This past Sunday’s GraceTalk included the following question…
I struggle to know the difference between forgiving someone for sinning against me and allowing them back into my world. Do I have to just forgive and forget? If this is true, I don’t know how. Thoughts?
It is sometime hard to tell exactly where the author of a question like this is coming from. Is this person having trouble forgiving? Is he or she able to forgive, but struggling with the practical implications of the person after forgiving? And as is the case with most questions, the details of the particular situation are important. Given all of that, we’ll look at the biblical principles involved.
We are to forgive others as God forgives us…
The Bible is clear that we are to forgive others the way God forgives us. Here are just a few of the many passages that express this.
In Mathew 18, as soon as Jesus gets through explaining what to do when your brother sins against you, Peter asks him how many times, he must forgive his brother. Peter thinks he’ll impress Jesus with the answer of seven (Rabbinic teaching said that a man had to be forgiven three times), but Jesus tells them that he must forgive 70 times seven.
Then Jesus goes on to give a parable of a man who is forgiven a great sum owed to the king, and then turns around and refuses to forgive a small debt owed to him. When the king finds out, he throws the man in jail. Jesus then says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
In Matthew 6:12, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God would “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Then in Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus says “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.”
God forgives us completely…
Now that we know that we are to forgive others as God forgives us, then we need to see how God forgives us.
In Psalm 103:12, David declares… “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he [the LORD] remove our transgressions from us.”
Here is the one most relevant to our question. Hebrews 8:12, the writer is quoting Jeremiah 31:34 when he says of the LORD “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
If I am having trouble forgiving, it is a sign that I don’t appreciate how much I have been forgiven. No matter what anyone has done to me, it does not compare to the way I have offended God.
Forgive and forget?
So, we are to forgive others as God forgives us. God forgives and forgets. So, we should forgive and forget. That seems to settle it, but it is never quite that simple. What does it mean that God will “remember our sins no more?”
It cannot mean that God has literally forgotten that we sinned. First, God is omniscient and couldn’t forget if He wanted to.
Second, we’ve got some passages to think about…
The same author that tells us that the Lord will remember our sins no more also tells us in chapter 12 that the Lord disciplines those he loves. It would be odd for God to discipline us without taking our particular sin or propensity to sin into account. Our author compares the Lord’s disciplining of us to that of a father to a child. Imaging disciplining your child while actively ignoring anything he has ever done wrong.
We also see consequences of sin even for believer…
In Acts 5, we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira. These two were presumably believers, but they lied about how much money they got for their land and God seemingly struck them dead.
In 1 Corinthians 11:30, Paul tells us that people are sick and have died as a consequence of eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. I don’t think this was a natural consequence (e.g., Cirrhosis of the liver), but must have been a rebuke from God.
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus tells us what to do with a sinning brother that refuses to repent. It eventually comes down to treating the sinning brother as an unbeliever.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus says “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He is clearly telling His followers to watch out for the crafty and sinful ways of those who would oppose them.
What is biblical forgiving and forgetting, then?
Forgiveness is all about the debt owed. When we sin against someone, we enter into a debt to that person. The Old Testament law described it as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 (note that retribution was always to be carried out within the framework of the law and proper authority).
When we forgive someone, we are relinquishing any claim to that debt. As far as the debt owed, it is as if it never happened.
In Romans 12:19-21, Paul captures this idea when he says… 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This is harder than we often think. If we hold on to any bitterness or anger toward someone we say we have forgiven, then we haven’t.
What about “allowing them back into my world?”
This is where it gets hard to answer the question without the context of the particular situation. Whatever case, here is the driving principal: What is the loving thing to do?
If it is more loving to allow them back into the situation where they first sinned, then do it. If it is more loving to remove them from the situation that tempted them to sin the first time, then do it.
Even as Christians, we lock our doors at night. We take prudent precautions against the potential sinful actions of others. Exposing ourselves in a way that we become a temptation for someone to sin against us is not showing love.
This is an instance where being honest with ourselves before the Lord is vital. Is it my own comfort that is driving my actions or genuine concern for my forgiven brother?