Forgive The One Who Repents
Forgiveness. Mercy. Words that describe what we want from others but aren’t always good at extending to others. I’ve said this before, but Harry Conn said something once that has stuck with me: “You have a lot of nerve asking Jesus to forgive you of something if you aren’t willing to forgive someone of something they have done to you.” We are to forgive as God forgives, and God does not forgive unless the sinner repents, so it is important to keep that in mind. However, our anger can cause us to prevent a person from repenting, and it can keep us from forgiving a person that does come to us in repentance. Something I have learned is that we are more willing to “forgive” when the scales are balanced in our relationship with the other person.
Years ago, a wife confessed to her husband, who was a pastor, that she had been unfaithful to him about a decade prior to her confession. It crushed him, of course. In his pain and anger, after finding out he had been betrayed, the pastor sought to “even the score.” Not finding the situation he was looking for, he acknowledged that he paid someone for what he was looking for. The pastor left the church after his confession. I knew this man. He was a humble man that was sensitive to God, but this situation led to a terrible choice on his part. Some were willing to show him mercy, others perhaps not so much. Though I was involved in church, I was young and inexperienced, and it did not weigh on my mind much at the time, but I have thought about him often since then. The pain he felt must have been unbearable. The woman that he loved and had committed to had betrayed him. There is no greater form of betrayal. He did not respond as he should have, and I have confidence that he believes today that he only made the problem worse by his actions. When I say that he sought to even the score, I don’t mean that it was necessarily for the purpose of revenge. Though I can’t say I have been in his exact situation, I have life experiences too, and I have reacted as he did. I think his act was a coping mechanism to try to ease the pain more so than an act of revenge. There is something to be said for the idea that people find it easier to “forgive” if they can bring balance to the relationship by doing something themselves that requires forgiveness. Even if this is the case, I am not saying that revenge is in no way present, only that a subsequent “in-kind” act may not have “pay back” as its sole motivation. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. We don’t like for there to be an imbalance in our relationships, especially in the most important relationship of all, our marriage. Pain may lead us to try to balance the right and wrong in a relationship by doing something that makes us feel less vulnerable, less taken advantage of, less victimized. So we balance the ledger. This may appeal to the psyche at the time, but indeed, it makes matters worse, and it is definitely not Christ-like. I am not self-righteously criticizing this man; I have seen the same in myself. I have identified it and I know it must be corrected in my life.
Thankfully, the Lord does not expect the ledger to be evened before he will forgive. Some people’s view of the atonement implies this, but I think they are in error. I don’t believe that our sins must be “paid for” before God will forgive, as described in the Penal Substitution Theory (PST) of the atonement. In fact, I don’t think our personal sins are paid for at all. The Bible doesn’t use that terminology. A price was paid for sure; Christ suffered and died for our sins. But I believe the Moral Government Theory (MGT) of the atonement captures the truth of scripture better than the PST. Under the MGT, Christ died not to placate God or to even the ledger so God would be willing to forgive, he died because God was already merciful and willing to forgive, but he could not forgive in such a way that his Moral Law would be undermined. Christ, therefore, died as our substitute, to meet the governmental demands of the law (even more so than the infliction of the penalty upon sinners would have) so that God’s law is not undermined, and so God can remain just in forgiving sinners. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we can be truly forgiven when we repent. Our sins are forgiven, not paid for. There is a difference.
The Lord died so that all men who come to repentance can be forgiven. But many will not submit to the Lord and his sacrifice is trampled under their feet. Christ made himself vulnerable for all, he suffered for all, knowing that many would reject him and care nothing about his sacrifice. God does not make us pay for our sins before we can be forgiven. He does not even the score so that it does not appear that he has been taken advantage of. He forgives repentant sinners, freely. It is not unconditional (Isaiah 55:1-7) but it is free.
When I am done wrong, I cannot seek to soothe my ego by balancing the ledger in my relationship. If the person is repentant, I am to freely forgive, with no strings attached. We are to forgive as the Lord forgives. We are not to make the person “pay” somehow, and we are not to do something that “evens things up.” Even if it makes it look like we have been taken advantage of and the person is getting off free for sinning against us, we are to set aside the ego and forgive if the person repents.
I hope the man that I am speaking of has found peace. I hope his wife has too. I hope their relationship has healed. May we learn from our mistakes and put on the mind of Christ as we walk through this life.