Today, people commonly talk about forgiving God. But, is this idea biblical? This question surfaced last Saturday on my radio show, Up For Debate, and sparked passionate dialogue. Interestingly, my guest, who maintained that forgiveness is unconditional, argued that we can forgive God. But, author and Pastor Chris Brauns, who believes forgiveness is conditional, argued emphatically that we cannot. He further asserted that the notion of forgiving God is inextricably linked with the notion that forgiveness is unconditional — something he defined as “therapeutic forgiveness.” Intrigued, I asked Pastor Brauns to follow up by writing a guest post for my blog on the topic. Graciously, he agreed —and I am so glad he did because I think his reflections are extremely helpful. Enjoy! —Julie
By Chris Brauns
“Should Christians forgive God?” This question sounds outrageous, even blasphemous. Yet, in the eight years since publishing my book, Unpacking Forgiveness, I have found it is a forgiveness question frequently discussed. And, given that this question concerns the relationship between people and God, it is an eternally important one.
I haven’t conducted a scientific survey, but it is my impression that most Christians believe it is not appropriate to forgive God. I agree. Emphatically. We should never encourage someone to forgive God. The logic against forgiving God is straight-forward.
- God does not sin or wrongfully offend.
- Therefore, it is never necessary or acceptable to forgive God.
- Indeed, the implication of forgiving God – that God could do something that needs forgiving — is a blasphemous one. To forgive God is to accuse him.
The Case for Forgiving God
If you follow this logic, you might be surprised to learn that many pastors and theologians defend the opposite position. They insist that it is legitimate to counsel people to forgive God. Perhaps, the most well-known book that makes the case for forgiving God is Lewis Smedes’ Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. Smedes’ book was published in 1984 and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Seeking to help people, who are not at peace with God, Smedes wrote:
Would it bother God too much if we found our peace by forgiving him for the wrongs we suffer? What if we found a way of forgiving him without blaming him? A special sort of forgiving for a special sort of relationship? Would he mind?
To reinforce his position, Smedes shared the following story:
There is an old, old story about a tailor who leaves his prayers and, on the way out of the synagogue, meets a rabbi.
“Well what have you been doing in the synagogue, Lev Ashram?” the rabbi asks.
“I was saying prayers, rabbi.”
“Fine, and did you confess your sins?”
“Yes, rabbi, I confessed my little sins.”
“Your little sins?”
“Yes, I confessed that I sometimes cut my cloth on the short side, that I cheat on a yard of wool by a couple of inches.”
“You said that to God, Lev Ashram?”
“Yes, rabbi, and more. I said, ‘Lord, I cheat on pieces of cloth; you let babies die. But I am going to make you a deal. You forgive me my little sins and I’ll forgive you your big ones.’”
The Jewish tailor grabbed hold of God and held him to account.
More recently, R.T. Kendall argued even more boldly that it is acceptable to forgive God. Titling his book, Totally Forgiving God: When It Seems He Has Betrayed You, Kendall wrote:
Total forgiveness means letting everyone who has hurt us in any way off the hook. This includes God if we feel he has hurt us by allowing what he did.
Is Forgiveness a Transaction or a Feeling?
Now at this point we must ask, “How is it that Christians are so polarized on whether or not it is acceptable to forgive God?” This is not a question we can duck. Many hurting Christians long for biblical counsel on how to move beyond the pain of the circumstances they have endured, and their disillusionment, and even anger with God. How should we explain that pastors, who share a high view of Scripture, give such different advice?
In my studied opinion, the answer as to why Christians disagree so fundamentally about whether or not it is acceptable to forgive God is that the two camps define forgiveness in different ways.
On the one hand, a number of pastors and theologians define forgiveness as a transaction that happens between two parties. This is my position. I believe the Bible teaches that forgiveness is a commitment one party makes to the other. The nature of that commitment or promise is that an offense no longer stands between the offended and the injured party. This is how our heavenly father forgives. God’s forgiveness of those who believe in Jesus is not about God changing how he privately feels. Rather, at the moment a Christian receives the gift of eternal life by receiving Christ, their sins have been forgiven based on the atoning work of Christ (Romans 8:1, Colossians 1:14).
However, Smedes, Kendall, and others define forgiveness as a feeling, as a change that takes place in the disposition of the offended party. L. Gregory Jones (Embodying Forgiveness) calls this view “therapeutic forgiveness.”
Where therapeutic forgiveness is concerned, issues of sin and culpability are not primary. Rather, forgiveness is defined in terms of an offended party who “lets go” and chooses to no longer feel bitter about an .
To be sure, Christians should never harbor bitterness or take revenge (Romans 12:17-21). Rather, believers should proactively show love remembering that whatever anyone has done to offend them pales in comparison to what they have done to offend Christ (Matthew 18:21-35).
But letting go of bitterness, showing love, and not taking revenge, do not constitute biblical forgiveness. Like a hug or a handshake, biblical forgiveness requires two parties.
At this point the discussion may begin to feel like a tedious exercise in semantics. Yet, once forgiveness is emptied of its biblical meaning and defined as a feeling, it is virtually inevitable that people will be counseled that it is legitimate to forgive God. The misguided logic becomes:
- I should not feel angry and bitter towards God.
- To forgive means to no longer feel angry or bitter.
- Therefore, I should forgive God.
This, as I’ve said is disastrous logic. When people say they forgive God, there is clear implication of blame—regardless of whether they claim to do so without that intent. To forgive God is to accuse him.
Don’t Forgive God; Instead Repent
So what should a person who is angry with God do? Certainly there are times when it seems impossible to accept that a good, sovereign Creator would allow us to endure so much pain. We feel as though God has wronged us.
Anger and bitterness with God was the biblical Job’s struggle. While Job wasn’t perfect, the amount of suffering he endured seemed way out of proportion with the statement of his life. Job could not understand why he had to endure so much pain.
Another biblical example of someone who struggled with anger towards God was the Psalmist, Asaph, in Psalm 73. Psalm 73 is the diary of someone who wondered why God didn’t stop the wicked. So disillusioned was Asaph that at one point, he wondered if God was even fully aware of what wicked people were doing (Psalm 73:10-11).
In the end, what we see in the book of Job is that ultimately, to the extent that Job blamed God for his suffering, he repented. He did not “forgive” God. (In this context, I highly recommend David Powlison’s article, “.)” Likewise, the Psalmist found an answer, not in forgiving God, but entering the sanctuary of the Lord so as to know God more intimately and to be assured that in God’s time, God would prevail (Psalm 73:17-18).
The suffering person who is angry with God may feel as though the counsel to “repent” is angry and insensitive. But this counsel is quite the opposite. To hurting, bitter, angry people, Jesus extends his beautiful invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The encouragement to repent is a tender invitation to turn back to Jesus and accept his invitation of rest and refreshment.
The encouragement to repent is a tender invitation to turn back to Jesus and accept his invitation of rest and refreshment.
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:16-18)
Listen to the live debate between Chris Brauns and Remy Diedrick on whether forgiveness is conditional or unconditional, visit upfordebate.org.
About the Author
Chris Brauns is the pastor at The Red Brick Church in Stillman Valley, IL. Chris has also written several books, including “Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds.” Chris received a BA in chemistry from Central College in Pella, IA and an MBA from the University of Northern Iowa. Before pastoring, Chris worked in product development in medical diagnostics for Bayer. After leaving the corporate world, Chris graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree and received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Jamie, have four children.
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