Monday, December 21, 2015

When Bitterness Finds the Freedom of Faith

I’m writing this out of the delightful lesson (reminder) this morning that bitterness is not necessarily handled through forgiveness (though it is sometimes needed), but it is always handled through faith. Yes, we can have complete freedom from bitterness through faith, even when no forgiveness is included. As novel as that may sound, please bear with me, because God’s book is clearer on this than we may imagine.

One of the difficulties in relating to people who have wronged us is that the church seems to see only two options. Option one, is bitterness; option two, is forgiveness. If we are bitter, it is because we haven’t forgiven them. If we want to stop being bitter, “just forgive”, as the cliché goes.

This works fine and well when someone has come to us in repentance, confessing what they have done to us, and we know that it is God’s will to forgive them. Jesus’ words are very clear when he speaks of a brother who has sinned against us. Even “if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”[1]

No questions. Brother sins, even numerous times, but repents every time, we forgive every time. Simple (no matter how not easy) as that.

The question is, what do we do when someone sins against us, perhaps is sinning against us still, and has never repented of what they have done? Does God’s book teach us to forgive unrepentant people?

The short answer is that there is no example in the Bible of God forgiving an unrepentant person; there is no example of any apostle or prophet of either covenant forgiving an unrepentant person; and there is no verse in the whole of the Bible telling us that it is God’s will for us to forgive unrepentant people.[2] On the other hand, there are plenty of teachings and examples of God withholding forgiveness, and extending discipline, because his people have yet to repent.

Now, since it always seems to come up that, when people think Jesus forgave sinners while he was being crucified, and the people who had crucified him were clearly unrepentant in their sin, this surely must be an irrefutable example of forgiving unrepentant people.

Let me just say that, Jesus was not forgiving his enemies while he was dying on the cross, but was praying for them, just as he instructs us to do.[3] His words were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[4] Whom was Jesus talking to? His Father. What was Jesus asking his Father to do? Forgive them. Can we follow Jesus’ example of asking the Father to forgive unrepentant people? Absolutely. It totally fits Jesus’ instructions to pray for enemies and abusers, and it is a significant part of us experiencing freedom from bitterness even while not forgiving unrepentant people.

In fact, try this next time someone comes to mind who is unrepentant in their sin against you or your church: pour out your heart to God about what these people have done to you, telling him all the hurts and heartaches they have caused, and then ask God to forgive them. Adding the, “for they know not what they do”, is optional, since sometimes people are very aware of what they are doing. Keep praying this out with God until you have handed everything over to your heavenly Father, trusting that he will answer your prayer however his divine will sees fit. It is no longer up to you whether they are forgiven, but your heart is free to continue loving them, blessing them, doing good to them, praying for them, and trusting God with anything you need for the healing of your brokenheartedness, and the binding up of your wounds.[5]

If God does not require us to forgive unrepentant people, what do we do to experience freedom from the bitterness? If forgiving a repentant person will free us from any bitterness towards them, how do we get that same freedom when forgiving someone is contrary to the will of God?

The answer is simple and clear: Faith! It is not forgiveness that delivers us from bitterness. That would make the freedom from bitterness based on a work we do, rather than a gracious work of God within our souls. Instead, our freedom from bitterness comes by putting our faith in God regarding whatever unrepentant wrongs have been committed against us.

By this I mean, when we truly connect with God in genuine faith that his sovereign goodness will handle unrepentant sinners in a way that perfectly meets all his holy and righteous demands for justice, we can truly leave the present injustice in his hands. When we have the faith of a little child who leaves the issue in God’s hands, and then puts our attention on being with him, and walking with him, and keeping in step with his Spirit, we will find that our bitterness is healed because the injustice is in God’s hands, not ours. We are free to enjoy him in what he is doing now, instead of remaining bogged down by them and what they did who knows how long ago.[6]

The most direct teaching to the issue of handling unrepentant sin in others is God’s instruction, “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.’”[7] We are never to avenge ourselves on those who wrong us, repentant or unrepentant alike. What do we do instead? We leave it to “the wrath of God.”

Why do we leave it “to the wrath of God”? Why not leave it to the love of God, or the grace of God, or the mercy of God, or the kindness of God? The answer is that God is a God of pure and perfect justice. If a wrong has been committed, God will act justly against it. He will mete out whatever expression of wrath any sin requires. However, can you “leave it” with him to do so?

There are two ways that God will absolutely and always express pure and perfect wrath against every sin. Of course, this means that he will deal just as justly with us as with anyone who has ever sinned against us, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.[8]

One way God will express pure and complete wrath against sin is in the coming judgment. Every sin will be punished, no exceptions. Anything we have left to the wrath of God will get the full wrath of God that sin deserves.[9]

The other way God expresses pure and complete wrath against sin is in the condemnation he poured out upon his own Son upon the cross. John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[10] For Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins, it meant that he removed God’s wrath against our sins by taking that wrath upon himself. God can now forgive us, not because he ignores justice to do so, but that his justice is fully satisfied. He expressed his whole wrath against our sin on his Son; there is none left; God forgives us because justice has been met.

When we “leave it” to God’s wrath when there is unrepentant sin against us, it means we have complete faith that all the demands of God’s justice against those sinners will be satisfied. Every ounce, smidgeon, mite, or sliver, of wrath will be poured out against that sin.

However, do you trust God to pour out his wrath in the way he deems righteous? Are you willing to trust God to forgive completely the (presently) unrepentant sinner because the wrath of God against their sin has already been poured out on your Lord Jesus Christ? Or, can you only be free from bitterness if they “rot in hell” for what they have done to you?

I hope that, should such a discrepancy exist (that of wanting unrepentant sinners to rot in hell while seeking God for his gracious forgiveness in our direction), we recognize it as a lack of faith. We do not trust God to do the right thing, so we feel we need to continue holding bitterness against the person.

Whenever I see this justice-issue shining through someone’s expression of bitterness, I see a heart that has not truly experienced the depths of unmerited mercy and grace expressed through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.[11] If we cannot trust God in faith for justice towards unrepentant sinners, there is something wrong in our own experience of faith in God’s mercy towards sinners like ourselves.

I write this out of a heart that has walked through many such cases of unrepentant sin against me. I have entered the worlds of abuse, and dissociation, and childhood trauma, while getting to know Jesus Christ all the better no matter what I have had to face of my own, or what stories I have travelled through with others.

I once ascribed to the notion that we experience freedom from bitterness by using the forgiving-everyone-of-everything-all-the-time model. Somewhere along the way I realized that is not the biblical way at all, and that it is not our place to grant forgiveness on unrepentant people. Justice is in God’s hands, not ours.[12]

What is required is that we learn to “leave it” with God by faith. If we can’t leave an injustice in God’s hands, it is a faith issue. Go look in a mirror. Ask the Spirit of God to reveal the true condition of your soul. Ask him why you cannot trust him with justice against the unrepentant. There is a real and genuine need in our souls, and it must be brought to God for healing; I simply contend that it is faith that leads us into the experience of what we need.

We are called to do many things in relation to unrepentant people.[13] However, forgiveness is not one of them. Praying for their forgiveness, as Jesus did, is actually very liberating. We then carry on with our lives, walking in the Spirit by faith, and continuing to “leave it” to God to handle whatever new injustices confront us along the way, or old injustices rise up from the hidden places of our souls.

There is freedom from bitterness in our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us come to God and experience that freedom by faith.

© 2015 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[1] Luke 17:4
[2] The verses often used to say we ought to forgive unrepentant people do not specify whether they are referring to situations of repentance, or situations of unrepentance. We need to look at the Scriptures that specifically address who we are to forgive to know how to interpret all the others. I contend that all those verses are reminders of how we are to relate to people when they repent, just as God relates to us based on bringing us to repentance.
[3] Matthew 5:44. What I am sharing here is not a denial of Jesus’ instructions and example to pray for our enemies and persecutors, nor is it a denial of any of the other teachings about loving enemies, doing good to haters, blessing cursers, and praying for abusers (Luke 6:27-28; context Luke 6:27-36). This is only addressing the complete lack of teaching to forgive unrepentant people, along with presenting, not only a better way of dealing with our bitterness, but a response to unrepentant people that is according to what is revealed in God’s word.
[4] Luke 23:34
[5] Psalm 147:3
[6] Of course this covers all the most recent stuff as well!
[7] Romans 12:19; referenced from Deuteronomy 32:35; see also Proverbs 20:22, Psalm 94:1
[8] Romans 3:23
[9] Revelation 20:12
[10] I John 4:10
[11] I don’t mean they are not saved. No human can judge that. I mean they have part of themselves still consumed with something that has not yet felt the touch of God’s grace, therefore they are trying to satisfy justice-issues through their own brand of justice.
[12] Although I fully submit to what God’s book teaches about church discipline (see I Corinthians 5:1-13 as an example), rebuking a brother when he sins against us (Luke 17:3), showing a brother his fault until he either repents or is disciplined by the church (Matthew 18:15-20), and the various warnings about having nothing to do with unrepentant believers who resist our attempts to win them over (Titus 3:10).
[13] Romans 12:17-21 is a good example.

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