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Forgiving God? (Sam Storms)

I’m hearing more and more these days about the purported therapeutic value in “forgiving God.” For those who have suffered greatly, healing comes, at least in part, when we are enabled by God’s grace to forgive those who have sinned against us. On occasion we also hear of the importance of forgiving “ourselves” (which, I must confess, strikes me as lacking biblical sanction; but that is for another time). What concerns me most is when people are urged to “forgive God.”

This was again recently brought to my attention with the news that R. T. Kendall, successor to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and former pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, has published a new book with the intriguing title, Totally Forgiving God: When It Seems He Has Betrayed You (Charisma House, 2012). There is a measure of ambiguity in the title. Are we to understand by this that God is the one who totally forgives us, or is God the one whom we are totally to forgive? The sub-title suggests the latter, and an accompanying tag line in the advertisement supports this conclusion. It reads: “Discover the Freedom and Peace that come when we forgive God, others, and ourselves.”

Let me be clear about one thing from the start. I haven’t read Kendall’s book. For all I know he repudiates the notion of “forgiving God” in the way that people typically understand it. So please do not indict Kendall with what I say until you (or I) have read the book. One thing in the sub-title is encouraging, and that is the use of the word “seems.” Kendall evidently wants us to understand that God, in point of fact, never betrays us but only “seems” to do so. Nevertheless, if in fact he argues against the notion of our “forgiving God,” the title and accompanying tag line are terribly misleading and need to be corrected. People who fail to read the book are likely to conclude from these elements alone that he is encouraging us, in some sense, to “forgive God” as part of our sanctification.

My primary concern, however, is with the idea of humans forgiving God. What are we to make of this?

First of all, let me say that I understand where this sort of question comes from. I understand how people quite often are confused by what God does or doesn’t do. They are frustrated when prayers go unanswered or people are permitted to wound them unjustly. I have dealt with many over the years who are angry with God, feel abandoned by God, or simply feel nothing at all when it comes to the presence of God in their lives. They don’t sense his love and they struggle to find anything redemptive in the way he has led them and orchestrated their lives.

We find most of these experiences or sentiments described in the Psalms. The psalmists often vented their frustration, wondering if God had forgotten them or was even on the side of their enemies. I love the way one person described the so-called psalms of lament. They consist of three parts: “I’m hurting. They’re winning. And you don’t care!” Needless to say, when those sorts of things happen in life people need the grace and power of the Spirit.

All of us need to learn the lesson of forgiving others. There is incredible power in it and few things are as crippling and spiritually paralyzing as the bitterness and bondage of unforgiveness.

But my struggle is with the language of “forgiving God.” For one thing, I don’t find it ever used in Scripture. That alone ought to give us pause before we incorporate such language into our Christian vocabulary or allow it to shape our theology or our understanding of spiritual formation.

Also, a person can only be truly forgiven if that person has truly committed a sin or some wrong. Forgiveness assumes guilt on the part of the person being forgiven. If there is no sin, there is no guilt, and if there is no guilt, there is no need to be forgiven. Typically we say, “I forgive ______ for having gossiped about me,” or “I forgive ______ for having broken a confidence,” etc.

But God never has, cannot, and never will sin against us. Nothing he does is wrong or misguided or ill-informed or unwise or unloving. That doesn’t mean we will always see it that way! Far from it. We often think that God has missed a step or failed us in some way, but he hasn’t. If he had, he wouldn’t be God!

God is altogether perfect and lovely and just and gracious and wise in all his ways. I hope that all Christians believe that too. I’m not at all suggesting that they (or R. T. Kendall) don’t. But to speak of “forgiving God” suggests that God has erred or made a mistake or perhaps even committed a moral offense against us or someone else. But we always have to operate on the basis of the biblical witness that God does all things well: not necessarily all things the way we want him to do them, but they are “well” and good and righteous and fair and just, nonetheless.

So, what I’m getting at is that the language of forgiveness is only appropriate when it is God forgiving us or us forgiving others, but never of us forgiving God. By all means we must deal honestly and sincerely with our disappointment in the way life has turned out. We must be open and authentic about our feelings concerning ways in which we mistakenly think that God has failed us or hurt us. I say “mistakenly” think because it is a mistake ever to think that God has failed or treated us unjustly.

It seems to me that one of the best and most helpful ways to facilitate spiritual growth and to enable people to deal with their hurts and anger and frustration is to remind them constantly that God is always and infinitely good and kind and right in his ways, that he can always be trusted to do what is best, even when it seems the worst to us. As we build into people a confidence in God’s lovingkindness they will be better equipped and more willing to turn to him when others fail them. They will grow and deepen in their belief that God is worthy of their trust, even when life is falling apart, that God is good and can never do them wrong even when everyone else seems to take advantage of them.

One more thing. I would even go so far as to say that if we ever come to the point where we think we need to forgive God, the truth is that we need to ask God to forgive us for thinking he needed to be forgiven. I realize that people who are deeply hurting and are immersed in confusion can easily fall into the trap of thinking that God has wronged them, but it is wrong to think that God has wronged them. And thus it is we who need forgiveness from God for thinking that God needs forgiveness from us.

Again, let me say that I understand why people might want to use the language of “forgiving God,” but my conviction is that this will only serve to perpetuate a misguided view of who God is and how we should relate to him. Perhaps encouraging them to pray in this way would help:

“God, I don’t understand you! There are times when you and your ways make no sense. I’ve been tempted to think you did it wrong or acted unwisely or simply didn’t care. There have been times when I’ve doubted your love and even wondered if you really exist. I’ve often used this as an excuse to sin and to go my own way. I’ve used it as an excuse for not forgiving others. Please forgive me. Help me to trust you even when I can’t see you. Help me to hope in you alone even when you seem so distant and uninvolved. Help me to believe your Word when it says you do all things well and are good and righteous in all your ways and that you really do love me and care for me.”

14 Responses to “Forgiving God? (Sam Storms)”

  1. I venture there is a half truth in the idea of forgiving God, namely that we should cease to hold certain things against Him.

    And that will entail bringing out the full agonized extent of our complaint against Him to Him in honest admission in prayer. Even if our complaint is sin. Dishonesty to God in the name of propositional truth is the essence of hypocrisy for one, and for disaster for another

    but as for forgiving God, I need to repent of being His judge that He should be forgiven by me.

    I recovered from my bitterness, insofar as I have indeed recovered, not by forgiving God but by repenting, at his leading in one one one counsel in prayer in the Spirit, and by thus receiving His forgiveness

  2. I would also take this as giving up all claim to try and judge God, or letting go of all bitterness and grudges we may sinfully hold against God. It is a different use of the word “forgive” which we may not want to allow to creep into Christianity, for the very reasons pointed out by Sam Storms. But then again, we have learned to live with multiple meanings of words – such as, when we exhort someone else to lift up Jesus, we don’t mean that Jesus should be crucified again, but magnified in praise. The KJV used “suffer” to mean allow. Word do change meaning over time, and Christian sub-culture can’t stop it, so maybe one die we should find a new English term to translate the Greek word “forgive” that we once used in English. ??

  3. Ooh, too many typos in there. What happened to that “edit” function? Change “magnified” to “exalted”. Put quote around “allow”. Change “Word” to “words”, and change “die” to “day”. Oops.

  4. It’s hard to believe in a world like this. And with a heart like ours. But He is faithful in our unfaithfulness.

    Of the hundreds and hundreds of sermons that I have heard in my life, this one speaks to how God acts for us in the midst of our belief…and makes us believers :

    http://theoldadam.com/2012/01/25/preaching-this-sermon-would-probably-get-you-thrown-out-of-saddleback-church-calvary-chapel-or-willowcreek/

    The actual title of the sermon is “I believe that I cannot believe”.

    Thanks.

  5. Phil McCheddar July 3, 2012 at 9:55 am

    I fully agree with you, Sam. I think the unbiblical notion of us forgiving God may have arisen partly because our postmodern culture has subtly changed the meaning of the word forgiveness. Originally it had to do with cancelling a debt, which is an entirely objective transaction and has nothing to do with how we feel inside towards our debtor. But nowadays our society is preoccupied with “me and my feelings” and so the definition of forgiveness has gradually shifted to that of me ridding myself of bitterness and resentment as a form of psychotherapy, regardless of whether the one we perceive to have wronged us actually did anything objectively wrong.

  6. Jamie Houghton July 5, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Did anyone realize that this topic has been covered before on this website but with a totally different answer?
    See http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/03/forgiving-god/

    For what its worth, Sam is expressing my own concerns better than I could.

  7. I think this is a really difficult one to call. I certainly appreciate Sam’s concerns here, and I don’t particularly disagree with him, but on the other hand, I can see the point of the other article that was linked in the comments.

    It’s almost as if we need 2 different words – one to describe the type of forgiveness that is required when someone sins against you in some way, and one that describes the type of forgiveness that is required when we ourselves have harboured resentment/bitterness against someone because of their unsinful action.

    In many ways the latter is actually a confession and repentance of bitterness/resentment, rather than “forgiveness”, but we tend to use forgiveness to describe this action, probably because forgiveness is much more acceptable than confession….

  8. I happened upon this blog, and cannot leave wo a reply. Tell the father who lost his 6 year old daughter to cancer ten years ago that the anger he has at God for taking her, for not answering his prayers to heal her, is “wrong” (because it is not in the bible, no less), and you will watch him walk out the door of the church never to return. Forgiveness is necessary when we experience pain, not when the “offender” intends to inflict that pain. Whether the offender (God) actually “sinned” against him is irrelevant. Pain is present in the heart of this father, and therefore, forgiveness is the only way to deal with it. Ignore who the father believes inflicted the pain, and you will leave the father in the same place he was when he walked in your door. In bondage. Help him to work thru the pain to the point of releasing and cancelling the debt he believes is present, and you will help him be reconciled to the Father he is out of reconciliation with. Isn’t that the objective? That we are ambassadors of Christ, reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:20).

    Finally, I can’t believe you would review a book you have never read, making assumptions as to what the author states based on nothing more than your assumptions.

    • Im so glad you replied…people who condemn people for being mad at God probably haven’t gone through much apparently.

      Being mad at God is wrong but we arent perfect… even David got angry at God, and he was a man after gods own heart..so alot of people need to get off their high horse.

  9. ^^ to Kip ^^

    A few things: he didn’t give a review of the book, he talked about the idea of Forgiving God.

    also, it doesn’t matter if the person has pain in their heart, the reaction should be as it is intended: run to Christ. Forgiving God implies blaming Him, by definition, and, in your estimation (it seems), running from Him. That is irreverent and foolish. Humans are not only dishonoring God in blaming Him and needing to forgive Him, but also foolish in doing so, for running to Him instead of away is always at least one purpose of sufferingt.

    Sure God understands, but “forgiveness” is not the way to deal with it, as you say. That doesn’t make sense to forgive when no one is blamed.

    I’m talking of this in a vacuum, knowing that it can’t be easy in someone’s heart to deal with such loss. But even though it’s in a vacuum, Dr. Storms is right.

  10. This ex-Christian Gentile has read and re-read Kushner’s more honest book, yet implied is a translation truth that might startle so many: the not-so-omnipotent and creator of ra, or moral evil (Yeshayahu 45:7), yes, G-d, is a sinner, too.

    However, the Eternal can never be a sinner in the sense of pesha or willful transgression, or in the sense of avon or iniquity, but is very much one in the sense of chatah: missing the mark.

    What can we of the image of G-d do about it? We can sulk in resentment, which the Eternal never intended for us in this life or the next, or we can be partners with the Incorporeal in refining and improving this world and, in the process, ourselves, as our Partner on the other side works day by day to earn and renew our trust. In the process, in those moments when we are not obligated to fulfill universal or covenant-specific commandments regarding our neighbour, it is important to thank G-d for the little things, things as little as nourishments after being nourished, and to appreciate the Eternal for the little miracles that happen every day and that should not be taken for granted.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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