The Hard Sayings: Forgive

The Hard Sayings of Jesus are generally those saying in the gospels attributed to Jesus that seem quite hard to accept as they are so radical. I think Mormons, who have a tendency to contextualize everything in as broad a way as possible miss how radical some of these sayings are. Our instinct, perhaps understandable, is to tone them down.

I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t do that. Further I think that often the hard sayings are made hard by de-contextualizing them even from their immediate context. Yet I find myself often returning to these hard sayings, double checking myself. What if I am wrong in how I read them? I think that can be helpful. We should always have a healthy humility and appreciation of our own fallibilism.

The hard saying I’ve been thinking about the most of late are those in Matthew about forgiveness. There are several parables there where Christ tells us we must forgive everyone. Further in the parable of Matt 18 it’s clear that the person who forgives, forgives the debt. The problem then becomes, how can we punish someone if we forgive them?

Ethically this leads to a problem since of course it can be dangerous to forgive some in the sense of literally treating it as if they had never committed the act. Further, the way Matthew presents this it seems like we are to forgive regardless of whether the offending party has repented. The verses in Matthew 18 prior to verse 21 seem to suggest we are to go to the person that has offended up and take up witness, but it doesn’t indicate any action. Now of course other Biblical books do add more. This view appears to be one of Matthews and isn’t found nearly as strong in the other gospels. For Matthew if you want to be forgiven you must forgive everyone. This is especially emphasized in his portrayal of the Sermon of the Mount.

Consider what would happen if you were neighbors with Jeffrey Dahlmer and discovered he was a horrific serial killer. He asks you to forgive him. Now to the literalist who reads Matthew you are required to forgive him which means taking away any debt he has. But of course that’d be a terribly unethical thing to do. How do we reconcile this?

Note I’m not here thinking of systematic theology. I know that’s easy to answer there. We could, for example, turn to Luke’s treatment of these things where forgiveness is conditional on repenting. But of course even there, in Luke 17, it’s not quite that easy. We have to forgive if the person just says repent.

I’ve got a few thoughts on how to deal with this. But I’d like to hear yours before I present mine in a followup post.

4 thoughts on “The Hard Sayings: Forgive”

  1. Can the ethical questions be handled by a different agency? Perhaps, like a church court? The individuals offended must (ultimately) forgive the offender while the church does what it must do to protect its constituents from further offenses.

    1. Hello Clark,

      I have been hesitant to interact with very many blogs anymore, because I have come to see things out of the norm.

      Philip Yancey (in my opinion) does a great job discussing this (forgiveness) in his award winning book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” I would highly recommend it to you. It was life changing for me. But, I gave up long ago expecting others to get what I got out of it. Still, you are different, maybe you will be able to appreciate it where others do not. 🙂

  2. Forgiving does not mean letting someone off the hook. It means that you will stop hating them, that you will see them as children of God, and that you do not seek ill for them or seek revenge. Consequences still apply: prison, divorce, fines, punishments, etc. But the consequences can be dealt out in peace. Some consequences will have to be dealt out by God, and we trust him to do it right. In the parable, clearing the debt was a gift in addition to forgiveness. Such gifts are optional in our fallen world. The parable foreshadows the gifts of grace in heaven.
    We are commanded to forgive everyone, but more for our sakes than theirs. Hate and revenge destroy the victim.

  3. I think that’s right Beth.

    I got too busy to do my followup post, but I think after you forgive someone it’s your duty to help someone. Leaving someone in their sins unaided or letting someone hurt others is wrong independent of the question of forgiveness. There are always limits on how we intervene. People have free agency and we have to respect that. But we also need a society of rules.

    If I speed for instance I should expect to pay a fine. That seems quite separate from the forgiveness issue. The idea is really at-one-ment as a reconciliation. Forgiveness is doing your part in that reconciliation.

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