How can I forgive people who are messing up their Christian lives?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: How do I forgive a believing family member for getting a divorce and remarrying when I think it was fueled mostly by meanness, lust, and irresponsibility? It seems that in the church we don't even know these things are coming until stopping the rolling snowball is too late. How do we make our churches places of growth rather than just places? We can just go to a new place that starts over with us. My family member says he's sure of his salvation and this second marriage was God's will. We still all act the same with each other, but I still feel upset in my heart and his son says he thinks Christianity is a bunch of bunk.

Answer: Hello sister… I am so sorry to hear about your recent trials. That’s the price of closeness, I suppose… having family and/or friends who are close enough to care about. I’ve found this to be one of those “the grass is always greener” things where those who don’t have much family often wish they had more… but those who have “too much” family often wish they had less… which sounds more like your end of the scale. But God gave you this particular situation. He could have placed you at any time in history, on any continent and among any people, but he placed you in these days, among these people during these trials to work for his glory. So you’d better give it your all and move forward — even though what you perceive to be a mess. But not only do you have to toughen-up and keep going you have to toughen-up and keep forgiving… which is probably not what you wanted to hear.

If you think about this for a minute, every item that you listed as a reason why you cannot forgive is the very reason forgiveness exists in the first place… in fact, forgiveness cannot even exist in the absence of offenses! (If no one was ever offended, then a concept like forgiveness would have no meaning; it would be absurd.) So here’s what’s happening: you have listed some of the offenses as reasons why you cannot forgive… but these are the reasons that you must forgive… that’s why they are there! The only other response is not to forgive… which isn’t even really a response… because “not forgiving” is not itself an action; it is the absence of the action, forgiving. Therefore, “not forgiving” can only mean that you have not forgiven yet… and such stubbornness is sin on your part irrespective of the cause.

Your question indicates that there has been a certain level of discussion between you and the offending parties, which I commend because open communication is its own kind of disinfectant. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of opening up dialogue because of the destruction that can come from not addressing perceived offenses destroys both without and within. So, and with that disclaimer in place, here are your choices: you may forgive now, you may wallow in an unforgiving spirit for a period of time and then forgive… or you may wallow for the rest of your life! But note this well: not choosing the first action only steals from you, not from your offenders. So (and since no other person controls your will) the responsibility to forgive is on you… and it’s only on you.

Now, we cannot help but feel angry when we are offended, but this feeling is not a sin; this is a normal emotional and physiological response in a human being. But the godly expectation is that we would “manage” the offense that very day that the anger appears. This tells me that we can mitigate the potential damage that any offense might cause.

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” Ephesians 4:26, NIV)

But, you protest, “How do I forgive a believing family member for getting a divorce and remarrying when I think it was fueled mostly by meanness, lust, and irresponsibility?” You just do it — that’s how! Forgiveness works when you decide to forgive; this is irrespective of other people’s actions or motivations (“…meanness, lust, and irresponsibility…”) — whether they are real or imagined. Even God doesn’t expect you to feel warm and affectionate towards your persecutor — in fact, he acknowledges your anger (Ephesians 4:26) — but he does expect you to love such a one in spite of how you feel.

It is very likely, then, that you will not feel warm and affectionate toward the offending party when you make the decision to forgive them, but forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a position of the will. A feeling is something that happens to you; it is an unbidden emotional state. But a decision is something that you make happen. You decide to forgive, feelings notwithstanding… although the feelings often resolve, too… somewhat slowly, often partially and usually at a distance.

There is a difference between the mental and emotional act of forgiving someone and a feeling of love and approval about them. These are separate. No one would expect a wounded person to become fully healed by the simple act of forgiving. In fact, you may feel as if you have betrayed yourself by forgiving the offense. But this shows us how forgiveness and feelings are different — and I think that you might have them confounded. As a somewhat difficult to perform act-of-the-will, forgiveness is the action of a mature person, and a mature person earns that title by rising above feeling… and just does it!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43–44, NIV)

This verse tells me that love is a much bigger issue than the romantic feeling of love that Americans emphasize. If you are able to turn your will to pray for your enemies, you have quite likely already turned your will to forgive them. Please note also that Jesus did not tell us to create affectionately emotional feelings about our offenders; the job is to pray. But as a result of prayer, positive feelings will likely follow and even grow… and why not? When you pray, you are investing in the person; you are putting aside the offense… and there’s a lesson here: we do not have to love bad actions, but we do indeed have to love “bad” people. After all, that’s why Jesus died.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18, NIV, emphasis mine)

If you take the high road and do the forgiving, this makes all the details you’ve listed (including their probable motivations, questionable veracity, etc.) out of the equation, because your forgiving someone has nothing to do with the offense itself (other than the fact that it triggered the issue). This also makes the issue of snowballing moot… because there is nothing to snowball!

This entire answer so far has had to do with forgiveness — because that is the big issue… and it’s the one that can do you the most harm if you don’t get ahold of it. If you do not forgive, you will conform to the emotional hole created by its lack. But your question raises a few other issues, too, like divorce, the responsibility of the church to sin, Christianity being bunk, etc. and I feel the need to touch on those briefly.

Concerning divorce, there is a lot at play. I know many legitimate, hard-working and God-loving Christians who are divorced — or divorced and remarried — so I do not think that divorce is a reasonable measure of who is or who is not a true Christian. It is better to treat all “substandard” personal elements as a cumulative case for or against something rather than as the one big proof for any issue. Perhaps this is why this person’s son has dismissed Christianity. Divorce may be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” among many other factors — who knows! Or perhaps the son has no idea what true Christianity is… and has decided that his version of it is bunk. Again, who knows! But we can talk about the biblical record on divorce as reasonable people, so let’s do that.

““Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:7–9, NIV)

If God had made us to be robot-beings instead of volitional beings, that would not redound to his glory. Why not? We would have been made to behave in certain ways rather than being allowed to choose our own paths. But since God took this “risk” — knowing that some of his highest created beings could thumb their noses at him — this was a virtual guarantee that some would… and moral life has spiraled down ever since. Now, although the Law of Moses is a stunning declaration of God’s holiness, much of it addressed that downward spiral in human behavior — and God’s allowing divorce was nothing short of a concession to sin.

Our relational behaviors have become so tainted by both personal and socialized sin that the conditions for even a reasonably peaceable life among those who have been severely relationally wounded would only rarely occur, so God had Moses set up two bad choices: live an impossible life or get a divorce. One might say of divorce that it is the better of the negative alternatives in a union, but one cannot say of divorce that it is God’s will… because God’s will is that we should keep marital relationships as they were in the beginning. Divorce is a bad choice forced by sin. Let’s not sugarcoat it… and certainly, let’s not try to make it a holy thing by calling it God’s will; it’s simply not.

Finally, about the nature of our local churches, if a previously divorced and now remarried couple came to my church for the first time, we would receive them as earnest Christians… just because they showed up! You see, it is not incumbent upon the body of Christ within the first few meetings to pull apart people’s lives and investigate them. So, of course, people who flee other churches for any reason — including gross sin — will likely be received provisionally into a new fellowship. That’s how the church works; we do not swat away sinners at the door.

Now, any local church — or any worthy of Christ’s name — should do a thorough investigation of all persons seeking membership… and this includes interviewing the pastor, deacons, and members as necessary of their former church! But many of the receiving churches are loathe to do that. If they are just not “looking for trouble” then that is cowardice, plain and simple — and that is abandoning due diligence on behalf of all believers. Now, the purpose of finding out the truth of these issues should be for correction, restoration and growth — but with an eye toward full integration into the local assembly.

That being said, all this investigation, correction and restoration could have (and should have) taken place at the former church. So the question becomes, who abandoned whom? Did the persons in question leave the fellowship rather than deal with their issues? Were they encouraged to leave (or let their leaving go unchallenged) by the local assembly acting in cowardice toward their duties? Administering discipline in a biblical New Testament church is hard work… but again, that’s the job. We should not abandon the work that Christ has given us to do.

That’s it for the individual items, but let me reinforce in closing that there is nothing outside of you that can stop you from forgiving those parties in question; such a stoppage only comes from within. Now, all the nuttiness that is the result of the relationships in your life can make you feel angry, sad — unforgiving! But those are only feelings — but feelings are emotions and they can’t stop you from doing anything… unless you let them. When it comes to the higher spiritual arts such as forgiveness, you decide what to do… plain and simple. So get back in there and forgive.

I pray that all this has helped you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20161024 Forgiveness).

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