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Is forgiveness different for Christians and Jews? Are Christians, like Jews, required to make sure things are right between each other?
Recently I made a comment about forgiveness that resulted in this question from a Jewish fellow reader:
What's interesting to me about this is that it seems to be diametrically opposed to my understanding of
Judaism. Even when we go before God on Yom Kippur, we are first required to make sure things are right between each other. Being a parent, I know how hard it is when my two kids fight with each other. Accordingly, how does God feel when all is not well between his children? 3/6/2009
The point that I was trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to make in the original email is this: (1) It makes me sad when forgiveness on the part of a Christian or Jew is considered newsworthy, because it suggests that overall we do a pretty lousy job of it, and (2) The emphasis of scripture is that we need God's forgiveness and the forgiveness of other people whom we have wronged. Less emphasis is placed on our forgiving other people, even though forgiveness on the part of Jews and Christians is a basic job requirement. As I said,
"forgiveness is required of us whenever someone asks our pardon (Luke 17:3-4). We don't get any special points for it. In fact, we are supposed to bless our enemies and pray for our enemies (Luke 6:27-28) even when they don't ask our pardon."
Forgiveness on the part of a Christian or Jew should not be news. Do Wal-Mart employees get written up in the paper for showing up on time? No.
Scripture is much more concerned with the wrongs we do than with the wrongs done to us. Therefore the scriptural emphasis is on our obtaining forgiveness, not on our granting forgiveness.
Both ancient and modern rabbis agree that before we can obtain forgiveness from God, we must at least ask for
forgiveness from any person we have sinned against and, if necessary, make restitution. For example, in the
second century, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria
taught that Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God; however, Yom Kippur does not atone for sins against one's fellow man, until he first appeases his fellow man.
Modern rabbis teach the same thing; for example,
Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz
, in a discussion of repentance at Yom Kippur, says:
"First, we have to come to an understanding that we have done wrong. Then we need to approach those
people who have been harmed by our mistakes. If I, for example, hurt you in some way, I would need to
approach you and ask you for forgiveness for specifically how I had hurt you. If there was some damage, I
need to make restitution. If I had stolen something that was yours, I need to return it. My repentance is not even begun until I have made peace with you."
Rabbi Ehrenkrantz says over and over again in this article that I must seek forgiveness; he doesn't talk about my forgiving others.
This is exactly the same as what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-24:
"So if you are presenting your gift at the altar and remember there that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go and be reconciled to your brother. Then come and offer your gift."
Note the direction here: if you remember that your brother has something against you,
you must be reconciled! It doesn't say, "if you have something against your brother." Although it's certainly a good idea to forgive people who have wronged you and make peace with them, the primary teaching from the rabbis and from Jesus is that you must ask
for reconciliation from
people you have wronged, i.e., you must obtain
Now, as parents, we always get this right. There are few things that exasperate parents as much as fighting between their children, and few things that parents appreciate more than the sound of voices that are playing together nicely. But in spite of our exasperation at everyone concerned when our kids are squabbling, we always direct (or force) the offender to tell the injured party that he or she is sorry before we let the offender off the hook. We don't tell the injured party to apologize (except in cases where there is enough blame to go around, and everyone has to apologize to everyone).
In this area, parents are exactly in line with God. God hates it when we aren't getting along. "There are six things the LORD hates: … hands that shed innocent blood, … and he that sows discord among brethren" (Proverbs 6:16-19). God hates discord as much as murder! "Let him that stole steal no more … Let all … anger and … gossip ... be put away from you" (Ephesians 4:28-32). God is as grieved by anger and gossip as by theft! Finally, as noted above, God directs us to say we are sorry to our brother or sister before we talk to God.
By the way, it is completely unscriptural to say, "I must forgive my enemy so that
I can stop hating him." If I hate my enemy, it is a sin! My
sin, not my enemy's sin! I challenge you to show me where the scripture says that I should forgive you for my sin - specifically, that I should forgive you because I hate you or that I should forgive you because I'm angry with you. Many people seem to be convinced that this verse exists somewhere, so I have looked for it. The only verses I can find on the topic say that:
- I'm not allowed to hate you, no matter what you do to me (Leviticus 19:18; 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19; Matthew 22:39);
- I'm not allowed to be angry at you, no matter what you do to me (Matthew 5:21-22);
- I'm not allowed to gossip about you, no matter what you do, period (2 Corinthians 12:20); and
- If I have done any of those things, I have sinned against you and against God, and I need to ask for forgiveness from you before asking God for His forgiveness.
Now, I understand perfectly why we want to grant rather than seek forgiveness. If I forgive you, four things are going on:
- I am in a superior position relative to you, because you have requested something from me.
- I am in power relative to you, because I get to determine the outcome.
- I am morally superior to you, because I was in the right, and you were in the wrong.
- I have the moral high ground, because I was kind enough to forgive you even though you have wronged me.
In contrast, if I have to ask for your forgiveness,
- I am in an inferior position relative to you.
- I am in a position of weakness relative to you.
- I was wrong, and you were right.
- I am on the moral low ground.
Finally, here is a word from me, and not from the scripture. I think we are entirely too ready to get angry
at people over the least little thing in the first place. If someone fails to greet me in the hall, I get
annoyed that he didn't notice me. Then I decide that he did it on purpose, and I stew about it. Finally, I
conclude that he snubbed me because of some baseless rumor going around that I'm hard to get along with, and
now he's really made me mad! So naturally I tell everyone about his lack of Christian love. However,
because I am a good Christian, I'm willing to forgive him.
Does that make sense to you? I hope not! Yet there are whole books written based on the argument that I should forgive you so that
I can stop hating you. Brothers and sisters, save your anger for sin, and save your hatred for the evil that causes sin.
Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.
Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the
author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the
Bible-study participants. Thanks to the
Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers
for their support and enthusiasm. All
errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.
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