The situation described in the following letters continues to be entirely fictitious, including persons, names, crimes, sins, relationships, circumstances and all particulars. The kind of situation that is described, however, is all too common and my hope is that biblical principles applied to this fictitious scenario may be of some help to individuals tangled up in a real one.
I really appreciate the continued interaction. Thank you for writing me back. I know the topic is a tough one—but I also know that pressing questions that get all bottled up inside are a different kind of tough. And in situations like this one, the question of forgiveness is one of the knottiest questions possible.
Boil it all down, the question you have is this—do you need to forgive your father? Is that a Christian duty? If you remain a follower of Christ, does that mean you have to take any or all his overtures toward at face value? I understand from your aunt that he does write to you periodically. And you mentioned in your last letter that he has not yet acknowledged his crime against to you (and only obliquely to the court), and that since his sentencing his letters to you are filled with evasions and half-truths. On top of that, for various reasons, he was not excommunicated by your previous church, which means that he is still part of the visible church, and he still claims to be a Christian. You have not yet answered any of his letters, and your question to me was, “Is that a sin? Does God demand that I have anything to do with him?”
I know that many Christians say that forgiveness must be extended automatically, and yet they appear to apply the Bible’s teaching on this beyond what the Bible actually requires. The phrase wooden strictness comes to mind. Other Christians say that such a horrendous crime is simply beyond the pale, and there is no need even to try thinking about it. Forgiveness for something like that is an impossibility. And yet, they seem to be reacting to this kind of crime in exactly the same way that unbelievers do, and they appear to be dismissing out of hand what Scripture plainly teaches.
So that I don’t keep you suspense, let me give you what I believe the Bible teaches. You cannot forgive your father yet, because forgiveness is a transaction that requires two parties, and he has not yet sought that forgiveness. But there is a transaction that needs to occur, between you and God, and that transaction needs to ensure that if he were genuinely to repent and really seek your forgiveness, you need to be ready to extend it. If forgiveness were a present for him, you need to have secured it, wrapped it up, put a bow on it, and have it by the front door for him in case he comes by to call. But the transaction of forgiveness cannot occur until he picks it up and unwraps it—and he cannot do that until he repents and seeks forgiveness. I think it is appropriate to call that present by the door your forgiveness of him, provided everyone knows that he is not yet forgiven. He is not forgiven until he receives it. You are forgiving, but that does not mean that he is forgiven.
Let’s leave out of this calculus the (reasonable) worries about whether or not his repentance is sincere. Pretend that the archangel Michael came down and told you personally that your father had genuinely repented, had genuinely been converted, and that his expression of grieving repentance toward you was sincere. You knew, in other words, that he was going to be in Heaven together with you. The words that you would extend to him in Heaven when you met need to be words that you would be willing to extend to him here. This thought experiment isolates the element of forgiveness. It does not isolate practical issues that we have outside of Heaven, issues like trust.
It should be obvious that we have an additional troubles with this kind of thing that Heaven won’t have. Down here there can be bad consequences if the repentance turns out to be insincere. In Heaven there are no parole violations, no recidivism, and so on. So here we must be wary. Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust, and it is crucial to learn this distinction. You are not unforgiving simply because you do not trust him. And if someone has been guilty of egregious sin, and they follow it up with a “repentance” that demands to be restored to a position of trust immediately, this is clear evidence that they are not repentant at all. Under the gospel, any sinner has the right and the obligation to seek forgiveness. No sinner has the right to demand restoration to a violated trust, and the mere presence of such a demand should be setting off all kinds of alarm bells. Am I right in assuming that his letters to you have had that kind of imperious edge?
But as far as the forgiveness goes, we must stand ready to forgive every offense committed against us. Forgiveness does not mean, for example, that you would move back in with him if he were released on parole. It does not mean that you have to spend time with him. It does not put him back in control of the relationship. But it does mean there must be no malice, anger, rage, spite, or bitterness on your end. A disposition of forgiveness toward him may or may not be liberating for him. It will be absolutely liberating for you.
I believe we have to take this as necessary because Jesus is in no way ambiguous about it. He includes this teaching in the Lord’s Prayer, which means that we are instructed to pray this way. “God, please deal with us and our sins against You in the same way that we deal with others and their sins against us.” Not only does He include that in the prayer itself, it is the one part of the prayer that He goes back to amplify in His commentary on the prayer (Matt. 6:14-15). He knew that we were going to try to evade the force of His words, and He made such evasion impossible.
In Hebrews 8, the great passage on the New Covenant from Jeremiah is quoted at length. In chapter 10 of Hebrews, he quotes it again, pulling out the two great significant elements of the New Covenant. Those two elements are the internalization of the law (Heb. 10:16), and the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 10:17). So forgiveness of sins is basic.
And Paul puts it this way:
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31–32).
Your father’s sin was inexcusable. But inexcusable and unforgivable are not synonyms. This is one place where unbelievers radically misunderstand what Christians are seeking to do when they extend forgiveness to people who have done vile things. Because they are so used to their pattern of forgiveness, which is to accept excuses and call it forgiveness, whenever they encounter behavior that was absolutely inexcusable, like your father’s, they believe that forgiveness is impossible. If forgiving and excusing are the same thing, and someone does something inexcusable, then clearly forgiveness is impossible. And when they see Christians forgiving someone who was as wicked as your father was, they believe that we are making excuses for it. But there really was no excuse, and no Christian should act as though there were.
If we were living in a biblical society, what your father did would most certainly have warranted the death penalty. To illustrate the principle further, suppose we were in that society and your father had been sentenced to die. Suppose also that he had repented, and that everyone who knew him in prison testified that the repentance was sincere, including the chaplain who had brought him to repentance. To set the situation in high relief, let us also suppose that I was the governor, and had the power to sign a pardon for him. I am also a Christian. Would there be any contradiction between refusing to sign the pardon, and going to the prison to celebrate communion with him before his execution? No, there would be no contradiction. Moreover, another sign of his repentance would be the fact that he did not see any contradiction either. “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11).
Bitterness in your circumstance is certainly understandable. No one needs to wonder why you would be tempted to bitterness and deep anger. You would be a block of wood or stone if you were not tempted that way. But the understandable nature of the temptation does not make giving way to the temptation a wise course of action. Someone once observed—with great wisdom—that bitterness is like eating a box of rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.
I have gone on long enough, so I will finish with this. No doubt we will have pursue it further in our next exchange. I have been warning you against that class of counselors who are advocates of “healing,” but whose counsel results in no healing at all. Healing should heal. Your father wounded you. If the staff at the ER clean and dress the wound, and then give you strict instructions on how to take care of your bandages and so on, they are trying to keep you from making a bad situation worse. A wound can get infected, and it might get infected through your negligence or disobedience. Any situation, however bad, can always be made worse. Now exhorting you on your responsibility to not become malicious is not in any way a justification of what your father did in wounding you in the first place. His mistreatment of you was and remains obvious. But giving way to hatred and bitterness would simply be a way for you to join in on the mistreatment of you. In other words, whatever you do, stay away from the rat poison.
Cordially in Christ . . .