Came across some thirst for revenge recently. It wasn’t mine. Some belonged to a woman who got pregnant and the baby’s father dumped her, some belonged to the relative of an abuse victim and some belonged to a man whose wife had left him.
I’m no stranger to the desire for revenge. As an adult I realised I had not only been molested, and forced to endure the nasty experiences, I had also been suckered and ripped off in terms of my legal right to a childhood free of abuse. I grew a pretty fierce fire in my belly over that and it burned hotter with every new abuse.
In time I had some pretty nasty things planned for a long list of people. My childhood abusers were top of the list but I wanted pay-back on my mother, my rapists, my first boyfriend, the list got longer as I got older.
When I became a Christian I ran into some stern words from God on the subject. The very emphatic “Vengeance is mine” was one. God was claiming he, and he alone, is allowed to take revenge. Then there was a sermon I attended on the Lords Prayer.
The preacher said when we pray the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” we are actually asking God to be as forgiving of us as we are of others. That worried me. If God forgave me as well as I forgave my abusers I was going to hell for certain.
Then there were all the biblical stories. The one about forgiving people and turning the other cheek 70 times seven times, the prodigal son being forgiven, the man who was let off a big debt who then turned around and harassed the man who owed him a little one.
I struggled with the idea of forgiving the people who had harmed me. It seemed to me if I forgave them they would be getting away with their wrong-doing completely. It was as if the only way I could feel there was justice in the world was to cling to my grudge. That way, no matter what else happened, the person was paying one price at least. There was someone in the world, me, who would take them down and do them harm if ever the chance came up so they better watch their back.
It was murky water for me for a long time. In the end I surrendered it to God. I said I was willing to forgive but He would need to make it happen in my heart. It continued to make no sense to me but I was willing. My number one goal since becoming born again is to become the person God created me to be so I was willing to forgive if that was required.
One of my abusers was a vicious, cold, calculating, nasty piece of work and he was the one who did the most damage to me. For a long time I struggled, unsuccessfully, to forgive him.
One day God seemed to be saying to me that I did not have to forgive him I simply had to hand my right to punish him over to God. I argued with God. I quoted the bible to him and told him I did not want to receive the same forgiveness from Him as I was prepared to give this man.
God said: “Have you asked me to forgive you?” I said yes. He said: “Has this man asked you to forgive him?” I said no. God said: “Would I have forgiven you if you did not ask me to forgive you?” I said no. God said: “Why do you think you have to be MORE forgiving than ME?”
God said: “I will ask you to forgive this man on the day he comes to you in person, or in writing, and says he is sorry for what he did to you. On the day he asks you to forgive him, and not one minute before then, will I expect you to forgive him.”
God went on to tell me that all I had to do until the man asked me to forgive him was just hand over my right to punish him to God. I could do that pretty easily so I did. On the occasions where I found myself angry, hating, plotting revenge God would remind me it was now HIS job to punish the man and I would let it go.
There is a certain self-righteous satisfaction in sitting back and thinking to yourself that your abusers are REALLY going to suffer now. I had SUCH a good time imagining the tortures the all-powerful, all-mighty, God of all creation would be able to inflict on my abusers. Nothing I could do was anywhere near as bad as the things God could do to them.
God let me enjoy my savage fantasies for a little while but then he said “Enough.” He said I had to let it go and accept He may, for His own reasons, never punish them at all. I didn’t like that idea one little bit but God said: “If they repent and ask ME to forgive them for what they did to you I will forgive them.” He said: “If you REALLY want revenge, pray for me to BLESS them.”
I choked and gagged on that idea for quite a while before I could go back to God and ask what he meant by it.
He said: “When you ask me to bless someone you are asking for them to be saved and go to heaven. Part of that process involves them repenting of their sins. True repentance is the recognition of just how bad their behaviour really was and how much damage they did to their victims. You have no idea how thoroughly a person will punish themselves once they understand those things and experience guilt and remorse.”
I had a lot of experience with the self-punishing effects of guilt so I understood what God meant by that. I took to praying for my abusers to be saved (so they would be cursed with the full understanding of what disgusting, abominable, torture-worthy creeps they really were).
The second lesson on this subject God gave me was the difference between lip-flapping and repentance. I learned that some people think all they have to do is flap their lips, say the required words, then carry on doing whatever it is they have said sorry for.
He said they will get a nasty shock when they knock on the door to heaven claiming to be saved and eligible for entry. He said they will hear him say “I never knew you” and be turned away. He said only a genuine remorse for wrong-doing gets His forgiveness and we are only required to match that standard. He said the reason for the seventy times seven command was because it is possible for someone to genuinely repent but continue to sin hundreds of thousands of times but genuine repentance always qualifies for forgiveness.
God said the person who comes to him and says “I am sorry, please help me stop sinning” and means it will be forgiven provided they make genuine attempts to stop committing the sin. The person who says they are sorry simply to gain forgiveness then fails to even try to stop sinning is not going to be forgiven.
As I understand it, what this means is it doesn’t matter how genuinely sorry you are for what you have done, if you don’t follow the sorry with a serious attempt to never do it again you have not “repented” of your sin. If you have not repented you are not forgiven.
I got pretty hung up on this for a while because of my failure to even try and stop the smoking habit. I gathered smoking was polluting the “temple of God” and was, therefore, a sin. Yet God had told me I did not have to anguish about this sin I just had to give Him permission to change me and make me able to stop.
I’m still a bit foggy on this one but I think what God means is He knows exactly where we are with our lives and our behaviours. He knows what we can and cannot do and He will only require of us that we do whatever is in our power to do.
I kind of think, now that I know about the stages of change, that God always knew about them (see entry titled Love and the stages of change). It seems to me he is prepared to take into account the stage of change we are in with our sinful behaviour and work with us at that point.
If we are in the pre-contemplative stage (zero intention to change) he wants us to TRY and move to the contemplative stage (seek out information and open ourselves up to the idea change may be needed). If we are in the contemplative stage he wants us to TRY and move to the preparation stage (set goals and TRY to give up the behaviour) and so on. God understands human beings cannot move from pre-contemplation to termination (the stage at which the behaviour has stopped for good) so he does not ask that from us. Repentance, in Gods eyes, means we must be making genuine efforts to move from the stage we are in to the next stage.
Traditional religion has always used the command to forgive to keep people in abusive relationships and, as I understand it, God is angry about that. We are not required to accept years of abuse just to prove we can forgive!
If I married someone and he hit me, slapped me, shoved me or threatened me in any way I would tell him straight away that behaviour is not acceptable and I am leaving.
He would, of course, tell me he was sorry and it will never happen again. If he did not say sorry, if he told me I MADE him do it, I would be out the door and gone forever in one second flat! The instant he tells me his behaviour is not really his fault he is telling me he is not genuinely repenting and that means he will do it again for certain!
If he did say sorry I would make a choice – am I prepared to take the risk he will abuse me again or not? If he was just a boyfriend I wouldn’t take the risk but if I promised to stay with him til death parted us I would give him a second chance.
If he did it a second time, and I still was not willing to lose him, I would refuse to accept his apology until I had proof his remorse was genuine. If he would not go to counselling I would assume his remorse was mere lip-flapping and I would leave him. Once again – any attempt to blame anything (alcohol, stress, tiredness) or anyone else for what he did would result in me leaving for good! Blaming anything but himself for his actions means he believes those actions are not completely under his control. If he thinks he is being MADE to do it against his will – he CAN’T stop!
If he agreed to go to counselling I would go for counselling too just to make sure I was not making it harder for him to stop abusing me than it needed to be. I would make it very clear to him if he abused me a third time the relationship would be over forever. No if’s, no but’s, no maybe’s.
I would explain to him it would not be about forgiveness – I would forgive him – I would not leave him to punish him. Not at all. I would leave HIS BEHAVIOUR to keep myself safe. I would tell him I will leave him as much for his sake as for my own safety. I’d explain to him that research has shown this behaviour does not stop. The more times you forgive and stay the worse the abuse gets. If you stay you run the risk of being killed. I would not want a man I loved to become a murderer because I did not leave him to prevent that from happening!
He might try to argue with me but I would make it clear to him I was serious. “Once more and I am out the door. If I hit the track I will never come back.”
I have zero doubt in my mind that God would ask me to remain with someone who was making no genuine effort to stop abusing me. He would expect me to forgive the MAN not the behaviour! I would forgive the man and leave the behaviour – simple.
When I began writing this entry some of the ideas were a bit fuzzy in my mind. How is it possible to forgive someone if you do not forget and act as if what happened did not happen? Surely remembering what happened and saying you will leave if it happens again is proof you have not forgiven?
That led me to the idea of looking up the word “forgive” to see exactly what it means. I grabbed the first dictionary that came to hand. It was a little dictionary called “The Highroads Dictionary” published by Thomas Nelson and Sons LTD in 1951. In the preface it says: “This work is intended for the use of young people, and the definitions and meanings are accordingly given in a very simple manner.”
I looked up the word forgive and got a shock.
“Forgive: To give up a claim.”
It gives a second meaning but I felt God was saying this is HIS definition of forgiveness!
Give up your claim to the right to make someone pay, to punish someone, to take revenge on someone, to make someone suffer for what they have done to you and you will have forgiven as God asks you to forgive.
When God forgives us he gives up his right to make us pay, to punish us, to take revenge on us, to make us suffer for our sins but He does NOT give up his right to condemn what we did or to expect us to make serious efforts to behave better in the future.
Neither should we.
For a follow up on this subject see entry titled Forgiveness and love.