From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it
We are commanded to pray for the people who do us harm and abuse us:
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.Romans 12:14 (NASB)
There have been many people who have done me harm over the years. To the best of my knowledge, I believe that I do not feel any bitterness towards them. For many of them I have continued, over the years, to pray for their salvation. If you have been wronged and yet you freely choose to forgive them and even to become an intercessor for that person, it gives you a special standing with God.
He is more inclined to hear such a prayer and to answer it, precisely because it is unselfish. The very motivation for it, and the ability to do it, has obviously come from the Holy Spirit, not from yourself. You therefore have a special status when you pray for the people who have done you harm. It will cause your prayer to be heard. Such a prayer could be said to be the “prayer of a righteous man”:
…. the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effectiveJames 5:16(b) (NIV)
To understand why God would give such weight to the prayer of a wronged person who is pleading with Him for mercy for the wrongdoer, consider a legal illustration. Imagine that a Judge, at the end of a criminal trial, is hearing pleas in mitigation on behalf of the wrongdoer. The Judge would hear a speech from the wrongdoer’s own defence lawyer and perhaps also read reports from his social worker, probation officer, doctor, psychiatrist etc.
The Judge would listen carefully to all of them. However, it is fair to say that he would be likely to be rather guarded about placing too much weight on what any of them might say. He would be keenly aware that it is their job to speak up for the Defendant.
So the Judge would probably filter their words carefully and be slow to accept their recommendations. However, what if the victim himself was to stand up in court and ask to say a few words on the Defendant’s behalf? What if the injured party said:
“I know that this young man did wrong when he robbed me, but I personally would prefer him not to go to prison, but to a drug rehabilitation unit and to resume his education as well. Would you please consider allowing that to be the sentence, instead of sending him to prison?”
One can easily imagine a Judge, on hearing the injured party speak in that way, listening very attentively and placing a great deal of weight on their plea for mercy. Likewise, when we pray for someone who has wronged us, and ask God to forgive them, bless them, and not to judge them for what they did to us, we will find that God is a very willing listener. He will take such a prayer extremely seriously.
An example of a prayer of this kind is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He refers to certain fellow believers who let him down by failing to stand by him when he was put on trial. They deserted him because they feared for themselves. But even as he writes about it to Timothy, Paul suddenly breaks off to utter a short prayer within the letter. He asks that God will not hold those people responsible for what they failed to do for Paul, i.e. that God will not charge them with it at the Judgment Seat of Christ:
At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!2 Timothy 4:16 (RSV)
Consider what a great opportunity that therefore gives you to do good by asking God to forgive, save and generally show mercy and grace, to those who have done you harm. You may well see men and women in Heaven who only had their eyes opened to understand the Gospel due to your unselfish prayers on their behalf. How wonderful would that be?
Nobody has the right to demand forgiveness from us. It is simply that we have a duty to forgive them. We sometimes come across people who do wrong to us, and are caught, but then speak and act as if they have an entitlement to be forgiven. Such a person may even begin to see themselves as being wronged if they are not forgiven, or rather excused.
Therefore they may get angry and say something like: “I’ve said I’m sorry. Why don’t you get over it?” I once heard of a person who had been badly treated by a Christian and that the wrongdoer then told them that it was their duty to forgive him. That is technically true, but it was not his place to sayit. The fact that he did say it was compelling evidence of his own impertinence, falseness and lack of real remorse.
I was also told of another situation where a church leader misbehaved sexually and then announced that people were obliged to forgive him. What he actually meant by that was that was that he wanted to be ‘let off’ and spared from the consequences of his actions. That is not the same thing as forgiveness and, again, it was not his place to say what the duty of those people was, given that he himself was the wrongdoer.
Or a person may feel aggrieved because you are continuing to investigate, or complain about, something they have done. I spoke earlier in this chapter of a church leader called Rick, whom I had to tackle some years ago, when I was the chairman of the trustees of a certain church and of how I tried, forlornly, to implement the Mathew 18 procedure. I had met the leader in the presence of witnesses, during which he blatantly lied to them. Then he said to me after they had left: “Can’t you just let me off the hook?” He also added later: “Why don’t we draw a line under all of this?”
However, there was no repentance on his part. He simply wanted to avoid being held accountable for his actions. For him, ‘drawing a line under all of this’ was not something that one does after havingdealt with all the issues. It is what one does instead of dealing with things. He said these things as requests, but also as complaints.
He saw my continued questioning of him, and my unwillingness to drop the matter, or to be fobbed off, as if that was a wrong on my part. Like the other leader above, who was guilty of sexual sin, he felt aggrieved at being held accountable for his actions and wanted to be “let off”. He spoke as if he had some kind of entitlement to be forgiven. But he hadn’t.
None of us actually have any right to be forgiven, or indeed any inherent, God-given right to anything whatsoever. The correct way to put it is that other people have a duty to forgive us. But that is done in order to obey God. It does not create any corresponding right on our part to be forgiven, least of all to demand to be forgiven.
This is not mere theological hair-splitting. It has a major bearing on how we operate, which is why I give a fair amount of attention to the error of human rights based thinking, and the growing attitude of entitlement, within Book Five in this series. Please refer to that for a fuller discussion of the significance of those errors, which have been adopted by very many churches.
Moreover, any person who is assertively demanding to be forgiven or asserting a right to be “let off” is demonstrating by that attitude that they have not adequately or genuinely repented. If they had, their principal concern would be about the welfare and feelings of their victim, not about obtaining forgiveness for themselves. So, the more demanding they are, the more unrepentant they must be.
Nevertheless, the wrongdoer’s bad attitude does not take away your duty to obey God by forgiving them. However, it is a factor which you can validly bear in mind in assessing the genuineness or otherwise of their repentance/apology and whether it would be appropriate to be reconciled and resume relations with them, or to avoid them.
In the story I referred to above, about my dealings with Rick, the carnal and dishonest church leader, the position was more complicated than is usually the case. I was a private individual who had been wronged by him and I therefore had a duty to forgive him. However, at the same time, I was also the Chairman of the Trustees of that church.
Therefore, given that role, I also had a duty to investigate and deal with his misconduct, or at least to attempt to do so, because I never actually succeeded. Usually you will only have one or the other of those roles, not both. Nevertheless, it serves to illustrate the problems that arise when a wrongdoer has a misguided sense of entitlement to be forgiven.