Unpacking Forgiveness - A Third Principle in Responding to the Unrepentant

In response to our last post on forgiveness, Unpacking Forgiveness Two Principles for Response, a reader sent this sign to me:

Though it may seem insensitive to some, the reader and I had a good laugh over it because the saying captures the frustration most people feel when they consider how they will get over the stupid things that people do.  Unfortunately, while it was good for a laugh, the saying does not illustrate well what we have learned over the last few weeks, unless we can understand that we may sometimes be 'the other person.'

Remember, the biblical definition of forgiveness according to author Chris Brauns in his book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is:

Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.

The above sign does not seem to fit that definition, because we don't know that the person on the other end was asking forgiveness. It could be that other driver that cut you off this morning, or a neighbor who left his water running overnight and flooded your basement. It could also be that person who hurt you as a child, the abusive parent, the child molester, the kids who made fun of you. Whoever it is, part of the biblical requirement for forgiveness is that the two parties are working together toward reconciliation. If you are trying to forgive someone who has not asked for it, it isn't 'biblical forgiveness'. These are examples of 'therapeutic forgiveness', that we discussed earlier in this series.

So what approaches should you take when someone is not repentant, rather than forgiving privately like in therapeutic forgiveness?

Last time we talked about the first two principles in Romans 12: 17 - 20 that help us deal with the unrepentant. They were 1) Resolve not to take revenge and 2) Proactively show love.

The third principle that Brauns found in this scripture is found in verse 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.'"
Leave room for God's wrath. Does that sound a bit over the top? I don't think so. It's good advice. If we leave vengeance up to God that lifts a lot of weight off of our shoulders. We are free to move on. We don't have to worry about the person getting what he or she deserves. In Deuteronomy 32: 35, 43, God told the children of Israel not to take vengeance on the people who had wronged them. "This principle of leaving room for God's wrath is how Israel was equipped to deal with those who would do evil against them," Brauns writes. "And the summary of that passage is that God does not forgive everyone and that Israel should rest in the truth that God will 'avenge the blood of his children.'"

This is not something we like to hear in our modern day. We do not like a God of wrath. Brauns also writes something else that is equally unpopular, "Ultimately, this means that those who have been unrepentant should understand that offenders do face hell." This does not mean that someone who wrongs me will face hell because he or she has wronged a Christian. It means that those who are unrepentant toward God will face eternity in hell. Anything an unrepentant person does to harm another is a symptom of his or her refusal to repent to God.

This thought about hell should sober us. It should also move us to compassion. Brauns quotes German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "... it is only when God's wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one's enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts." Bonhoeffer wrote that passage from a cell in a Nazi prison. He knew what it meant to have enemies who were very evil, yet his priority was for God's compassion to flow through him. That's a lot different than the sentiment my reader friend and I laughed about, isn't it?

If we can let Jesus bear the load of our sins through his sacrifice on the cross, can we not let God handle the 'revenge', or 'judgment,' or whatever we want to call it, of those unrepentant offenders? Revenge is often motivated by hate, and hate is an emotion that can drain us of all that is good.

Next week, we'll talk about Jesus and his words from the cross. Did Jesus forgive those who crucified him? This is still part of the same chapter, but I want a little more time to go over what Brauns is saying.