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Forgiveness and Bitterness


The word "forgiveness" is often used in the context of not being bitter with someone, even if that person has never apologised for what they did. Personally, I think that this causes a lot of confusion on both sides, and that it is a reflection of fuzzy thinking with regard to the grace of God.

The middle syllable in the word is "give". As a verb, "giving" involves two people. One cannot "give" in a closet all by themselves. There must be a recipient, and the recipient has to do something, if it is nothing more than reaching out and accepting the offer. I believe that what a lot of people are talking about when they say that we must forgive people who are not sorry for what they have done is that we should not be bitter against them. We Christians have an obligation to love even our enemies, and we love them even while they are opposed to us and while they are unrepentant about that opposition. Obviously, if we are bitter toward our enemies, then it cannot be said that we love them.  So combatting bitterness should be a serious concern for all Christians.

Nevertheless, when the word "forgiveness" is used in this context, it confuses the issues. When we say that we have forgiven someone who has never even confessed a need for forgiveness, much less repented of their action, it gives the impression that everything has been resolved, that the matter has been settled, and that both parties are "friends" once again.

I believe that forgiveness is something that requires co-operation between both parties: the offender and the victim. If the offender is not sorry for what has been done, then no amount of love is going to bring forgiveness. I believe that this is the situation between us and God, and it is the situation between us and others who are unrepentant about wrongs against ourselves.

And here is where the theological confusion comes in. There is a growing anger by many professing Christians against a God of judgment. They feel that talk of a judgment day, and of hell (or any other kind of punishment) is inconsistent with their definition of a loving God. They feel that a God of love is OBLIGED to forgive everyone, whether they are sorry or not.

How many times have you heard someone talk about the God of judgment as though he is a false God, as though he has no place in Christian theology, as though he is the enemy? But the Bible does not teach that. The Bible says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Unless we respect him as the boss, and unless we have some idea of his anger against sin, we will never repent, and we will never receive a true appreciation of the magnitude of his love and forgiveness.

I do believe that God forgives our ignorance without any need for repentance (since one can hardly repent for something they they are not even aware that they are doing wrong). This would explain why we have Jesus on the cross saying, about the soldiers who were just carrying out orders, "Father, forgive them, for the know not what they do." In keeping with that, I also believe that the grace of God can make up for the deficiencies in our understanding about what we should or should not do. If someone is trying to do the right thing and they make a mistake, have flaws in their theology, and even cause a lot of harm by what they do, I believe that God still can choose to overlook all of that (without them having to repent for it) because of a basic desire to do what is right.

But the kind of forgiveness that wipes the slate clean in heaven after there has been a willful disobedience, is not given out holus-bolus to everyone. It goes only to those who repent. Jesus promised his followers that if they forgave people for their sins, those sins would be forgiven in heaven. But he also promised that if they retained those sins (i.e. refused to forgive them), then God too would refuse to forgive them. Ask yourself why he said that.

Remember that the people he was talking to were people who were fully committed to doing God's will. And so such people would not be acting out of bitterness if they refused to forgive someone's sins. (If they did, then I don't think that God would be obliged to back them up, as Jesus has suggested.  The reason I say that is because they would not be the sort of people to whom he made the promise.) These would be people who have a good reason for not forgiving someone, and the most likely reason would be because the people in need of forgiveness have refused to recognise that need.

When we act as ambassadors for Christ, we have a responsibility to make judgments. Paul said, "Don't you know that you will judge the world? So aren't you able to judge in smaller matters now?" We need to know how to dispense grace to those who are sorry for their actions. Their sorrow or repentance will, very often, fall short of recognising the full extent of what they have done, but if they are moving in the right direction, then that is where their ignorance can also be excused. But what neither we nor God should forgive is willful unrepentant rebellion against the truth. (I believe that this rebellion is what has been called "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" or the unpardonable sin, i.e. because simply REFUSING to recognise a need for the love that God is offering blocks his willingness to forgive.)

This requirement for repentance seems to be what bothers so many who want to turn grace into a "law" that can be used as a club to condemn God himself, as well as to condemn those who are trying to act in obedience to God. This is the false grace teaching that I mentioned at the start of this article. It is used by offenders to demand or "claim" something from God that they have no right to claim. God does not OWE forgiveness to anyone. Forgiveness comes from God in response to our admission of guilt and our expressed desire to change our behaviour. Only when we acknowledge our unworthiness to receive it do we qualify for receiving it.

The Bible says that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." But without repentance, there is no such forgiveness.

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