Do Christians Hate Forgiveness? (Are we Jonah?)

7 min. to read if you read all the footnotes, too.

Not long ago, the president announced an initiative to relieve some of the pressure of escalating student loan costs and predatory practices with a small loan forgiveness program. The response among many Christians has been deeply fascinating. Social media posts on the subject have mile-long threads of replies. Strident articles are being published. People have strong opinions (Maybe you’re one of them).

This particular issue seem to be a Rorschach test. You know the one? The therapist shows their client an ink blot and asks the client what they see? The premise is that the subconscious will give the meaningless inkblot meaning. Essentially, what we see in the world around us is shaped by who we really are.

Forgiveness is one of those increasingly bland Christian words. Of course, Christians forgive. Of course, Christians are in favor of forgiveness. Of course! And yet, when we are faced with the tangible application of forgiveness in various situations, we get uncomfortable.

This isn’t a post about student loan forgiveness (so, please, don’t email me your lengthy argument for why this is bad policy). Instead, I’ve felt an internal challenge I want to share with you. Let’s consider what happens inside us when we see forgiveness in a situation we disagree with. You see, I think while we like to claim the mantle of forgiveness, many of us within the church have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with forgiveness.

Jonah hated forgiveness.

Remember Jonah? The” and-the-whale” guy? The point of his story isn’t really about giant aquatic monsters. God commissioned Jonah to take a message to Nineveh. This was the capital of Assyria, a brutal neighboring superpower. The Assyrians would sweep into Israel unexpectedly, burning down villages, leaving every inhabitant dead or enslaved. The Ninevites were unjust and aggressive. In the eyes of Israel and Jonah, they were the enemies.

Jonah didn’t want this job. He booked a cabin on a ship headed across the Mediterranean. His destination? To “flee from God’s presence.” En route, a storm hit. Jonah convinced the crew to throw him overboard, ending up as fish food for three days. Knowing he was running out of time, Jonah begged God for mercy. Then the fish, in a bout of divine nausea, spat the prophet onto the shore.

With fresh motivation, Jonah obeyed. An angry street preacher, he railed against Nineveh. To everyone’s shock, the people listened. They turned to God. It’s the ideal outcome for a preacher, you’d think. But Jonah just got angry. Turns out this was exactly why he had run from God in the first place. He knew all about God’s messy tendency to distribute mercy freely, but Jonah hated Nineveh. These people were his enemies. They were immoral. They smelled funny. Jonah’s best hope for them was damnation.

What do we do when God shows up?

In Jonah’s story, three different groups of people respond to God.

First, there were the pagan sailors. In the threatening storm, they had prayed like mad to their many gods. But when Jonah hit the water, and the storm disappeared, they were awestruck. Jonah 1:16 says, “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice…and made vows to him.” Surely their theology wasn’t square. That didn’t matter. They were in awe. They had just received mercy they didn’t expect in a situation totally outside their control. They worshipped and promised to live differently as a result.

Then, there were the Ninevites. The brutal, aggressive enemies? They heard God’s message, and stopped in their tracks. They begged forgiveness. They also received mercy, mercy they didn’t deserve, because they were entirely at fault for their oppression and violence. Grateful for this unexpected gift, they also changed their behavior.

Finally, there was Jonah. He was one of God’s people. He was a prophet. But when God showed up asking something hard from him, Jonah ran. When confronted by the sailors, he decided he’d rather die in the sea than repent. When he obeyed, it was because a fish spat him in the right direction. And then, when revival broke out in Nineveh, instead of celebrating, Jonah whined that he’d rather die than see his enemies turn to God.

I’d laugh if it weren’t still happening today.

Picture of a man blocking his face with an open hand. Quote in white letters over the image: “Our experience of God’s grace and forgiveness is limited by our willingness to extend that grace to others.” www.Live210/forgive

What was Jonah’s problem? Simple. He didn’t think the Ninevites deserved forgiveness. To him, they were foreign, evil, and deserved judgment. He wanted to camp out under a tree and watch the city crumble in a rain of epic smiting. This problem, ”Jonah Syndrome,” is rampant among Christians today.

How many of our words boil down to fights over who we think deserves mercy? How often is our clenching gut-level reaction to unexpected grace an expression of our deep belief that sometimes people just don’t deserve it? Some of us are spending a lot of time arguing, debating, and drawing more lines about who deserves mercy and who doesn’t. But, while we wrangle, all around us people who don’t identify with Jesus’ message of undeserved grace carry the banner of forgiveness in ways we often don’t seem willing to do. Self-help humanists, LGBTQ folks, people that get slammed as ”woke,”1 If you’re using the word ”woke” as a slam, please stop. This word was created by the Black community to identify people who were paying attention to what was going on in the world around them, essentially people who are ”awake” to the exploitation around them. If you use this word pejoratively, you’re showing that you’re part of the problem. and many others who don’t fit our “good Christian” expectations are living out Jesus’ message of grace better than we are. Some of them are even finding their way to Jesus without our help!

Look around. Who are the people holding onto God’s anger for God? Who are they? It’s only us—the people entrusted with God’s invitation of grace. We’ve become religious accountants, tabulating everyone else’s balance. In the middle of our hand-wringing, we’re missing out on God’s presence. It shouldn’t be so.

If you have the good fortune of having grown up in a family that loved God and taught you grace, how can you not extend the same to those around you? If you’ve been rescued from the pit by an act of God, you know the reach of God’s mercy. If you’ve received the benefit of an unexpected act of grace, had a debt paid, or experienced the incredible freedom of release from an overwhelming obligation, how could you not celebrate with others when this happens for them?

We have no excuse for not tripping over ourselves to be the first to share that grace and mercy with others. Jonah was wrong to hold bitterness because he judged the Ninevites as undeserving of grace. Don’t let it be your judgment of who is worthy that stands in the way of your experience of transforming Grace.

Look around. Who are the people holding onto God’s anger for God? Who are they? It’s only us. The people who’ve been entrusted with God’s invitation of grace. We’ve become religious accountants, tabulating everyone else’s balance. In the middle of our hand-wringing, we’re missing out on God’s presence. It shouldn’t be so.

If you have the good fortune of having grown up in a family that loved God and taught you grace, how can you not extend the same to those around you? If you’ve been rescued from the pit by an act of God, you know the reach of God’s mercy. If you’ve received the benefit of an unexpected act of grace, had a debt paid, or experienced the incredible freedom of release from an overwhelming obligation, how could you not celebrate with others when this happens for them?

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    If you’re using the word ”woke” as a slam, please stop. This word was created by the Black community to identify people who were paying attention to what was going on in the world around them, essentially people who are ”awake” to the exploitation around them. If you use this word pejoratively, you’re showing that you’re part of the problem.

14 thoughts on “Do Christians Hate Forgiveness? (Are we Jonah?)

  1. Nice work on this Marc. As much as I believe this is true about the church, it is probably just as true about me more than I’d like to admit.

    1. Hey Brad, thanks so much for leaving a comment! I think you’ve nailed a really important issue. It’s so easy to talk about the problems “the church” has. Much harder to look at how I contribute to that just by being me! So, maybe that’s a follow up post, huh? Am I really OK with forgiveness?

  2. Yes Marc I picture the 2 thieves on the cross besides Jesus I may be on the wrong side many times with my attitude. It always starts and ends with me. My log not your stick.

  3. A technically challenged friend of mine, Kerry, wrote this response to this post. I asked if I could share it here for all of you:

    Forgiveness = forgetting??

    I forget so many things: Where did I put my car keys;did I feed the dogs; did I lock the door, did I make the bed; what did I have for breakfast. I even forgot my wife’s birthday once (NOT COOL!!). Why can’t I forget what YOU did to me? In my life I have held on to even the smallest slights, and have total recall of all of them. WHY?? Because I’m human. Great excuse right??

    It has been a long time coming, but the light is finally shining in those dark places of my heart. I have realized that forgiveness is not about YOU. Forgiveness is about ME! If I don’t let go of my bitterness, my hatred, my need for retribution there can be no healing in my own heart. If I wait for you to apologize, I may be waiting a long time. Maybe you don’t even realize you did anything to wrong me! In my bitterness (I will never tell you about it) I am poisoning my own heart. I try my best to “make you suffer”, but it is me who suffers in the trying.

    God has forgiven so much. I fall so short of His glory every single day. He doesn’t ask me to forget just to forgive as He forgave me. To let go of my need for retribution and let Him heal my heart. Forgiveness isn’t about you, it’s about me. It’s about me letting God work in me to be the grace filled, best person He can make me!

    I may not forget, but I CAN forgive. In the prayer Jesus taught us it seems important to do just that. Forgive us….as we forgive others. If I have ever wronged you please forgive me. I’m like the soldiers who nailed Christ’s hands and feet– I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m an ignorant hu-MAN who needs grace and forgiveness every single day.

  4. Finally, I think this is the context to ask a question I’ve been thinking about.
    If we’re not justified by our works are we actually condemned by our sins?
    Do we really get to tell someone it is this or that sin that is keeping them from God?
    As you say, “How many of our words boil down to fights over who we think deserves God’s grace?” As if we could really prevent someone from receiving God’s grace if God himself was offering it to them. We do sometimes seem to do our darndest to make these people believe that though. I LOVE this thought, it is a pretty great summation of a lot of things I have been learning in the past year: “We’re arguing and debating and painting more signs, while all around us modern pagans, self-help humanists, LGBT folks and others who don’t fit into our “good Christian” expectations are discovering Jesus. They are finding grace and transformation.” AMEN!

    1. Here’s what I’m coming to think: If sin separates us from God, it is only because of what sin does to us. The incarnation makes clear that God has chosen the path of entering into our broken world, broken lives, broken minds and bodies to bring restoration and justification. God is not held back by us, or held away by how awful we are. John 5 is a pretty interesting take on judgement from Jesus’ perspective. I think we need to let go of tasks that belong only to God, and happily take up the real task God has given us. What do you think?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. I think I remember reading this back a few years ago. Still timely, even more so given all the things that have been happening.

    .” I think we need to let go of tasks that belong only to God, and happily take up the real task God has given us. What do you think?”

    I am working on it. Old habits die hard. One of my worst is WORRYING. Constantly. Covid certainly has not helped that frame of mind, in fact it has exacerbated it to the point that I am burnt out on my job completely. My husband actually has wanted me to quit for the past 2 years. The already toxic workplace has only become worse not better, and after attempting to transfer and interview for several different positions, it became clear to me that God wasn’t telling me to stay, He is telling me “QUIT.” He has different plans for me. So I am retiring in two weeks after 39 years with the same employer. Still debating whether I am renewing my nursing license. This is the first time in over 40 years that I have not already had my required continuing education credits done and ready to turn in. I can’t get motivated. I made up my mind at four years of age that I wanted to be a nurse. The thought of not working used to petrify me. I am a bit skittish, but it is time to move on. Our oldest daughter is expecting a baby on September 21; she asked if I could be their babysitter when she returns to work. She works mostly from home but does have days she has to work at the office. So I am going to be grandma! Thankful for the opportunity God has provided.

    And in the meantime, I am working on that forgiveness thing. I refrain from participating in discussions that lead the wrong direction. Or try to. Last Friday at work a coworker basically jumped on my last nerve. After two hours of listening to his diatribe, I stood up and told him to just stop. And I wasn’t quiet or nice about it. He told me to “just clock out and leave.” Yeah it got a bit tense for a bit.

    Well of course I stewed all weekend. Because in my heart of hearts I knew I was wrong. We did not work together again until yesterday. I had found a card with a bass fish pin on it in my basement stash of cards and miscellaneous. I decided to give it to him. The card had fun fishing facts on it I thought he might find interesting.

    He was elated. He said “I love stuff like this, I am going to put this pin on my fishing hat!” Quite the opposite reaction I expected; to be honest I figured he would kind of shrug it off. I told him I figured I owed him an apology after my behavior the last day we had worked together. He grinned and said, “I figured you were a good person and would come around. I just let it go.” Also said something about he figured the Good Lord prompts those who listen.

    Glad I listened to that prompting over the weekend. Made for a much better day!

    1. Shauna, thanks for taking the time to reply and share some of your life. Big transitions like this are hard! Be gracious to yourself. Enjoy being a grandma! And wow! Very cool that you responded to Spirit’s move in your heart like that. We are (all of us!) so quick to write people off. I think because most of us really hate conflict, and so when we have an interaction like you did, we expect that all further interactions with that person will be tense. But people are complicated, and are far more then the beliefs they hold in the superficial layers of their thought. I hope I’m learning the same — to allow Spirit to guide me in hard relationships. Blessings.

  6. I really appreciated this post. For one of my senior theology papers I wrote about Jonah’s response in chapter 4. It was great to see someone else writing about Jonah’s message as a message for Christian’s today to be more forgiving. Even after writing about it and reading your post I find the message still challenging me to stop and think who I might be deeming unworthy of forgiveness. It was especially insightful how you wrote about us holding on God’s anger for Him rather than us sharing in His mercy.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Rachelle. It is a challenging message, isn’t it? But man… think of how life-giving the church could be if we embraced it? What if Jesus’ followers were known as the people who know how to do the real work of reconciling and forgiveness?

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