God Calls Us to Forgive, But He Doesn’t Call Us to Be Stupid
John Zmirak and I had lunch together last week near his home in Dallas. I told him afterward, “I’d really like to meet your beagles.” They show up in our Zoom conversations pretty regularly, and I grew up with beagles myself. So he invited me over to meet Finnegan and Rain. From there, an Uber to the airport, and I’m surprised the airline didn’t charge me extra for the dog hair I carried on board. It was worth it.
I think the world of John. I call him a crazy man, too. Crazy for his (understatement alert!) colorful communication style, that is. We don’t disagree on much, though, including whether and how Donald Trump should forgive the people who’ve been hounding him so criminally the past six years or so. John just put up a pair of columns on that. We were talking about this, and he said, “Sounds like you’ve given this forgiveness issue a lot of thought. You should write on it.”
So I did, and here it is, except at the end, I realized I had to come back around and rewrite this intro. Because for all our differences in style, as you’ll see, John and I are saying the same thing. Including the second article, where he was calling down imprecations on Trump’s enemies.
Forgiveness R Us?
I’m taking the topic broader than just Trump, though. You don’t need to be Donald Trump (or Joe Biden, for that matter) to have enemies. I’ve counted, and I’ve found a surprising majority of the Psalms — 90 out of 150 of them — explicitly mention enemies. If it’s not enemies then it’s your in-laws, your annoying neighbor, or your rotten boss.
What should you and I do with people who’ve done us harm? Especially if they don’t seem bothered that they did it to us? If they’re still glad they did it to us? Do we still have to forgive in that case? What could that even mean? What does it look like?
The first question has a simple answer. “Do we have to forgive?” Yes. Note I said simple, not easy. Doing it may be hard, but knowing whether we ought to do it isn’t.
Jesus’ message couldn’t be clearer. Where He teaches us to pray, it includes, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” After the prayer he puts a special punch behind that one line: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
There’s no “if they repent” clause there. There’s none in His parable of the unforgiving servant, either. You see a lot of pleading there, but not much repenting. Still the stakes are just as high this time: If you want to be forgiven, you need to forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t depend on what they say or do to us. We forgive because of what God has spoken to us and done for us. Those who know Christ know He has forgiven them for much more than they could ever have to forgive another person.
Does That Mean I Have to Like Him Now?
So, “forgive and forget,” right? Sometimes. In a way. If you can forget the anger, forget the hurt, that’s a good thing. (Especially if you’re talking marital arguments.) And if you can end it with smiles and hugs, so much the better. When the Bible talks about dealing with people problems, it almost always talks about restoration and reconciliation. Except when it talks about separation.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, though. Instead it means giving up any self-satisfying need, any “right” we might think we have to make the other person hurt for hurting us. It’s saying instead, “Okay, that was bad. We don’t need to make it worse. What’s the best thing now for all concerned? Including the one who hurt me?”
Because Jesus calls us not only to forgive our enemies, but to love them. Loving in this context doesn’t mean hanging out together, giving the other person sweet looks and sharing sweet chocolate treats. It doesn’t even have to mean you like the person. Instead it means seeking what’s best for them.
For that, you have to forgive. Bitterness can’t get you there. It ruins your sleep, it messes with your health, it can kill your spirit, and it will certainly cloud your mind. You can’t begin to think of how to love your enemy while you’re still hoping he’ll get what’s coming to him. Your clouded mind can’t even see the awful shape you’d be in if God gave you “what’s coming to you.” He’s forgiven you and me of so much, it’s unthinkable not to forgive others.
Trust? That Depends
So for your own sake, by all means yes, forgive. Then use that unclouded mind of yours to think through what’s best going forward. Invite the person back into your life? Maybe, maybe not. What have you learned just now? Maybe he’s just shown you he’s the kind of character who will do the same thing again, to you or to someone else. If you’ve learned a lesson like that, forgetting is the last thing you want to do.
God calls us to forgive, not to be stupid. Nothing in scripture says you must expose yourself to repeated harm for no good reason. Christians who braved the plague to care for others were doing a wise and loving thing. Christians who forgive a thief and then blindly invite him back into their unguarded house aren’t just asking to be ripped off, they’re openly inviting the man to rob them. If he’s guilty of sin for it, they share in that guilt.
Forgiveness is unconditional, trust isn’t. The Proverbs are full of advice to stay clear of fools, tempters, rip-off artists, and people who are in it for themselves. The New Testament practically slams the door shut on people who teach false gospels. That’s the separation I mentioned earlier.
Trust a person who’s shown he’s trustworthy. Otherwise, keep your doors locked, your passwords secure, and your kids safe where the evil person can’t get to them. It’s one reason we have prisons.
What’s Best for Whom?
But we were also talking about what’s best for the perpetrator, weren’t we? Maybe we should just let him go. No retaliation, no restitution, no punishment. “You’re forgiven; you’re free!”
If it’s really good for him, then sure, do it. If he needs a character lesson, though, consequences may be the best teacher, and the most loving thing is to give him what he needs. Even if it doesn’t teach him what he needs to know, maybe someone else will learn from it.
Forgive and Love
So yes, forgive. Always. But if you need a rule, don’t make it, “forgive and forget.” Make it, “forgive and love.” Love the perpetrator by giving them what they need. Maybe it will mean a full return to loving friendship, like my friends who are very happily married today, a dozen years after his adulterous affair. He suffered serious, painful consequences for it, he learned from it, and his repentance was real. Slowly, gradually, painfully, he demonstrated that he could be trusted again, and even more slowly and gradually she gave him that trust again. Neither one of them is forgetting it, though. To leave those lessons behind could kill their marriage all over again.
A lot of people never get there. Some don’t want to. They just go on harming others instead. Forgive them? Yes. But stop them, too. “Forgive and love,” isn’t just for the two of you, you know. “I forgive you, yes. But if you won’t quit hurting people that way, I’ll do whatever it takes to stop you.”
And if you need an illustration for that, go back and read what John Zmirak wrote about what some of Donald Trump’s enemies need most.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.