Sin, Blame & Forgiveness
The following letter and response were exchanged by email.
(All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the individual)
I really appreciate your article “Psychology: Servant or Master?” on your EPM website [www.epm.org].
One thing I would change though is in the section about “Victim Mentality.” You state that, “We see life as unfair and ourselves as its victims. We focus on the offenses others have done against us. And we fail to realize all these offenses pale in comparison to our own offenses against God, who not only forgives us, but both requires and enables us to forgive others and move forward free from the past.”
It is true we offend God, and it is true that this is grievous to the extreme, but the offenses that are done against us are wrong, simply because they are like our own offenses—wrong because they are done against God. In response to the wrongs done against us in the past, God is pained himself and is pained for us, his children. To imply that our pain is not real or valid because we ourselves have done wrong would be to negate the entire human race and the wrongs we do each other. The offenses of others do not “pale in comparison” for they are exactly the same—they are sin. Sin hurts, sin maims, sin destroys—it affects the victim of it, who is himself a sinner.
Dismissing our pain by a comparison to our own sins certainly does not comfort, nor does it show God as having been with the victim in the abuse (how ever BIG or small the abuse was in our “shades-of-sin” estimation). We are comforted not by comparing our sin to His holiness, but by His sovereign, powerful presence in all that He brings to pass (2 Cor 1:3,4).
answered by Randy Alcorn
Thanks for writing. You say in response to my article, “It is true we offend against God, and it is true that this is grievous to the extreme, but the offenses that are done against us are wrong, simply because they are like our own offenses—wrong because they are done against God. In response to the wrongs done against us in the past, God is pained himself and is pained for us, his children.”
I totally agree, and see nothing in the article that suggests otherwise. Then you say, “To imply that our pain is not real or valid because we ourselves have done wrong would be to negate the entire human race and the wrongs we do each other.”
Now we’re not tracking, Jim. It sounds like you’re thinking I was saying that the offenses against us aren’t wrong. I’m not saying that at all—of course these offenses are wrong. That is the very meaning of “offenses.” I was not implying our pain is not real or valid, but simply that what others have done against us—which is what we always tend to focus on, a wrong focus often fostered by modern psychology and counseling methods—should be put in proportion, and should not dominate our thinking and overshadow us, keeping us from forgiveness. There is little we can do about the sins others do to us, other than forgive them. There is much we can do about our sins against God and others—confess and repent and embrace the forgiveness of God and call on his power to live differently. Yet what we tend to do is be preoccupied with wrongs (including real wrongs) others have done against us, while minimizing, rationalizing and denying our sins against God and others. We become embittered at how God has allowed us to suffer at others’ hands, rarely considering how others have suffered at our hands.
You say, “The offenses of others do not ‘pale in comparison’ for they are exactly the same—they are sin.”
Let me develop Matt. 18:21-35, the main passage I cite after my statement about our sins against God paling in comparison to others’ sins against us. I believe this is a clear teaching of this passage, which begins with Peter raising a question about how much we should be willing to forgive others for their offenses toward us. Jesus responds by telling the story of the servant who was forgiven a huge debt by the king but refused to forgive a small debt by a fellow servant.
As in most of the parables, I believe the king represents God, to whom we owe an infinite debt and against whom our offenses are worse than anything done against us, precisely because of God’s holiness and our lack thereof. I was not saying others’ sins against God are always less than ours, Jim, but simply that their sins against us are far less than ours against God. That’s a critical distinction. Yes, all sin is ultimately against God. David said, “against you and you only I have sinned,” but that doesn’t mean he didn’t sin against Uriah. We must understand that because of who God is and who we are, someone’s sins against me are never equal to my sins against God (nor his sins against God).
Take a look at Matthew 18. This man owes 10,000 talents, roughly six million dollars. For a servant in that economy, it would take something like 190,000 years to work off the debt and its interest. This is a huge amount, more than any person would ever owe another person, far more than he could even begin to pay off. This is an infinite debt, meant to convey the immeasurable size of our sins against a holy God.
The servant begs the king for mercy; he says, “be patient and I will pay back everything.” Of course, we really can’t pay back God for our sins, and it is arrogance which thinks our sins small enough and our selves big enough to pay them off. That is a fatal problem in the man which ultimately brings him down.
Now, in the story, the king takes pity and forgives the debt and lets the man go. The central teachings at this point of the story are: 1) He owed a debt so great it could never be repaid, and there was nothing he could do to earn forgiveness. The Master was completely within his rights to punish the servant forever; 2) He granted forgiveness purely out of grace, in response to what appeared to be the servant’s genuine recognition of his sin.
Now, what happens next is that the man goes out and finds a fellow servant, who owes him a very small debt—the amount owed is 1/600,000 of what he had owed the king. This is the kind of analogy I’m making in the article, Jim, the one Jesus outlines in this story. And this is my basis for disagreeing with you when you say others’ sins against us “do not pale in comparison to ours against God—they are exactly the same, they are sin.” Of course they are sin, but I believe this passage contradicts your notion, because of the vast difference in the amounts of money owed, on which the story hinges. There is a deliberate emphasis placed on this difference, and the debts are clearly not “exactly the same,” as you put it.
The first man’s offenses against the King were infinitely greater than the second man’s offenses against the first man. That doesn’t mean the second man’s offenses weren’t real, that he owed no debt to the first man. Of course he did. But while real, his sins against that man were not at all equal to the man’s sins against his king. That’s my point in the article, and I think the passage is very clear on this. (Even from the point of view of sheer numbers of sins, all my sins are against God, while only some, usually a relatively small number, of another person’s sins are against me. That’s not the only distinction, but it is one of them.)
You would expect that the first man, touched by the forgiving grace of his master, will extend that forgiving grace to the second man. But he doesn’t. He demands payment, and resolves to punish him (Matt. 18:28).
In verse 29 his fellow servant falls to his knees and begs him, just as he had begged the king. Now surely his heart will be touched. But it isn’t! Verse 30 says, “he refused” (Greek = persisted in his unwillingness). He stubbornly refused to forgive. He threw the man into prison (paralleling our unwillingness to forgive and attempts to inflict pain on those who have hurt us).
Now, when the king hears of this, in essence he says, “Had my forgiveness really touched your heart you would have extended it to your brother.” He sees then that the man had not embraced his grace, and throws him to the torturers, because if we do not embrace the king’s grace, accept his forgiveness, we must pay for our own sins, and since our debt is infinite, the punishment is eternal.
I believe the story teaches 1) Our debt to God is infinitely beyond our capacity to repay, and 2) Our debt to God is infinitely greater than any person’s debt to us. In other words, any offenses against us (real as they may be) are small change, small potatoes. Not in and of themselves, but in comparison to our offenses against God. This is what I’m talking about in terms of others’ sins against us “paling in comparison” to our sins against God. Isn’t that a clear teaching of this passage? (If not, what is?)
The final point of the story, I think, is that when we truly experience God’s forgiveness for our sins, it will transform us into forgiving people. To forgive someone, I call upon my faith in the grace of God in Christ’s atonement, by which I not only receive forgiveness, but give it. In fact, the real test of my forgiveness is my ability to forgive others. In Luke 7 Jesus said of the immoral woman, “she loves much because she has been forgiven much.”
This comes out of a sense of proportion as to our sins against God in comparison to others’ sins against us. Those who think they have little to be forgiven for by God never find it easy to forgive others. Those who forgive freely are those who understand that since God has forgiven them much more, they cannot, must not withhold forgiveness from others.
Of course, a woman who is molested and raped and beaten should never deny the reality of a man’s sin against her—this is not about denial, any more than the solution of Matthew 18 would have been for the first servant to deny the second servant’s debt to him. The solution wasn’t to deny sin, but to forgive sin.
Seeing that the darkness of her own sin has put her in infinite debt to God, and that God has graciously forgiven that debt, can free and empower the badly abused woman to forgive those who have sinned terribly against her.
The unforgiving person is obsessed with others’ offenses against him, demonstrating that he “doesn’t get it”—he doesn’t grasp the meaning of Matthew 18. If we “cannot” forgive others, we need to ask ourselves, “Have I underestimated the extent of God’s holiness, and the extent of my own sins against God, and the extent of the forgiving grace of God for me?” And, “if God has forgiven me my infinite debt, am I not obliged to forgive others their finite debt, no matter how much it hurt me and how wrong they were?” Indeed, if we are unwilling to do this, we demonstrate clearly that we have not been transformed by the forgiveness of God.
Ultimately, the one thing that is costlier than forgiving is not forgiving. Bitterness is a horrible price to pay, and by minimizing our sins against God and others, and maximizing others’ sins against us, we set ourselves up for bitterness.
I have seen many people helped through Christian counseling, but it is a sad thing to see people who have gone through Christian counseling and come out “in touch” with not just their own pain, but a deep bitterness and suspicion toward others. Ironically, they seldom afflict punishment successfully on those they are embittered against (who sometimes have been terribly wrong, and sometimes haven’t been). It is their own soul that’s poisoned, and sometimes they end up hurting people whose offenses against them they’ve blown way out of proportion.
No wonder our churches have so many people always expecting to be wronged and never being surprised, always cataloguing the sins of others against them, whether forty years ago or yesterday or those anticipated tomorrow. The life without grace is a miserable life. This is what I mean by the “victim mentality.” Of course I don’t mean no one is ever a victim—I’m talking about an outlook, a posture, a self-fulfilling or imaginary state of mind.
Perhaps you have not spent much time with people who see themselves as perpetual victims, people endlessly obsessed by wrongs others have done to them, whether by their spouse, their employer, their pastor, the policeman, the checker at the grocery store, the neighbor whose branches fell on their side of the property line, etc., etc., etc. I have, and I long for those people to understand and be liberated by what Jesus said in Matthew 18.
You say in your letter, Jim, “Sin hurts, sin maims, sin destroys—it affects the victim of it, who is himself a sinner.”
I fully agree.
You say, “Dismissing our pain by a comparison to our own sins certainly does not comfort.”
The point of Matthew 18 is not to dismiss pain, but to put offenses in proportion and perspective.
You say, “We are comforted not by comparing our sin to His holiness, but by His sovereign, powerful presence in all that He brings to pass” (2 Cor 1:3,4).
I don’t think the primary point of Matthew 18 is comfort at all (and that wasn’t the point of my article, which was a critique of psychology), but perspective that leads to an understanding of sin and grace, and frees us from self-preoccupation to forgive as God has forgiven us. Once when I was writing an article on comfort and encouragement, I developed the 2 Cor. 1 passage, since that was the subject. But when writing on psychology’s inadequacies on points of sin and self-perception and forgiveness and grace, as I was, I would still have to go to the principles at the heart of Matthew 18.
Hope this helps, Jim. I wish you God’s very best.