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Forgiving a Brutal Crime Against Your Family – Can You? Should you? Part 2

In my last post I pointed to a recent story in the news, the murder of a seven-year-old girl. A FedEx drive has been arrested for the senseless killing, and he has already confessed. I told you about the girl’s grandfather, who publicly announced that he has forgiven the man.

In popular culture, and certainly among Christians, too, forgiveness has come to mean an act of psychological healing on the part of a victim. By forgiving, we can unshackle ourselves from hatred and resentment, and move on with our lives.

I wonder, though, if you can forgive a terrible crime against your family too quickly. Is it possible you might dilute the meaning of forgiveness in so doing?

It seems to me that the emphasis of the New Testament is on the forgiveness we must give to other Christians – bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Colossians 3:13). The word doesn’t say as much about forgiving non-Christians. Jesus said we are to love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:44). This certainly rules out hating our enemies or plotting revenge. But is that the same thing as forgiving our enemies?

Jesus prayed while He was dying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?” (Luke 23:34). But does that mean His persecutors (and murderers) were forgiven? Well, no. Jesus was demonstrating the compassion that loves sinners, even the ones who plotted and carried out His murder. It’s interesting that He did not declare, “I forgive all of you.”

Jesus provided the means for forgiveness – His own substitutionary death, and He petitioned the Father for their forgiveness, which fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy: He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:13). And His prayer was answered in many cases, including in the life of the centurion who declared immediately upon the Lord's death, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54)

If we take our cues from God’s forgiveness, an attitude of forgiveness, or a willingness to forgive, is far different than granting forgiveness. Forgiveness involves two parties. Our God is a forgiving God, and His heart is willing to forgive anyone who confesses, repents, and believes on Jesus. But if that person doesn’t not repent and trust Christ, he will still be judged.

It is true that the Lord, in teaching His disciples to pray, emphasized the importance of forgiving people if we are to expect forgiveness. (See Matthew 6:12, 14-15). But we’re not told if the ones whose debts we are to have forgiven confessed their sins to us and asked forgiveness. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus taught us to forgive our brother as many as “seventy times seven,” but He made it clear that our brother must repent in order to be forgiven.

Forgiveness is complicated, especially in the case of crimes against ourselves and our family. I don’t expect to be able to untangle all the complications this side of glory. But here are a few conclusions I’ve reached.

1. Forgiving our enemies is not solely so that we ourselves will be free of hatred and be able to move on with our lives. And if done too quickly, without reckoning with the immense evil that was unleashed against your loved one(s), “forgiveness” might cheapen the cost of real forgiveness.*

2. Forgiveness does not nullify consequences. It is not contradictory to forgive an enemy while at the same time believing that he must bear responsibility for his crimes. Those consequences might include life-long imprisonment or execution.

3. God forbids us to harbor hatred toward anyone. Bitterness and a desire for revenge is not the gospel way. Our own bitter hearts will enslave us and allow evil to control us. The Bible commands that we have a compassionate, forgiving attitude toward everyone, including those who hurt us grievously. This is true whether our enemies express remorse and ask for our forgiveness or not.

4. One way that we expression compassion toward our enemies is to pray for them, that they might repent and believe the gospel. That is the example of our Lord as He hung in His last hours on the cross.

5. Forgiveness of those who have wronged us is ultimately about trust in our sovereign God to handle the situation with justice and compassion. The main verb (aphiemi) used in the New Testament for forgiveness means to let go, send away. Forgiveness is letting go of hatred and the desire to exact revenge upon an enemy, and acknowledging that it is the Lord who will make things right.

6. All of the above depends upon the Holy Spirit’s power and compassion. I don’t believe that this kind of forgiveness is possible in our own strength.

Let me close with a few questions to ponder:

  • Have you asked God to forgive you for your sins? Have you put your trust in Jesus alone for salvation?

  • Are you holding a grudge or an attitude of hatred or resentment toward another person?

  • Is there anyone you should apologize to and ask forgiveness from?

  • If you’re wrestling with a wrong done to you, would you forgive the person who did it if they asked you?

  • Have you “let go” of everything to our Sovereign Lord, and asked Him to enable you to forgive?

*I don’t mean this as a criticism of the grandfather I mentioned. As a grandfather myself, I have nothing but admiration and compassion for him and his whole family.

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