Member Mailbag – As a believer does God's Word require me to forgive a relative of mine time after time–essentially let her off the hook–for her unkind behavior and attitude toward me, and the many cruel and untrue things she has done behind my back to other family members?
She never asks for forgiveness, and only tells me that I need to understand how she feels. Am I wrong to stay my distance and set some boundaries? Thank you for addressing this.
This question is multi-layered; I will try to answer while adding a few other twists that some folks have grafted into the teaching on forgiveness.
The first place to begin with biblical forgiveness is always with your heart before you start with the other person. The "go to" text when it comes to humble self-assessment is Matthew 7:3-5. The purpose of this passage is to help you carefully reconstruct biblical thinking, specifically how you think about yourself as you engage other people.
If your first thought has something to do with the log in her eye rather than your own, you need to start over by reorienting your mind to what Jesus is teaching in that text. I like to say it this way:
No matter what someone has done to me, it does not compare with what I have done to my Lord.
If that kind of soul-leveling, cross-exalting perspective is your point of departure, you will be free and clear to think more redemptively about the other person. This teaching is imperative all the time, but it typically intensifies when you are talking about forgiveness with relatives.
With your heart humbled by the gospel, the next thing to assess is your compassion for her. Your pity may not be the same quality that you have for other relatives who are more comfortable to love, but your heart must be moving toward genuine compassion for her. (You see an outstanding example of this in Paul's preamble to the Corinthians 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.)
If you do not have compassion for the person you're correcting, it would be wise to withhold your correction.
As you continue to assess yourself, you want to interact with Paul's teaching in Romans 12:18 where he said, "So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." You are on a peace-making mission.
That was the Lord's objective with you, to remove the hostility that was between you and Him so you two could be reconciled (Ephesians 2:14). A similar kind of Christlike example should be what you have in mind with your relative. You want to do everything you can to be at peace with her.
As you know, the implication of Paul's teaching not only applies to you, but there is a requirement on her too, which means it is possible that you cannot be at peace with her if she does not do her part.
Let's self-examine before proceeding:
- You view yourself as the foremost sinner in this relationship, the way Paul considered himself 1 Timothy 1:15).
- You desire to bring peace to the relationship, as much as it depends on you (Romans 12:18).
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? – Romans 2:4
You could state Paul's question this way: Don't you know that the riches of God's kindness, the riches of His forbearance, and the riches of His patience lead to the change you hope for in your relative?
He is reminding us how God brought us to a place of change, which is exactly what you're hoping will happen to your relative as you cooperate with the Lord in that redemptive possibility. This God-centered, gospel-empowered approach is what you should be modeling and delivering to your stubborn and undeserving relative (Romans 5:8, 2:8-9).
Caveat: If you are kind and patient, she may or may not change. Either way, that outcome is not your responsibility (1 Corinthians 3:6). Your job is to do as much as depends on you while resting in the truth that you cannot provide repentance to her (2 Timothy 2:25).
What you are responsible for is how you approach her. You are not biblically permitted to engage her with a sinful attitude. Jesus died on a cross, and you will have to die too, which is your best shot at cooperating with God in her restoration.
- Heart: you realize you have the log in your eye and she has a speck in hers.
- Goal: your hope is to be at peace with her–so far as it depends on you.
- Method: your approach looks like kindness, forbearance, and patience.
The reason I took extra time to address your heart and life was that I have seen too many times where Christians have confronted people who did not give careful pre-confrontation analysis to their hearts.
Now go and try to make a disciple (Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9).
As to your question, I am not aware of any teaching in the Bible that appeals to us to release someone from their sin when they are not asking God (or any other offended person) to be released from their sin. Forgiveness–asking, granting, and receiving–is the transactional process of letting a person's sin go after they ask to be released from their sin.
In a forgiveness context, the sinning person understands there is a debt that someone must pay and they know that someone must pay for the offense (Romans 6:23). This concept is a significant plank in the gospel platform: Christ died for my sins, and for me to be free from my sins, I must ask Him to forgive me.
A just God sets the standard. We agree with His rule, and when we cross the line of His standard (transgress), we ask Him to forgive us. We acknowledge our wrongs, which is our agreement (confession) with God while seeking to be forgiven (justified) by Him (1 John 1:9). Forgiveness without God involved is not forgiveness at all.
God is the only person who can release her from her sins, and He will not do this unless she asks Him through the process of genuine repentance. You cannot release her. That would be similar to a victim releasing the culprit of a crime, while the judge is never part of the process. The criminal must have his day in court.
If she was genuinely engaging God and was legally forgiven by Him, I do not think she would be hiding, ignoring, or excusing her sin against you. That does not make biblical sense. But if God did forgive her, she would not only need to come to you so you could forgive her, but she would want to go to you–not for forensic cleansing, but relational reconciliation.
What you are describing is not biblical forgiveness, but relational manipulation. Without God's forgiveness is the equivalent of you standing on a street corner waving a wand over folks as they pass by, releasing them from their sins.
In such a scene they could be forgiven for anything, regardless of whether they asked God for such mercy. And anyone could do it. They would not even have to be aware of what you were doing to them. Freedom from sin without asking or knowing is sloppy theology. It also renders the death of Christ meaningless.
- Christians could forgive Christians.
- Gays could forgive gays.
- Bums could forgive bums.
- Democrats could forgive democrats (and vice-versa).
If we could release people willy-nilly from their sins without going through the proper channels of the atonement, there would be no need for the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Each of us is without excuse for the sins we commit (Romans 1:20). We will be held accountable for our sins, and the only way we can experience release from them is by genuinely asking God to forgive us.
How many times have you sinned against someone, asked them to forgive you, but you did not ask God to forgive you? I have done this many times. While I can somewhat clear up the relational breakdown between another person and me, there is still an offense against God. All sin is against God, and there are no exceptions.
Your relative is in a more profound mire than she realizes, and this kind of biblical reasoning is the approach I recommend that you pray about until it's clear to you. Maybe the Lord will give you favor toward her captivated soul. Her problem has to do more with God than with you. She needs to have a clearer understanding of biblical forgiveness.
I think sometimes Christian people play the forgiveness card like it's a wild card in a game. They throw it down whenever they like to fix a problem. It becomes their get out of jail free card without doing the biblical heavy lifting with God, which is essential to be free.
For some people, it's a weak, non-sustainable attempt at relational damage control rather than redemptive freedom. Asking for forgiveness may sound better than an apology, but if it begins and ends with the offended human, while never seeing the Divine Judge, it's forensic impotence.
How to Love Her
Granting forgiveness to a non-asking person is a "grace mistake." Some people call this "extending grace," which is a "perceived nice way" of being nice, while not serving the person who is in sin's clutches (Galatians 6:1). Grace extenders do the gospel a disservice by removing its efficacy.
Your relative is minimizing her sin while asking you to ignore it–to extend grace. That is dangerous. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you are the person who needs to bring her conniving ways to the light, which leads to your boundary question.
I do not like the standard connotation that some folks upload to the boundary idea. In almost all cases when a person is talking about boundaries, they are not thinking redemptively about the other person. Rather than talking about borders, it would be better to frame the question this way:
What is the most effective way I can love her rather than the most effective way I can construct a boundary between us?
It is possible that she will rebuff a redemptive approach, which will leave you with no other option but to rebuke her. Rebuking, confronting, and separating all fit nicely within a redemptive worldview. Being redemptive at times mean doing hard things (Hebrews 12:6). If there are boundaries set, let her set them after you pursue her redemptively.
Call to Action
Here are a few questions for you to take to the Lord. Ask the Spirit to illuminate your mind by bringing you the answers you need for clarity and detail.
- Do you consider yourself a bigger sinner than her? (An effective way to answer this question is by examining the way you think and talk about her.) Do you talk about her as though she is in need of your mercy or should receive your frustration?
- Is your primary goal for her to have a great relationship with Christ? This objective should be your goal with every person, not just the easy to get along with ones. If so, what are you doing that is hindering this process?
- Are you approaching her with a heart of kindness, forbearance, and patience? How do you need to talk to God about your heart toward her?
- Are you the one who is in the best position to clean up her sloppy forgiveness perspective, which she seems comfortable perpetuating?
Perhaps you are the one who has the best relationship and context to speak with her. Based on your question, it sounds like you have a relationship with her in which you guys could talk.
She reminds me of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27). He came to Jesus, asking Him to justify and ignore his sin. Jesus was in the best position to respond to him.
I would recommend you pray about doing this for her. Like the rich young man, there is a good chance she will end the relationship, but you'll be redemptive not boundary setting. Let her set the boundary. If your heart is right with God and He has given you compassion for her, it would be unloving not to confront her.
What you are describing is no different from any relational situation where one person is asking another person to ignore their sin. Do you love her enough to tell her the truth in a loving way (Ephesians 4:15)? As you think about that question, consider two possible hindrances that could tempt you to not go forward in a loving confrontation.
- "If I confront her, will she reject me or become angry with me?"
- "If I confront her, will I lose the relationship?"
Transactional or Attitudinal
Forgiveness between two parties, whether with God or another person must be transactional. Both sides must be biblically engaged with each other, humbly seeking and granting forgiveness.
There is a chance your relative will never humbly and genuinely seek forgiveness from you. If so, it will not be transactional, and she will not experience forgiveness. Still yet, your forgiveness can be attitudinal.
Attitudinal forgiveness deals with your heart as you think about her. It also deals with how you relate to the Lord regarding your relative. It essentially means you are not tempted to sin when thinking about her. Your attitude toward her is free from sin.
Regardless of what she does, you can be free from her shenanigans in a similar way in which Jesus was free from sinning when He thought about those who hurt Him (Luke 23:34). The real question is, "What depends on you regarding this relationship, and whatever that is, will you do it?" (See Romans 12:18)
Rick Thomas is an author, speaker, consultant, teacher and podcaster. He has been encouraging and training Christians since 1997. Find him online at https://rickthomas.net/