Monday, July 29, 2019

Anonymous Asks (51)

“How do I deal with people in my life who have hurt me deeply?”

On one level this question is almost too basic. The weakest, newest Christians have heard “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Even raw pagans know we Christians believe that.

Thus if we try to deal with the question as written, the correct answer is a single word: love. That doesn’t make for much of a blog post.

How Does Love Behave?

The question underlying the question may be something more like this: How should Christlike love express itself to people who have done me injury? What does that kind of love look like in action?

For the purpose of the question, I’m going to use the word “saved” here as shorthand to describe anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; anyone who calls themselves Christian. Of course we know some who claim this are not real believers, but for the purpose of discussing how we ought to behave toward them, that does not really matter. If they are lying or self-deceived, God will sort that out eventually. Our obligation is to give them the benefit of the doubt in the meantime. We are not to act as judges of anyone’s eternal destiny, though sometimes there are strong hints one way or another.

How love behaves depends very much on who it is you are showing it to. Two questions are relevant here: Does this person claim to be a follower of Christ? and Is this person asking you for forgiveness? The answer is going to be a little different depending on the circumstances. It’s all love, but the way love may be appropriately expressed does not simply depend on you. The other party has a say in it, just as God gives us a say in how we respond to his love to us.

I can think of four possible scenarios:

1. The Person Who Hurt You is Both Unsaved and Unrepentant

If you are able to empathize at all with a person who is destined for hell, who has no solid guiding principles in this world and who has no hope beyond it, this should be one of the easier situations to deal with. Unsaved people can be very hurtful, but a resolution is not always possible. It may be that you and the person who hurt you do not even share a common standard of acceptable behavior to which you can appeal. This is especially common in multicultural societies. It is also not impossible you have offended him in some way of which you are entirely unaware.

Ultimately, you cannot forgive someone who refuses to acknowledge he has done anything wrong. God doesn’t, and he doesn’t expect us to. You can pray for him and try to let go of any bitterness you have toward him. That’s part of loving our enemies.

What is far, far more important than hurt feelings is the salvation of the person who has offended you. Ask yourself this: Which would make me a better testimony to this person: trying to achieve satisfaction for my injury, or overlooking it? Or to put it another way, could pursuing my grievance with this person furnish him with even the smallest excuse to dismiss the claims of Christ?

If you are not sure, it’s better to overlook it. 1 Corinthians 13 teaches that love “bears” and “endures”. This may be one of those occasions on which love is best expressed by not doing anything at all.

2. The Person Who Hurt You is Saved But Unrepentant

This is the Matthew 18 scenario. In the passage, the “brother who offends you” refers to a fellow Jew, but I think we can reasonably apply its principles to relationships between believers. The important thing is that you and this person both claim to be subject to a standard of behavior outside your own set of personal preferences. That gives you a way to solve the problem.

Begin, as the Lord instructed, by telling the person he has offended you. “Go and tell him his fault.” This is not as silly as it sounds. He really may not know, and when he finds out, he may well be eager to put it right. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to a person complain about what someone else has done to her only to discover this first step has never been taken. There are people who genuinely prefer trumpeting a grievance to resolving a problem. Being abused gets them attention, where fixing the problem doesn’t.

Matthew 18 provides a set of instructions for escalating the situation if the sinning brother does not repent. The final remedy is to treat the offending brother as a first century Jew would commonly have treated a Gentile and a tax collector, which is to say, have nothing to do with such a person.

Sometimes we show love by what we will put up with, and sometimes we show love by what we will not.

3. The Person Who Hurt You is Unsaved But Repentant

The unequivocal teaching of scripture is that when a person asks for forgiveness, we forgive. It does not matter if we don’t believe them. It does not matter if we don’t trust them. It does not matter if they did it before and will surely do it again. We forgive as God has forgiven us. If this principle applies to my brother, from whom I should surely expect a better standard of behavior than an unsaved man, then it certainly applies to forgiving an individual who does not know the Lord.

It may be that modeling forgiveness to an unsaved person who asks for it can point them to seeking forgiveness from the One they have truly offended. That’s love in action.

4. The Person Who Hurt You is Saved and Repentant

The very same principle applies with Christians: whenever someone expresses repentance, we ought to forgive him. In Greek, the word “forgive” is aphiÄ“mi, which means to “let go” or “leave alone”. There is nothing remotely emotional about the term. It is used of legal transactions, departures, and electing to allow something undesirable to occur. Feelings like compassion may certainly accompany forgiveness, but they are not the same thing at all.

Biblical forgiveness is the declaration that a debt or obligation has been satisfactorily discharged. It announces that the injured party will not longer seek recompense for the injury done, either through personal revenge, the court system, shunning, gossip, or any other method.

Forgiveness is an act of love, whether or not it makes you feel better. Feelings, frankly, don’t enter into it. You may or may not get a sense of closure. You may or may not be able to work up affection for the person after the fact.

This and other misconceptions about Christian forgiveness are discussed here, if you are interested in pursuing the question further.

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