Should Christians forgive everyone who offends them?
I don’t believe the Bible teaches this — and it’s a pleasant bonus that most honest stories provide supporting evidence. One such story is acclaimed animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and if you haven’t seen the series then please you may read the footnote here but don’t read further because: spoilers.1
In the season 3 story “The Southern Raiders,” Zuko — whose own journey we explored last week — humbly but boldly confronts Katara for her lack of forgiving him. When he learns why she is particularly bitter against the Fire Nation, Zuko takes a courageous step: he offers to help Katara find the Fire Nation soldier who personally killed Katara’s mother.
But before they leave, Aang confronts them.
Aang: The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed rat viper. While you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.
Zuko: That’s cute, but this isn’t Air Temple preschool. It’s the real world.
Katara: Now that I know he’s out there, now that I know we can find him, I feel like I have no choice.
Aang: Katara, you do have a choice: forgiveness.2
Aang’s unspoken definition of “forgiveness” is very common among Christians and anyone else. It’s a “forgiveness” based solely on one’s personal feelings about an offender.
In part 1 I defined this “forgiveness” as a sort of pseudonym for relinquishing bitterness or desire for vengeance. Scripture encourages this, because we must love our enemies and not hate them; instead we “leave it to the wrath of God,” Who alone will repay exclusive vengeance against evildoers (Rom. 12:14–21). But Scripture never calls this action “forgiveness,” and only ever defines and encourages forgiveness as an active process in which someone reconciles with an offender who willingly repents of sin.
Unpacking Forgiveness author Chris Brauns challenges the alternate “forgiveness” view:
“Therapeutic forgiveness” insists that forgiveness is at its core a feeling. Our culture has picked up on this in a big way. When most people say that they forgive, they mean that it is a private matter in which he or she is not going to feel bitter. […]
Therapeutic forgiveness also diminishes the necessity of two parties working out there differences. If forgiveness is simply how I feel, there is no need to worry about the relationship.3
Zuko, who knows a little something about not forgiving unrepentant evildoers, challenges Aang’s “forgiveness” understanding:4
Zuko: That’s the same as doing nothing!
Aang: No, it’s not. It’s easy to do nothing, but it’s hard to forgive.
Katara: It’s not just hard. It’s impossible.
Such forgiveness is impossible — not if we preserve any Biblical sense of mercy and justice that presents us with two frustrating dual truths: 1) we must love our enemies and pray for offenders, 2) we must know that God Himself will someday punish them (if not save them).
In fact, even as Jesus warns us that we must forgive others — in an immediate and broader ministry context that presumes the offenders have repented, even multiple times5 — He bases this on God’s forgiveness, and states that God does not forgive all people:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Soon Katara and Zuko discover the Fire Nation soldier who killed Katara’s mother.
(Katara holds out both her arms to halt the falling raindrops and create a shield above the three of them. After a moments she blasts water at Yon Rha and transforms the stream into a flurry of ice daggers. Yon Rha crouches in fear of death — but soon looks up. The ice daggers float before him. Katara’s expression softens. She releases the daggers, which liquefy and splash to the ground.)
Yon Rha: I did a bad thing! I know I did and you deserve revenge, so why don’t you take my mother? That would be fair!
Katara: (Sorrowfully.) I always wondered what kind of person could do such a thing. But now that I see you, I think I understand. There’s just nothing inside you, nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty.
Yon Rha: (Whimpering) Please, spare me!
Katara: But as much as I hate you … (She turns away.) I just can’t do it.
(They turn away. Yon Rha continues weeping miserably in the rain as the scene ends)
Katara refuses vengeance. In a sense, she “left it to the wrath of God” — or, in the world of Avatar, to the “wrath” of an ultimately self-correcting universe that punishes evildoers.
(The scene cuts to a boardwalk overlooking the water, later in the day. We see Katara sitting on the edge of the dock with her eyes closed. Sadly she opens her eyes.)
Aang: Katara? Are you okay?
Katara: I’m doing fine.
Aang: Zuko told me what you did. Or what you didn’t do, I guess. I’m proud of you.
Katara: I wanted to do it. I wanted to take out all my anger at him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too weak to do it or because I’m strong enough not to.
Aang: You did the right thing. Forgiveness is the first step you have to take to begin healing.
Katara: (Rises from boardwalk.) But I didn’t forgive him. I’ll never forgive him.
Yes. This is not “forgiveness.” It is simple release of vengeance. True forgiveness is greater, scarier, and more reflective of how God saves. It is only for people who choose to repent and experience reconciliation (or, in some cases, the hope of reconciliation in eternity).
Watch how Avatar’s story beautifully reflects this truth.
Katara: (Smiles at Zuko and walks up to him) … But I am ready to forgive you.
(In a moment that Avatar fans have anticipated for years, ever since the villainous Zuko hated the Avatar then repented of his sin, the two embrace in reconciliation.)
(Next week: We’ll conclude this series by exploring of Aang’s quest to find balance — between his Avatar responsibility to exact justice against the Fire Lord, and the mercy he was always taught to show to all living things.)
- Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the adventures of Aang, lone survivor of a lost tribe whose people can “bend” or control air. But as the messianic “Avatar,” Aang is the only person who can also bend all four elements: water, earth, fire and air. And as the world’s spiritual leader, Aang must defeat the one element-based people group that has waged war on the others for about 110 years, the Fire Nation. ↩
- Transcript based on “The Southern Raiders” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com. ↩
- Following Up On Forgiveness, Kevin DeYoung with Chris Brauns, The Gospel Coalition, Feb. 13, 2014. ↩
- Aang also favors nonviolence and vegetarianism. But the story only asks us to consider his beliefs; it does not say they’re superior. ↩
- In Matt. 18:22, Jesus insists that we must forgive a “brother” — a true spiritual sibling — an infinite amount of times, no matter how many times the brother truly repents. The parallel account in Luke 17:3-4 makes more explicit the fact that the brother sins and then repents. ↩