work of the Spirit.

But either way, this is something that the believer has to think through. We have to remember that the Lord Jesus was also abused. He was humiliated. He was spat on. He was treated with contempt. He was whipped within an inch of his life. He was strung up naked on a cross, laughed at, and killed for sport. And why? To purchase our forgiveness. To free us from the penalty of our sin. He bore our sins on the tree. He experienced God’s wrath. He took our guilt and shame. If Jesus cries “forgive them” on the cross, then we too, at the very least, have to think through our forgiveness of others. Even to the worst of sinners.

This, again, is where forgiveness is difficult. We are okay when we are being forgiven, but as soon as we have to forgive others, it is far harder. We want to play God and decide who receives our forgiveness and who doesn’t. As Volf writes: “The scandalousness of God’s indiscriminate forgiveness hits us even harder when we are called to imitate it. When we need to forgive, most of us, perhaps unconsciously, feel entitled to draw a circle around the scope of forgiveness. We should forgive some, maybe even most, wrongdoings, but certainly not all.” To this we will turn tomorrow.

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