Most of us operate under the assumption that some sins are worse than others and harder to forgive, but is this a biblical idea?
Philip Yancey related a disturbing conversation he’d had with a friend on the topic of forgiveness, reflecting on a historical event he had read about that echoed humanity’s troubled understanding of forgiveness.
“Historian and art critic Robert Hughes tells of a convict sentenced to life imprisonment on a maximum security island off the coast of Australia. One day, with no provocation, he turned on a fellow prisoner he barely knew and beat him to death. The murderer was shipped to the mainland to stand trial, where he gave a straightforward, passionless account of the crime, showing no sign of remorse.
“‘Why?’ asked the bewildered judge. ‘What was your motive?’
“The prisoner replied that he was sick of life on the island, a notoriously brutal place, and that he saw no reason to keep on living.
“‘Yes, yes, I understand all that,’ said the judge. ‘I can see why you might drown yourself in the ocean. But why murder?’
“’Well, it’s like this,’ said the prisoner. ‘I’m a Catholic. If I commit suicide I’ll go straight to hell. But if I murder I can come back here and confess to a priest before my execution. That way, God will forgive me.’”
The prevailing idea of sin coming in degrees has given some of us very strange ideas about what we can ‘get away with’ and what is easier for God and other people to overlook. As a result, we begin to have rather warped ideas about forgiveness.
The Smallest and Greatest Sins?
First off, does the Bible teach that some sins are worse than others?
In one sense, it does; and in another, it doesn’t. All sin separates us from God (see Isaiah 59:1-2), and all sin is very serious because even just one was enough to condemn all of humanity and send Christ to the cross (see Romans 5:12-21). Apart from Jesus’ life and sacrifice, we deserve to be condemned. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10, ESV).
In terms of our relationship with God, all of our sin is equal. The most grotesque murder and smallest ‘white’ lie are the same in their effect.
In terms of our relationships with other people, however, the Bible seems to indicate that not all sin is equal. God established very early on that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6), setting a harsh punishment on murder, and he ordered Moses and the Israelites to penalize sins differently in Exodus 22 and Leviticus 20. On top of that, the Bible distinguish between unintentional and intentional sins (see Numbers 15:22-26).
Paul also seems to differentiate sins in the New Testament, saying, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
A lie damages another person’s ability to trust us, but murder takes a life that is made in God’s image. Gossip pollutes a person’s reputation and alters our view of them, but sexual sins distort God’s created order and the ways that we relate to others on a physiological and psychological level.
None of this, though, means that we should treat some sins lightly because they don’t have as much of an effect on other people.
John Piper discussed this in an analysis of James 2:10, “[W]hat he [James] is drawing attention to is, if I say to God, ‘I’m going to do this against you’—this small sin, say, spitting on somebody—‘and I'm going to do this big sin against you,’ in both cases you've defied God. In both cases you've said no to God. That's what he's saying. He wants us to feel that every sin, from the smallest to the greatest, is against God and not just against people and their consequences.
“And in that sense every sin is infinitely heinous.”
How Do We Forgive the Worst?
So is forgiveness the same for every single sin?
In some senses, yes; and in others, no. Now let me explain before anyone sets me on fire for being a heretic.
The forgiveness that God extends to us is absolute. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We’re called to extend that some unending forgiveness to others, as Peter discovered when he asked, “’Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Even if someone never apologizes, never asks for forgiveness, never appears repentant or ashamed of their actions, we’re still obliged to forgive. “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
All this said, forgiveness is different than reconciliation.
Craig Groeschel shared one particular incident where he had to grapple hard with the issue of wise and discerning forgiveness. “When my little sister, Lisa, was born on my third birthday, my parents told me that she was my birthday present from God. We’ve been inseparable ever since. Of course we endured occasional sibling rivalries and conflicts, but she was always my baby sis, whom I loved as much as anyone else in the world. She still is.
“I always believed I was her protector. Like a mother lion protecting her cubs, I was the big brother looking out for his little sis.
“You can imagine how I felt when…I found out that my little sister had been molested for years by a close family friend. Max had been Lisa’s sixth-grade teacher. He taught me to play racquetball, shopped at my dad’s retail store, and often cheered for my sister at her school drill-team performances…. Our family readily accepted him, unaware that behind the supportive teacher facade was a very sick man who repeatedly abused numerous girls over many years.”
Max never acknowledged to Craig’s sister or their family that he had done anything wrong. Forgiveness couldn’t mean ignoring the crime. Forgiveness wasn’t simple. How do we forgive without allowing a predatory individual to cause further harm?
Navigating Healthy Forgiveness
Many Christians struggle to understand the difference and are very susceptible to manipulative claims that forgiveness is forgetting a past wrong. Instead of establishing healthy boundaries, they enable abuse and tolerate bad behavior long past its expiration date.
Pastor Steve Cornell explained, “Even when God forgives our sins, he does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust.
“Words alone are often not enough to restore trust. When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin.”
Our duty to forgive remains unchanged, but forgiveness should not involve inviting someone who is unrepentant and harmful back into our lives.
Christ himself spoke about this, saying, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
We’re called to make every effort to help people along in restoration, but setting up boundaries and enforcing consequences is also loving, and it’s high time that they be included as part of the forgiveness process.