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.”