A friend asked this question: The teachings in the Bible about forgiveness are hard. People in my life are so stupid. Their actions hurt and offend me. So I avoid them. I pray for them but I can not let my life be affected by them. It makes me feel bad. I know Jesus says I must forgive. But does this mean being a doormat?
I wrote back to the friend:
Forgiveness is very hard. And it is not a one time event. No person can just lay aside the emotions of the offense. But it remains the goal.
Jesus told us, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we must forgive or else we are not forgiven. The Sermon on the Mount must be understood in its context as Jesus expanding the Law to ensure the purpose of the Law was fulfilled. He said many things in the Sermon on the Mount that are beyond any human’s ability to fulfill. Other writers in the New Testament say similar things about forgiveness. It is a difficult situation.
The level of difficulty increases as the level of the offense increases. When someone has said something negative about your hair, it is offensive, but is not too difficult to forgive. You might be able to forget about it by the 2nd or 3rd time you see them again. If someone has stolen some items from your home, it may take many months of working at it to finally get to the place where you don’t feel anger at them, maybe years before you finally have some peace with them being in your house again. When someone has done something that is far more damaging, physically and/or emotionally, the ability to forgive is often beyond human ability.
Forgiveness is a massively abused word . The reason is the statements from the Bible, where it appears that a person’s standing with God is dependent on performing this act. This results in people defining Forgiveness in varying levels of completeness to try to make obedience to the Christ possible in the face of insurmountable requirements. Here are the levels of forgiveness as I perceive them:
- Resist the urge to execute judgement against them with your own hands, but accept the emotions resulting from the offense as appropriate, including rejoicing that they will surely go to hell for their actions.
- Resist the urge to sentence them to hell, but call for others to execute judgement against them. Accept the resulting emotions as appropriate.
- Resist the emotions, including eternal sentencing to hell, but call for others to execute judgement against them. Never allow contact again.
- Resist all the emotions and avoid calling for any judgement on them. Never allow contact.
- Resist all the emotions and judgement, gradually allow contact over time.
- Resist all the emotions and judgement, hold as a goal to learn to love them again.
- Love them as if it never happened. No judgement – just Love.
Which level does God do: Level 7.
Some will point out God does not allow sins to go unpunished, referencing various scriptures that certainly do state that. And then others will point to scriptures that point to the fact that He does forgive sin (wrongdoing, offenses against God). But each of them holds their status as a Christian on the basis that God does, indeed, forgive sin at level 7. The wages of sin is death = eternal death = hell. Each christian believes that they are saved (unless they have been associating with the Law crowd for too long) which means that they are forgiven at Level 7 for their sins. Because God executes justice and cannot judge someone for a sin that has already been adjuducated – no double jeopardy in heaven. Jesus died for all sins 2000 years ago.
God allows people to choose: prove your worthiness to go to heaven by keeping all sin out of your life or accept the forgiveness through Jesus. This choice shows the two separate Law systems: Law of sin and death or the Law of Liberty.
What does this have to do with the questions at the top of this essay and the difficulty of forgiving? Simply, and powerfully: failure to completely forgive, at level 7, is not held against you. As in: you are not going to be unforgiven by God when you are only at level 3 for a particular offense.
YES, he wants all people to forgive at level 7 for all offenses. But when you can’t quite do it, you can still remain secure in his Love: Jesus willingly died because he forgives you for not being perfect.
Many people are sure that believing such a thing means you won’t try to forgive at level 7. I could say that this reveals their personal state of being, that they believe the only thing that forces them be good is fear. But I know that it is fear that keeps a person from trying the path of Love. Jesus Loves us, perfect Love casts out fear.
When I summon faith to believe that God Loves me completely and showed that Love by complete forgiveness, I can truly Love God. When I Love God, truly Love God, for the brief moments when it truly happens, I cannot execute judgement on anyone else. I don’t want to. In those moments, I want the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness NOW.
But then all the horrible situations in my life come back to my spirit and I have to fight, once again, to not imagine the fabulous ways that God could act in my defense and destroy the people who have destroyed me.
God does bring discipline into our lives. This is often confused as being a synonym to punishment, but it is not. Punishment is the retribution of pain as a form of recompense for offense. Discipline is the process of excersizes designed to increase ability. When God diciplines us, it is to shape us into more capable Lovers of Him and Others.
As to being a “doormat”: wisdom helps us navigate this issue: when a child is unable to control its bowels, we put diapers on them. When a child can’t control her temper while playing with other children we closely monitor her play time. If we are wise parents we will try discipline to improve her abilities because we want her to be able to love and experience love. That is an illustration only: we cannot presume to be the parent of other adults. But we certainly can have reasonable safeguards when dealing with them.
Continuing with the illustration of small children, if a small child is having fits of biting, it may be necessary to move the child to a separate space to avoid continued damage to others. But Love dictates that the child is not left there, but is brought to a place of ability to continue in full relationship. Similarly with adults, space may be needed to allow for discipline to increase in a person while others are not subjected to continued difficulty. However, the goal should remain Level 7.
In the example I used of someone stealing, forgiveness calls for progress towards loving them. At some point, when you have worked through to some middle level, you may have them to your house again. Working to that level requires discussions with the person, difficult but necessary, to get the issue fully in the open between the two of you (the goal is just the two of you). This is discussed in Matthew and some other references. If the issue has been discussed and the beginnings of a Love relationsip restored, you could have them to the house and then either not leave them alone or frankly discuss the issue. It is amazing what Love can do through simple conversation.
But the point is, forgiveness and love means we understand and love each other in light of the weaknesses we see in others. “You who LIVE BY the Spirit, restore such a one, looking to yourselves lest you too be tempted”.
If someone has a weakness for stealing, don’t leave piles of cash lying in front of them. If someone has a weakness for sex (most people) don’t flirt, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t be the pillar of strength to replace a weak husband: learn the triggers for the opposite sex and avoid them. If a spouse has a problem with anger, learn the beginning signs and take action before the crisis hits – not that it is the your fault, but Love does what it can to assist in the battle against sin. If the person is physically abusive, leave while the anger is up and attempt to resolve via telephone. Have other sisters/brothers ready to let you stay with them for a few hours while the crisis dies down. These are not “this is the way to do it” instructions, but simply ideas, your unique situations require unique approaches. Your intelligence, the Spirit of God, and friends who undertand Love can help sort the issues.
But above all, work towards the Goals God has set while being confident in His Love and Forgiveness. The Goals God has set are the real Goals of life, and they will remain Goals, always what we want to be as we walk with God powered by Love.
I fall completely short of the Goals. I can’t even Love God well. So this day I have a choice: do I believe God? It is really hard to type it, but, Yes, I will go that direction.