I received an email this week from someone who did me a great deal of harm a couple of years ago. It took me by surprise because I was fairly certain that I would no longer need to deal with this individual. Not only had I forgiven him because I needed to for my own healing and well-being, but I had also blessed him in the process beyond what most any reasonably sane person would have done. That’s what the Book tells us to do, right?
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8)
As far as I was concerned, our paths were permanently set on a parallel course with a very wide chasm between us, and I would be free to move on with my life without any further involvement with him.
And then the email arrived. The subject line simply said, “Amends”. In his message, he indicated that he has been in a 12-step recovery program and has achieved nearly a year of sobriety. He felt that his alcoholism was at the root of the inexcusable abuse that he perpetrated against me. He also indicated that one of the steps to recovery is to seek out those one has wronged while in their addiction, and to make amends whenever possible. He felt that I was at the top of his list and wanted to know if there is anything that he could do or say that would make amends for what he had done.
While I can respect the seeming sincerity of his attempt to right his wrongs, I am also quite familiar with the guiding principles of 12-step groups. The other part of the “amends” step that he seemed to overlook is “except when to do so would injure them or others.” The mere fact that I once again had to confront the incredible deceptions, abuse and betrayal that characterized this person’s involvement in my life was painful. It opened a wound that I thought had completely healed over. The fact is, there is nothing that he could do or say that could even remotely make amends for what he did. And I’m not sure that I would want him to try, for doing so would require him to once again become a part of my life, however remotely removed and superficial that might be. And I’m not willing to take that risk.
On the other hand, I still don’t see a true repentance on his part, or an acknowledgment that the alcoholism was nothing more than a symptom of a much deeper character defect. Alcohol did not make this person do unspeakably dark and malicious things to a fellow brother in Christ. It simply helped numb the guilt that he must have felt as he carried out his elaborate charade. To blame the alcohol is to take no personal responsibility for his actions, or to attempt to uncover the deeply hidden spiritual or psychological roots of his sociopathic behaviors (he was textbook on-spot). This in no way should be interpreted as a dismissal of recovery programs, for I feel that they definitely have value for many people. But I have spent many years working with some very hard-core addicts, and I know that most of them require professional help to deal with the causes of their addictions. Dealing with the addiction in a vacuum is like placing a band-aid on a cancerous tumor.
Obviously, I need to decide how I am going to respond to this request. In my flesh, I could easily reply with a rather vulgar two-word response, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the right way to honor the Lord. I could ignore him and not reply at all, but perhaps that would leave the situation open for future attempts at contacting me, which I would rather not have to deal with. Or I could write a very simple response that acknowledges his effort, but makes it quite clear that there is nothing that he can do or say that will ever correct the wrongs that he did to me, and that the best thing he can do for me is to avoid all further contact with me.
As I weighed these options, I wanted to find some principle in Scripture that would apply to this situation. I’m beyond the forgiveness stage, so that’s not the issue. Jesus told us to “turn the other cheek,” but I’m fresh out of cheeks. And then I remembered this statement from Paul in 2 Timothy 4:14-15:
“Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.”
In these three sentences, there are a three principles that I feel apply to my situation.
First, Paul may have forgiven Alexander, but he wasn’t willing to forget the harm he did.
In fact, nowhere in Scripture can I recall it saying
that forgiveness equals forgetfulness.
Sometimes we need to remember a grave offense so we can protect ourselves from allowing the offender to repeat their actions. Even the part of 1 Corinthians 13:5 that says that love “keeps no record of wrongs” is probably meant more as a defense against dredging up the past and beating someone over the head with it, than to blindly forget how much a person has hurt you, and thus allowing them to continue to inflict harm. We’re called to forgive, not be door mats.
The second principle is that God will ultimately settle accounts with those who seem to “get away with murder.” His justice is perfect, and He really doesn’t need us to help Him out in that regard. After all, we each need to answer for the stuff that we got away with during our lifetimes as well. Remembering this principle makes forgiveness so much easier. In reality, forgiveness is the act of relinquishing our right to exact punishment on the other person. Let God do it – He’s better at it.
Finally, Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to be on guard against Alexander tells me that it wasn’t acceptable to shun the metalworker or avoid him at all cost. Apparently, Timothy and Alexander were in close enough proximity that their paths would occasionally cross. As Christians, we should be willing and able to extend graciousness to even our enemies, without taking them into our bosoms. I think a lot of God’s people don’t seem to grasp this concept. If I don’t agree with you or like what you do or believe, then I can’t have anything to do with you (I grew up in a church that firmly espoused this position). Jesus rubbed shoulders with thieves and prostitutes, but He didn’t become one.
I suppose writing this out has been my way of working through this situation. I apologize if it seems a bit self-serving, but I’m hoping that maybe some of these thoughts may help you one of these days if you find yourself in a similar situation.
As for my response to the email, I suppose it will be something along the line of the third option. But not right away. I think I’ll let him sweat it out for a few days.
DAVID COOPER is an ordained minister of the Word of God, in between pastoral assignments. He has been actively involved in various aspects of ministry, including pastoral leadership, since 1984. He considers himself a fun-loving kid at heart, a hard worker (when motivated), creative, and a jack of all trades, but a bit of a practical joker. He is a life-long student of the Bible, and loves to share the insights of his journey with anyone who will listen. He’s also a group coordinator with the Gay Christian Network. He is active on Facebook, and blogs at Sunday Dinner with Pastor David. David lives in Phoenix, Arizona.