The Sin of Forgiveness?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/05/2013

Is it possible to forgive a wrong done to someone else? Should only those who repent be forgiven? Is forgiveness a selfish act, a way to make ourselves feel better? Greg grapples with these issues and more after a local community forgives a high school student who slew three classmates.

My comments today are in response to an article entitled “The Sin of Forgiveness” written by my colleague, Dennis Prager, published in the Wall Street Journal. Dennis expresses his deep concern about the knee-jerk tendency of many Christians to simply forgive egregious crimes committed against someone else.

Dennis cites a couple of examples. In one case a Christian pastor invited Americans to forgive Timothy McVeigh, found guilty of murdering 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. In a second case, Michael Carneil, a freshman at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, gunned down three students attending a prayer group on campus. A few days later the students erected a banner saying, “We forgive you, Michael.”

Dennis’s article makes three points. First, only the one who is wronged can forgive. These students weren’t the ones wronged. The ones murdered were wronged. Therefore, the students are out of place presuming to forgive.

Second, Prager argues that according to Jesus’ teaching, only those who repent are to be forgiven. It’s wrong to automatically forgive everyone who sins against us when repentance isn’t demonstrated.

Third, it’s selfish to offer forgiveness merely because of the psychological advantages it gives to oneself. Forgiveness isn’t for someone else; it’s for us, some hold. It makes us feel better. Dennis argues that this turns out to be selfishness disguised as idealism.

What may surprise you is that I agree with most that’s been said by Mr. Prager in this article, though I think some qualifications need to be made, especially to his last point about selfishness. Let’s take them one by one.

First, only the one who is wronged can forgive. Dennis writes, “Only those they sinned against have the right to forgive, and those they murdered are dead, and therefore cannot forgive them.” He adds, parenthetically, “That is why I believe that humans cannot forgive a murder.” Forgiveness is obviously not available on this view because the only person who can forgive a murderer is now dead.

I’m not sure if this last comment means that even God can’t forgive a murderer, therefore a murderer can never be forgiven. If that’s what Dennis means, then I think he’s mistaken for reasons I’ll make clear in a moment.

I think Dennis is right when he says that only the one who is wronged can forgive. Such a statement seems self-evident. What does one forgive except a wrong against himself? If someone punches your neighbor in the nose, you can’t forgive that crime; the offense wasn’t against you. Therefore, it does seem presumptuous for these students to forgive Michael Carneil on behalf of their classmates who were killed.

Two caveats need to be made, though. First, all moral crimes are first of all crimes against God and only secondarily against man. If you recall Psalm 51, David—who had committed adultery and killed a man in the process of trying to cover up that adultery—says to God, “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned.”

Even though this was a sin of adultery against a woman and a sin of a murder against a man, David saw the sin principally as a sin against God.

This is especially true of the crime of murder. The central issue of murder—a violation of the sixth commandment—is not simply that someone has his life taken from him. That’s actually a violation of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Rather, the central crime of murder is the destruction of one who bears the image of God. As you recall in Genesis 9:6, God said to Noah in instituting capital punishment, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”

This tells us something very important. It gives us the foundational principle of all human rights and all human dignity, and all other rules, commands, or laws that naturally follow, including the commandment not to murder. Humans are valuable in that they are image bearers. This distinguishes them from all other beings on the planet—or in the universe, for that matter. Human beings bear God’s image.

Now, you might not have thought of this, but do you remember when Jesus was asked about paying taxes? He asked whose image was on the coin. What did He say then? “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Right?

That applies to this situation. Human beings bear God’s image and therefore belong to Him. So the crime of murder is first a crime against God, and therefore the most important forgiveness must come from Him because He is the principal One wronged.

By the way, God is the One most worthy of obedience and He is the One whose justice and punishment is ultimate and most severe. This is why He’s the principle subject for forgiveness and not just humans who were the object of the crime committed.

The second caveat I need to add to this concept—that only the one who is wronged can forgive—is that God and the students who were killed aren't the only ones this crime was against.

I think a case can be made that there’s an indirect crime done to others. For example, 17-year-old Jessica James was cut down that day. Though she lost her life, her parents also lost a daughter and her classmates lost a dear friend.

This is why condolences go out to family and friends of the deceased. We try to comfort the others in their loss. This is something Dennis even suggested we do, send warm condolences. But such an act is a tacit admission of a crime committed against those other than the deceased.

We comfort someone in their loss because they lost something. Something that was theirs was taken from them. If this is the case, then, it seems also the case—since they’ve suffered a loss, too—that they in some sense are in a position to extend forgiveness. These killings were not only crimes against the murder victims, but also crimes against the family and the community. From that perspective, forgiveness on some level from members of the community seems appropriate.

But that needs to be qualified by the second point Mr. Prager brings up in his article, that, according to Christianity—the teaching of Jesus—only those who repent are to be forgiven. He quotes Luke 17:3–4, “Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

In Matthew 18 a slave was forgiven a large debt. When someone who owed that slave a much smaller amount wanted forgiveness for himself from this slave who’d been forgiven such a great debt, the slave instead threw him into debtors prison. Of course, Jesus had very harsh words for that man. Point being, if we’ve been forgiven when we've asked for forgiveness, when others ask us for forgiveness we should forgive them in like manner.

Scripturally, this is a little bit of a mixed bag because there are other verses that don’t mention the repentance issue and talk only about forgiveness. It does seem, though, that the Luke 17 passage qualifies those other verses such that repentance is an important requirement. It doesn’t seem to be that God has commanded us to forgive everybody without qualification, because we see these occasions when the qualification is made. (Incidentally, even God doesn’t forgive everyone without qualification.)

There’s a third thing Dennis said that I want to respond to. He claimed that it’s selfish to give forgiveness in order to gain psychological relief for oneself. He writes, “This, too, is selfishness masquerading as idealism. The argument being, though I do not deserve to be forgiven, and though you may not even be sorry, I forgive you because I want to feel better.” I disagree with the letter of Dennis’s statement here, though I think I agree with the spirit behind it.

Part of the process of healing from tragedies like this involves releasing anger, bitterness, and resentment connected with the wrong done. Often, when people forgive, that’s what they’re doing, letting it go.

On the other hand, I don’t think that means acting as if no crime has been committed. I think that’s Dennis’s concern. Moral outrage is appropriate and should be expressed by all parties involved. However, as time goes on people need to let go of these things. Hanging on to injury over time is just another way of continuing to punish the offender—Carneil, in this case. In the long run, though, those that refuse to let crimes against them drop are the ones who are going to suffer.

I don’t think this is selfishness masquerading as idealism, but rather a healthy step in the healing process, as long as (and here’s my caveat) the egregious nature of the moral crime doesn’t receive the short shrift in the process. This, I think, is Dennis’s deepest concern, the real spirit of his objection.

(It may be—and I was thinking about this yesterday—that statements of personal forgiveness should be done in private so that it doesn’t appear that the crime is taken lightly. Save the public statements for condolences to those who lost their children and friends.)

I think the biggest offense that someone like Dennis Prager feels about this is the apparent denial of the harm done and the immediate focus on forgiveness instead of on the appropriate punishment, which would be a function of justice.

In New York City a while back a woman almost died when she was badly beaten and raped in Central Park in an act of “wilding.” The young men who had committed the crime were caught and jailed. Later they were visited by the Catholic Archbishop and told that God forgave them.

Now, the Archbishop should have mentioned that forgiveness is available from God on God’s conditions. But this should have come only after another truth was made clear: As the writer of Hebrews said, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hell is a real place where moral criminals are punished for their crimes against God and man.

That’s what should be told those criminals who did that terrible crime. Only then should they be told about the mercy that God will offer, on His conditions. First the bad news, then the good news.