Waiting for the Rat to Die

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.

Dear Gabrielle,

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 . . .

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Lance Roberts
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I was at your sermon on Sunday and was surprised then to see that you make forgiveness out as a bilateral transaction. Since we aren’t perfect, we will not be able to ask forgiveness for everything from God, but he still forgives us. While we may sometimes participate, forgiveness is a unilateral transaction with God. This would then extend to Jesus, who we are to try and emulate, so we should be forgiving people unilaterally (and all of your cautions and parameters apply).

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

Doesn’t the initial apparently unilateral always become bilateral?
God’s forgiveness, that “transaction”, always eventually gets a proper, good response?

Lance Roberts
Guest

Maybe in heaven, but here we are too finite to even know all of our little sins to properly repent of them. We are completely dependent on them being covered by Christ. If our forgiveness was based on our repentance, no one would make it.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

“Maybe” in heaven?

Lance Roberts
Guest

Do we believe we’ll be all-knowing and perfect in Heaven? I’m not quite sure what our level of knowledge will be. It’ll be great, and I’m ready to find out though.

Daniel Fisher
Member

If I may, our *offer* of forgiveness must be unilateral, and willing to forgive genuine, if imperfect, repentance. And in that manner, yes, reflecting God’s forgiveness of us.

However, remember that in an important sense, God’s offer of forgiveness is similar – he offers (and it is a real, true, and free offer) forgiveness to everyone who hears the gospel…. But we would specify that he in fact does not unilaterally forgive everyone who hears; rather, he only forgives those hearers of the gospel who respond in repentance. Yes, not perfect repentance, but genuine repentance.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

If someone asks for your forgiveness before you can truthfully give it, is it okay to say you need a little more time? Or do you give it, and pray that your feelings will conform to your words?

Daniel Fisher
Member

I doubt anyone’s forgiveness can be perfect, any more than our repentance can be perfect. The transgressor may offer a real and genuine repentance, but that repentance, if real, will continue to grow more full. I imagine forgiveness of something so deep would be like that; i may recognize the obligation to (offer) forgiveness, and can offer it knowing that it will take much more time before my forgiveness grows into something much more complete. But I would also echo Pastor Wilson’s careful distinction above: most people I’ve helped at this stage, it isn’t really that they need more time… Read more »

Daniel Fisher
Member

For instance, in Genesis, Joseph “needed more time” to test his brothers and weigh the genuineness if their repentance. Not because he wasn’t ready to forgive them, but he needed to see if *they* we’re ready to receive the kind of trust he hoped to give them. Same principle I find with King David running from Saul. He was ready to offer forgiveness the whole time… Just not ready to trust Saul with his life.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

“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” Doug — the phrase about still being part of the visible church, seems a bit wooden, especially outside Reformed circles. Is that supposed to obligate Gabrielle to show a more loving, happy-clappy disposition toward her father come Communion time? And most assemblies don’t practice excommunication anyway, making “claiming to be a Christian” their only criteria for being acknowledged as “part of the visible church.” So if that’s their criteria, isn’t that all you… Read more »

insanitybytes22
Member

“Doug — the phrase about still being part of the visible church, seems a bit wooden, especially outside Reformed circles.”

I actually really appreciated this phrasing. To this day, I have to forgive the “visable church” for her flaws and some days, those flaws can get pretty weighty.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

I sure with mine weren’t so weighty.
And being so visible is extraordinarily embarrassing, though the saving grace in the long run.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Sometimes people who have wronged us make a point of being super-Christians. I always think of that when I watch court TV and the defendant who allegedly killed your daughter is carrying a giant Bible. It’s like he’s saying, “God has forgiven me, so why can’t you?”

Of course, sometimes they are sincere Christians. But I always find myself wishing they had been that sincere about it before they went out and murdered someone.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

I knew guys in lockup who were sincere super-Christians inside and beasts outside. It’s not just before-and-after, what people do in a state of temptation can be quite different than what they do in a state of reflection. It reminds me of the question posed of the “apostate” in Endo’s Silence. He was an apostate because he folded in a time of intense persecution. But he was the model super-Christian when things were okay. And if he had grown up in the suburbs, he always would have been the “super Christian” and no one would ever have been the wiser.

Daniel Fisher
Member

This post of Pastor Wilson’s was spot on in so many ways. Not least of which the observation that no sinner has the right to demand restored trust, and the presence of such a demand is a major warning that real repentance may not be present. And that a genuine repentant sinner would welcome genuine justice.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

“welcome genuine justice”

Like the dude in Lonesome Dove who, after falling out with his fellow rangers, gets caught up in crime. When his buddies catch him, they string him up cordially (nothing personal) and he does them the favor of kicking his own horse out from under himself.

insanitybytes22
Member

Oh, amen to this post. I really appreciate Wilson’s willingness to tackle these issues. The theology here is certainly flawless and beautiful. One thing I like to stress,victims don’t need to be more forgiving,they need to be more forgiven. So there are different kinds of forgiveness, forgiving abusers is only one. Wilson is right to speak of that as being a bilateral thing. But there are other forgivenesses that need to happen, forgiveness for having been vulnerable, forgiveness for having been unable to stop it, forgiveness for having been deceived, forgiveness for having tried to rationalize and excuse it. Whatever… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I do see your point here. But how would you counsel somebody in this situation so that they wouldn’t hear this as blame for not stopping the abuse and so on? I’m wondering what could be said that would be gentle enough not to make it seem as if she is guilty as well.

Daniel Fisher
Member

One quick observation… I agree with all, and do recognize that in the larger process even the victim needs to repent and be forgiven for the things they may have done wrong in the process. But I would be extremely careful in using the idea of forgiveness about things that are not actually sinful. Many victims are far too quick to blame themselves, to believe they were complicit in the abuse, or to think they brought in on somehow. However, I would not want to offer “forgiveness” for something that wasn’t actually a sin. So I’m uncomfortable with the language… Read more »

jigawatt
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jigawatt

I wonder if Doug would provide us a distinction between “visable church member”, “new covenant member”, and “Christian”.

Rick Davis
Guest
Rick Davis

Read his book “Reformed is Not Enough”. It’s basically an entire book that addresses your exact question.

To offer my own summary, I think Wilson would say that all three of those terms can be used interchangeably, that all three are visible and external in nature, and that none of the three imply eternal election or salvation. One can be a faithless Christian, a faithless new covenant member, a faithless member of the visible church, and end up in hell.

insanitybytes22
Member

I really believe Wilson’s bit about forgiveness from the other day should be in here somewhere, because there were some real treasures there, too.

https://dougwils.com/s8-expository/real-forgiveness.html

Rob Steele
Guest
Rob Steele

Typos: “his crime against to you”, “we will have pursue it”.

Great stuff, particularly

> 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.

Capndweeb
Guest
Capndweeb

Well done. Especially the part about the gift being wrapped and ready. I have come across those who have their gift in a brown paper bag set on fire and oh how they intend and make great plans to take it over and set in on the offender’s porch. Instead, it smolders and burns and smokes on their own porch, sometimes for a lifetime.

Wendy Dibble-Lohr
Guest
Wendy Dibble-Lohr

(From Andrew, Wendy’s husband) If he was not excommunicated, and he gets out of jail and shows up for communion with y’all, what happens? (Yeah, I know this is imaginary, and you know why I ask about such possibilities.)
Some of the covenanters (Richard Cameron) excommunicated the King of England without subjecting him to trial.
Some of the later Scots Presbyterians would require anyone who planned to take communion to get a token from the elders, which token they would turn in when they partook.

Bike bubba
Guest

I really appreciate the part about forgiveness, at least at the human level, being a two way transaction. I cannot forgive someone who claims not to have fault in that area–he does not think he needs forgiveness. In fact, I got a call today from a relative of someone so hurt–the police have done what they think can be done, the family has done what they know how to do, and now it’s simply a question of being there to help if there are flashbacks or a need for continued encouragement. If you are even moderately approachable, you will have… Read more »

insanitybytes22
Member

Myself, I tend to believe we need God’s forgiveness. There is entirely too much focus on seeking other people’s forgiveness. People actually do not have the power of redemption,that comes from Jesus Christ. Far too many seek forgiveness from other people as a form of manipulation, both to avoid turning to Christ and to farther abuse the people they’ve hurt. The only time we actually need forgiveness from other people is when we are trying to be restored into right relationship with them, to make amends or restore fellowship.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

This is one of the great differences between Christianity and Judaism about which my ex-husband and I used to have long discussions. In Judaism, only you can forgive an offense I commit against you. Even God cannot forgive me if you do not.

insanitybytes22
Member

I totally believe that only Jesus can forgive and redeem us. So even if someone else were to forgive you, it is not redemption or grace. Forgiveness is really far more about setting us free than it is about trying to restore anyone else.

In abuse cases it’s an extra sticky wicket, because on top of all else, such thinking burdens a victim with their abuser’s salvation.

Daniel Fisher
Member

I assume we mean modern day Judaism? David didn’t hesitate to ask forgiveness from God, and I don’t think he had opportunity to receive Uriah’s forgiveness for that convenient murder…

Not to mention David’s otherwise preposterous words to God when he said, “against you alone have I sinned…”

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Sometimes I think we expect forgiveness to happen too quickly. Some people process their feelings and experiences very slowly, and may not have the sense of anger and betrayal hit them until long after the event. You may have been praised by your loved ones for your quickness to forgive, your lack of bitterness and so on, only to find that, down the road when you actually feel injured, you are locked into a pretense that you’re a regular Mother Teresa in the forgiveness department. I think we also tend to expect that forgiveness is a one-time event. In my… Read more »

adad0
Member

Well, Jilly, here is one thing Jesus says about forgiveness, and that is that rebuke is part of the process!

Luke 17
3 So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

re·buke
1.express sharp disapproval or criticism of (someone) because of their behavior or actions.
“she had rebuked him for drinking too much”
synonyms: reprimand, reproach, scold, admonish, reprove, chastise, upbraid, berate, take to task, criticize, censure;

insanitybytes22
Member

While that is true A-dad, where there has been abuse, rebuke simply becomes rejection. So once again, we have to first establish that God loves you, that He isn’t going anywhere. That was my big issue with Wilson’s other broken girl post. Our theology can be correct but if we’re not addressing the needs right before us, it will fall flat. Rebuke is precisely the wrong response.

adad0
Member

Memi, I was thinking that it would be right for the girl to rebuke her father for his sexual abuse of her. Are we talking about the same thing? When Jilly is asking if there is a place for what I would call righteous anger in the process of rebuke, correction and forgiveness, I think there is a place for righteous anger from the offended to the offender. It can’t and should not go on forever, but the cost of transgressions should be expressed and understood. I would think the girl does have righteous anger that she must express to… Read more »

insanitybytes22
Member

You’re not missing the point A-dad. “Be ye angry, but do not sin.” Anger can be healthy.

I was thinking more along the lines of Jude 1:9, “Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.”

It’s very easy to get trapped in endlessly rebuking the evil. Even the angel Michael, warrior that he was, just went with, “the Lord rebuke you.”

adad0
Member

“It’s very easy to get trapped in endlessly rebuking the evil.”

Sounds like Jeff and Barb. Their buddy Lundy has made a career out of endless, and ungodly “rebuke”.

Where we might also agree, is that our rebuke, correct as it may be, does not bring about repentance. True repentance is the work of God, not men.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I think the problem is that, ideally, we should have had the girl’s letters as well. What you would say to a grieving victim in the moment should be quite different to what you would say to her years later if she is bent on self-destruction because she can’t deal with the turmoil.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

You mean like with: “But it does mean there must be no malice, anger, rage, spite, or bitterness on your end.”?

Considering how Pastor Wilson speaks about people who happen to have a different political position than him, it was a bit perplexing to see h insist on this to a girl who had had THAT done to her by her father.

Daniel Fisher
Member

He can correct me, but reading this post through my lenses of having dealt with this with numerous people, I did not notice the sense that she ought not have righteous indignation. Maybe I was reading into it, but such righteous anger I read as having been assumed. I read “anger” as being qualified by words as “malice” and “spite”, and assume we’re talking about the kind of seething, unforgiving hostility that is called “anger.” If pastor Wilson literally means forgiveness means having no anger at sin, then I would demure. Even the perpetrator needs to grow to have a… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Thank you, that is helpful. I believe that time is essential for the wounded party. I have seen on Court TV when the murderer asks for the forgiveness of his victim’s loved ones, and I cringe because it is just too soon to impose that burden on them. Especially when it is part of a speech on why he shouldn’t get the death penalty for his crime! On the other hand, I have read really inspiring stories of criminals who go through a lengthy process of repentance and eventually meet with family members who are prepared to listen and even… Read more »

Lance Roberts
Guest

Forgiveness shouldn’t be based on feelings. When someone has wronged me, as soon as I realize the need (usually because I’m dwelling on it) I forgive them. And by that I mean that I speak to God and forgive them, taking any longer just gives more ground to Satan to tempt you to bitterness.

insanitybytes22
Member

That’s a good point. In the modern world we’ve gotten very focused on authenticity, as if we’re lying if our feelings don’t match our words or our actions. I really encourage us to get away from that kind of thinking. In marriage for example,sometimes we will speak in clipped tones, not really feeling those “please and thank yous,” and yet it’s really all the sweeter to just make the effort, even when it doesn’t feel right. A lot of people now perceive that kind of thing as “lying,” and I think that really hinders us. Also, feelings tend to come… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I think you are right about that. Often, forcing ourselves to behave as if we had good feelings will help the feelings happen. But I think it’s important not to delude ourselves about what we are actually thinking and feeling because unacknowledged emotion tends to pop out in unhealthy ways. Like deciding that God wants me to lose 20 pounds on the Anorexia Boot Camp diet!

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I agree with you that forgiveness involves the will. But if one’s feelings are totally disregarded, you might come to believe that you have forgiven the offender while still being furiously angry with him. Unacknowledged anger is poison to the spirit.

Lance Roberts
Guest

I agree you can’t disregard the feelings, because their purpose is to indicate to ourselves what’s going on inside. We need to know that we have an anger issue that we have to yield to God (as an example).

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

I have a hard time seeing this as a real letter to a traumatized girl. Would you seriously speak this way? I’ve spent quite a bit of time with women who have been through exactly this and similar abuse, and the language here is so academic and abstract that I have a difficult time imagining them taking it in.

adad0
Member

J’, The Christ Church “Women Freed” site has had some recent posts. The one below, and the most recent one, sound like women Wilson has counseled, speaking to the issue you raise.

http://www.womenfreed.com/2017/03/freedom-in-christ-alone.html

insanitybytes22
Member

I agree, Jonathan. I’ve really enjoyed these letters, I appreciate their academic and abstract approach. I do doubt their ability to speak to a young, traumatised girl, but than again, that isn’t really their purpose. They are fictional, a bit like parables perhaps.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I agree with you about that. I think that real letters to a real girl would need a different tone, and heaven knows how that can be easily found. But I remember being instructed on the very day after my husband walked out the door that I must not indulge in any hard feelings towards him. I was told that my soul contains two wolves, a sweet, fluffy tame one and a vicious, hateful, ravening one, and I was asked which wolf I thought would predominate. I looked at my spiritual adviser blankly, and he said, “The one that you… Read more »

Sharon Dorminy
Member
Sharon Dorminy

From one who drank the rat poison… thank you, Doug. Oh how I wish someone had been brave enough to share this with me in my pain many years ago.

Billtownphysics
Guest
Billtownphysics

This is really very helpful. The part about forgiveness not meaning trust is a key thing that is often misunderstood. Thanks for this.