Forgiveness: Part 5 – Justice

Forgiveness: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Do It

Forgiveness, vengeance, justice, and consequences

The previous sections have laid out what forgiveness is and is not. So how does forgiveness relate to justice? Some people may conclude that forgiveness is unjust or may believe that getting vengeance is simply just and right. Our desire for vengeance should not be confused with a desire for justice. Consider these verses that address the topics of forgiveness, vengeance, justice, and consequences.

1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men.”

Romans 12:19-21, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Micah 6:8, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Proverbs 24:17, “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.”

2 Samuel 1:11-12 (In spite of Saul’s offenses against David, David did not seek vengeance or even rejoice when Saul died.)

We are instructed by God’s Word to not be vengeful. That is, we are not to hold a desire in our hearts to see another person suffer. At the same time, forgiveness does not necessarily remove the consequences of the offense and it does not automatically free the offender from any obligations for his actions. Consider the following descriptions of the difference between vengeance and justice.

  • “Vengeance is my desire to see another person suffer for the pain he has caused me.”
  • “Unlike vengeance, justice is the payment God or others might demand from someone because of a wrong they have committed against us, against another person or group of people, or against society as a whole. While we are to avoid vengeance, we are to seek justice for those who have been wronged.”
  • “Vengeance is our desire for retribution against our offender; justice is the repayment another person demands from our offender. Vengeance is striving to settle the debt ourselves; justice is allowing someone else to settle the score.”
  • “Vengeance leads to bitterness; justice leads to healing.”

Even though we may be forgiven by God, we will still face consequences when we sin, and we are still accountable to others for our behavior. As one writer noted, “When God forgives us, He removes the eternal consequences of our sin—eternal damnation—but not necessarily the temporal consequences of our actions.” The fact that we are covered with Christ’s robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10) does not preclude the fact that we may have to pay a fine if we get a ticket if we are speeding. Likewise, when others wrong us, they may still have to pay the consequences of their sin. However, our responsibility is to forgive and to seek God’s guidance as we balance justice and mercy.

The high cost of unforgiveness and bitterness.

The benefits of forgiveness are clear: it is following God’s example and command and provides hope and healing. Conversely, unforgiveness has many detrimental effects. Bitterness is a common result of a refusal to forgive. People often are hesitant to forgive because they think it will somehow better the individual who wronged them. Rather, holding on to the hurts from the past and refusing to forgive causes damage to oneself. In addition, bitterness can damage the people closest to us whom we hold most dear.

Spiritual consequences of not forgiving: The Bible provides clear warnings against bitterness, and spiritual damage results when we allow bitterness into our lives. Unforgiveness interferes with our sanctification process. We are falling prey to self-centered reasoning when we nurse a hurt and allow bitterness to develop.

Hebrews 12:15, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.”

Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.”

Matthew 6:14-15, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Colossians 3:19, “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.”

James 3:14-15, “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.”

Emotional and relational consequences of not forgiving: Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die. In actuality, bitterness eats away like a cancer in the person who holds it. Unforgiveness can lead to anxiety or even spiritual depression. When we refuse to forgive even though we know we have been forgiven, we hinder our relationship with God, which can lead to many forms of emotional and relational consequences.

The longer we hold onto our grievances against others, the more difficult it may be to eventually forgive. The longer the period of unforgiveness and allowing the memories of the hurt to grow deeper roots, the more our actions, thoughts, and emotions become aligned with bitterness. If you are dealing with bitterness, pray and ask God for help and take action today to begin the healing process. Don’t hesitate to talk with a mentor, minister, or Christian counselor in order to get help to work through these issues!

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  1. Jeffress, When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense, Ch. 5.
  2. Ibid., 90.
  3. Ibid., 93.
  4. Ibid., 93.
  5. Ibid., 94.
  6. Ibid., 95.