You Just Need to Forgive (Part 2)

Read You just need to forgive (Part 1) first. In that post we deconstruct common language gambits used by abusers such as “You just need to forgive”.

So Andrew, you appear to be saying it’s OK not to forgive. If someone sins against you and they haven’t repented you don’t have to forgive them, is that right? But what about Mt 6:12 or Lk 23:34 or especially Mt 18:35?

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

What about those verses indeed? Forgiveness is God’s core business, so let us tread carefully. Let us see if we can find a way to help a person who has suffered abuse at the hands of another navigate this difficult path. Forgiveness is clearly a lot more than simply mouthing the words “I forgive you… I’m sorry I brought it up”. The question is how to get from here to there? How to move from a place of psychological and/or emotional trauma to “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”?

Some people can spend years trying to sort this out, and each person’s experiences, circumstances and journey is their own. Perhaps I can offer a few thoughts to help.

Motion towards forgiveness

Firstly, understand that the motion towards forgiveness is in itself an act of personal agency. Many people may feel that even one step towards forgiveness of a perpetrator is one step too many. But let’s reframe. The decision to begin motion towards forgiveness is something you are doing for yourself; it ultimately benefits you. And, yes, it’s the right thing to do too, but at the beginning helping oneself maybe all that we’ve got to motivate us, right?

Secondly, it is crucial to understand that it is not an additional measure of injustice to forgive a perpetrator. Rather, it can be a turning point in dealing with the hurt. It might feel completely counter-intuitive, but ultimately to forgive those who sin against us is the very best thing we can actually do. It is the wisdom of God, it is the example of Jesus, and it can be the moment that the door of the prison cell flings open. 


Thirdly, Jesus’ way is the way. He said:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light (Matt. 11:28-30, NASB).

This is for all of you weary and heavy-ladened ones. Jesus invites us to learn from him. Learning is a process that can take a while – I mean how long did you go to school for? But when you graduate… you will find rest for your souls.. And don’t we all want that? You have to enrol in this learning process – that’s the taking on of the yoke part, but rest assured, the load is light.

Jesus is the one who is most concerned for your welfare. If you have encountered abuse in a church situation you may be thinking… “Well I don’t know about that… I feel like Jesus got me into this situation in the first place in that church of his”. Churches can certainly be awful places. Not everyone in church exhibits the true mark of discipleship that Jesus talks of:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (Jn 13:34-35).

But if you can accept that Jesus is the one most concerned for your welfare, then he is saying the best thing for you to do is to forgive those who sin against you. “Rest for your souls” sounds pretty appealing. Notice that the actions of the other person are still called “sin” – their sin, or “debts” – their debts. Your forgiveness does not change or minimise that or their culpability. 

That servant

Let’s do a study of the parable of the unmerciful servant in Mt 18:21-35.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This famous parable teaches masterfully on forgiveness. Peter, maybe having a frustrating day with someone,  asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive this person who is sinning against him. Evidently, Jesus has talked about this before to his disciples, so Peter is doing his best to put this new forgiveness teaching thing into practice, and reaching for the stars says: “As many as seven times?”

Jesus answers: “Not seven Peter. Seventy seven.” Or in some translations, seventy times seven. “You are out by an order of magnitude Peter”. That answer would instantly turn a light on in the mind of anyone familiar with the Torah. Let’s go to Gen. 4:23-24, where Lamech is boasting:

Cain and Lamech

Lamech said to his wives,“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;wives of Lamech, hear my words.

I have killed a man for wounding me,

a young man for injuring me.

If Cain is avenged seven times.

If Cain is avenged seven times,

then Lamech seventy-seven times

Same numbers right? What’s going on here? Well, in Genesis 1 and 2 we had an Edenic garden with no sin, no violence. In Genesis 3 we have the fall. Cain kills his brother Abel in Genesis 4. And now Lamech is totally out of control, wanting to visit vengeance on a disproportionate scale. Things are getting worse very quickly (5 generations), reaching the point that humanity’s thought-life was reaching the point that “that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5), triggering a deluvian reboot.

The avenging of Cain being talked about here is God’s promise to Cain to protect him even in the midst of punishing him for the murder of Abel. God promised he would avenge Cain’s death seven times over to anyone who would think of killing him. God has the right to punish sin, and the seven times multiple is a significant deterrent (see also Lev. 26:21). 

It’s worth remembering that Cain’s sin was not murder alone, but that he stepped away from care of his brother. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a rhetorical question from Cain, but that heart paved the way for self-justification of murder, for which actual justice was required.

Amplified vengeance and amplified forgiveness

So Lamech is twisting what God had said to Cain. Lamech is pursuing a path of amplified vengeance. Back to the parable, and we can now see that Jesus is flipping Lamech’s amplified vengeance into a teaching about amplified forgiveness. Any bystander hearing that story for the first time would have been jaw-droppingly indignant at the actions of the unmerciful servant – freshly forgiven an impossible debt of squillions, but in the next moment strangling his fellow servant for a measly hundred days wages. The fellow servants in the story were outraged also and reported the gross injustice to the master. The unforgiving servant was himself thrown into jail to be tortured until he repaid the original debt, which of course he would never be able to do.

Wrapping up

A few points here: 

  • Ongoing unforgiveness is a prison and is a kind of self-inflicted torture. Don’t lock yourself into one. If you do, you still have the key to get out any time you want.
  • The context in Matthew is about our relationships – in church or otherwise. It is good to remember we are our our brother’s keeper. If one persecuted you (e.g. are abusive), they are clearly way off the mark. However you can still be like Jesus, love them and pray for them as enemies (Mt. 5:44) as he taught.
  • God will take care of the justice part, and there will be justice (Mt. 18:5-6). Vengeance is not our job, it’s God’s job, and He does it perfectly in this life or the next. Jesus promises accountability for things people say to us, but also for what we say:

But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36-37)

  • Forgiveness is really a letting go of the desire to execute our own vengeance. 
  • In the parable the forgiveness was for a debt. It is possibly helpful to remember that as we move towards forgiveness of another, what we are saying is that that person is a debtor to us. A debtor. They owe us something. They have taken (dignity, freedom, respect etc.) and have not repaid. They might not ever do it. The only thing we can personally control here is our decision to release them from that debt and in so doing free ourselves from the whole wicked contract.

I hope these thoughts are helpful for you in starting motion towards forgiveness. Difficult journey but a freeing one.

Part 3 of this topic is coming soon where we will look at how the Psalmists pour out their incredulous anger and pain to the God who seems far off. We will learn to lament.

Is God Really in Control?

You have heard it said “God is In control”, but now I tell you “not really”.

Well that sounds heretical. God not being in control. If this bothers you, may I suggest you stop reading this and do a quick word search on “control” in the Bible and see what your find. Here’s a handy link.

There are quite a few verses on self-control in there, and on kings controlling lands and people, but precious little on God being in any kind of control at all. In fact, if we can put our theological commitments to one side for a moment and reflect on what is going on in the world in which we are actually living we have to agree that there is actually quite a lot of chaos in it –  natural disasters, man’s inhumanity to man, human suffering, disease, and a multi-year pandemic right?

For the person who likes to think that God is in control, then you have a lot of explaining to do about the effective power of this God, or how it is that He can so cheerfully preside over this mess. It’s a difficult case to make, and one that has been troubling thoughtful people for a very long time.

Under Construction

Maybe we should revisit this idea, and posit that the world is more like some kind of giant post-war construction site full of hazards and half-built things. God is in the process of fixing it, but it’s not there yet. It’s still possible to fall down a shaft or get crushed under a collapsing wall (Lk 13:1-5). He has put up all the warning signs and written the safety manual but most people around here don’t seem to be taking much notice of those.

We humans like to be in control. At the very least, it’s safe, it’s predictable, and we can be efficient and reduce waste. At its worst, we exploit people, damage relationships, split families and create our own toxins through our exercise of control. People don’t thrive when controlled. They rebel, zone out, go slow, or die. 

Order is fine, but control – not so much. I like the fact that gravity always works, my streets are pretty safe, and the rubbish gets collected every week. Yes, order is good, and God has had a lot to do with that in our natural world. 

So if God is not in control, then how does he operate? Through strong invitation. Timeless instruction. Provision. The tools are there but you have to pick them up and learn how to use them.

Invitation and provision

Jesus said: “Come, follow me…”(Mk 1:17), “Learn from me and you will have rest for souls” (Mt 11:29).  “Try it out for a while” (Jn 7:17). That’s the invitation and instruction part. On the provision side we are told to take a lesson from the birds of the air, and notice how they all seem to get fed (Mt 6:25-34). Yes, God provides. He even sends rain on the unrighteous (Mt 5:45). God  would make a lousy control freak – giving benefits away like that.

Getting back to the construction site, God has also in a very non-controlling way had left quite a bit of the fixing up to us notoriously unreliable humans. 

The way this works is that God asks us to trust him, which means to trust that doing things His way will lead to the best outcome. But we are never forced to do this. We have completely free will – I am sure some readers of this piece did not click on the link above! That’s your free choice in action right there!

In this world, at this time, God has opposition. God is able to jump in and intervene on any occasion, but most of the time He just doesn’t. He sets out his will clearly in writing. People disobey it, and God gives them a very long leash. Just look at Old Testament history. A large part of it is the plot line of “God tells his people not to worship idols, his people worships idols, God sends prophets to warn and remind them not to worship idols, people don’t listen, God waits several hundred years before sending judgment”. A very long leash indeed.


God has jumped in of course. The incarnation – God living amongst us in the person of Jesus Christ was a radical intervention. Immanuel – God with us – was a completely intentional historical act, bringing the Kingdom of God near (Mt 4:17). Jesus laboured to communicate what this kingdom is all about. It is like no other kingdom you have ever seen. Everything is upside down. All the things we have learnt about how to get ahead do not apply in this kingdom (Lk 9:48).a

This is not to say God cannot be influenced or petitioned. This is where prayer fits in. We are encouraged to ask God to act in our world and in our lives (Mt 7:7-11,  Jn 11:22, Rom 1:10, Jas 1:5 etc.). Also, if we go back to the passages that do talk about control, we find that most of them talk about selfcontrol. So it appears that that is where the challenge really lies. God has chosen to exert his influence in the world through the self-control of those who listen to him. He is looking for partners in this project, not spectators.