The mandate to forgive the foolish

It occurred to me the other day that most of the people I don’t like are those I’ve never met, or even been nearby. I don’t mean Joe Stalin or Saddam Hussein, but celebrities, living politicians who’ve not murdered millions, and pundits. 

Maybe developing strong opinions of strangers is the hazard of an era when everyone has a chance to say more than they should to millions around the world. I’m a little embarrassed to have such antipathy toward those who’ve done no worse than being silly or wrong.

How do you suppose Matthew 6: 12, 14 applies to forgiving those who haven’t actually trespassed against us? I’ve always considered Jesus’ repeated references to forgiveness and its connection to how God forgives us a hair-raising aspect of his teaching. He’s giving a dire warning that I’ve not taken seriously enough.

Maybe you’re like me and harsh snap judgments are a family tradition. My grandfather was widely known as a man of strong opinions harshly stated. He was said to have crossed the street to avoid even walking past a politician he disagreed with—and you thought that attitude was invented in 2016! He could, and I can, permanently categorize a stranger from a hundred yards away. Not sure if Grandpa considered that a bad habit; I do.

Although I think Jesus was referring to the truly hard things to forgive—someone who steals from you or damages your reputation—it seems fair to apply it to all the people we judge harshly for the sin of being foolish. It may be even more applicable when you think about it.

A stranger who impersonally offends us from a distance has caused an offense based on a great deal of ignorance on our part. If we apply Matthew 6 to this, we admit that we desire that God, who knows us perfectly, will forgive our actual sins; but a relative stranger whose imagined sin is being more idiotic than we are gets no grace from us. We have experienced no actual injury from this stranger to justify such hard feelings.

But there is also a category of those who do something more serious than just being wrong-headed. Not all of them have actually injured us, either. Should we forgive people for doing something that is objectively (from our perspective) wrong, but that only potentially ever causes us loss? An easy application is the way we judge our political or denominational leaders.

I am not actually diminished by the fact that Albert Mohler voted for Donald Trump in 2020 or that Russell Moore likely did not. I suffer no injury from the fact that some SBC leaders have a different opinion of Critical Race Theory or immigration reform than I do. That’s not to say these things don’t matter. I can, however, argue my side of the issue without assigning opponents to permanent Purgatory. Disagreeing with me about politics, the U.S. or the SBC, doesn’t make someone a heretic, a wicked person or a jerk.

Some basic disagreements imply a whole slate of beliefs regarding lesser issues. I will not, for example, disagree with someone only over women pastors, because our opinions grow out of different views of the nature of Scripture and, I think, of God. But our workaday differences often involve matters of taste or ill-informed opinion, not the nature of God. Even those who are wrong about the nature of Scripture have not necessarily done something to justify a personal grudge on my part. Everything is not my business to correct or punish, thank the Lord.

Everything is not my business to correct or punish, thank the Lord.

Total condemnation is rarely the pertinent response to a person who is wrong. Someone who believes a woman should be the pastor of a New Testament church will not be my pastor, my seminary professor or my SBC president. But he can be a member of my church, my lunch date and my brother for eternity. I should be measured in determining how these things matter. I am not always. Sometimes this crosses the line into unforgiveness or even judgment—something that apparently offends God when I do it.

It matters less to me every year that people will call this discernment “hate” or “compromise”; they are wrong. It is not hate to say that a brother or sister in Christ will not be my pastor because we disagree on an interpretation of Scripture. It is not compromise to be kind to them nonetheless. We can be kind when we have given others the grace to be wrong and forgiven them. On temporal matters we can be forgiving if we recognize that there is more than one sane opinion about nearly all political questions; I’m not so sure of mine that I’ll hate you for yours.

Of course, we must also forgive those who steal from us and lie about us. That’s not my main point here but it is the more difficult kind of forgiveness. More subtle is the habitual snap judgment that is more than a hot take on an idea, but is instead the hasty condemnation of a person for expressing an idea. I hope in this day when we can interact with the ideas of a million people, we’ll consider the command of God to forgive those who offend us unawares. Maybe we should also consider the possibility that we are too easily outraged in the first place. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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