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To forgive or not to forgive: A case study
Missy Martens
by Missy Martens
March 22, 2021

Two men. One an Old Testament prophet, chosen by God to preach repentance and mercy to a tough crowd. One a New Testament believer, chosen by God to preach repentance and mercy in the midst of a tough crowd. One would run away from the Lord. One would run to him. One would speak fewer than ten words of warning. One would preach a sermon on his deathbed. One would be furious about God’s mercy toward his enemies. One would call upon God’s mercy for his enemies. One was full of bitterness and anger. One was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. And that made all the difference.

Many people know the story of Jonah, or they think they do—he was the guy who was swallowed up by a whale, right? Well, technically it was a big fish, but that’s only one part of the story. The Lord came to Jonah and said, “Go to Nineveh and preach.” So Jonah went . . . hundreds of miles in the opposite direction. He jumped on a boat heading to Spain. That’s where the big storm came up, and he was tossed overboard and swallowed up by the fish, where he stayed for three days before God made the fish vomit him up onto dry land. And then the Lord said again, “Go to Nineveh.”

This time Jonah obeyed, but still reluctantly. He walked into the city, and in one of the lamest attempts of prophesying ever recorded, he said, “You’ve got 40 days.” Jonah basically did his best to make sure they wouldn’t repent and receive forgiveness. But to Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites repented, fasted, and called “urgently on God” (Jonah 3:8). And then, much to Jonah’s chagrin, God had compassion on them “and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (verse 10). This man of God who had just recently been delivered from the belly of a fish, saved from drowning and forgiven for his cowardice and disobedience . . . this man now became angry at the Lord’s compassion for his enemies, the Ninevites. He said, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2). So far so good, right? But instead of praising God for those qualities from which he had just benefited, Jonah followed it up with this: “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). The Lord, slow to anger, had mercy on Jonah’s enemies. Jonah, quick to anger, would rather die than see his enemies forgiven. And that’s how his story ends.

The story of Stephen is not quite as well known. You’ll find it in the Bible book of Acts, and we are introduced to Stephen as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Back story—Jesus had died, had risen from the dead, and had ascended into heaven. The early Christian church was growing by leaps and bounds, despite the persecution it faced daily, and there was more work than the disciples could handle. So Stephen was chosen to help further the kingdom, and we are told that “Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). It didn’t take long for him to attract the attention of some enemies, and soon he was seized and brought before the Sanhedrin on false charges, a bit reminiscent of the Savior in whose name he did miracles. After an impassioned speech containing Old Testament history and a well-deserved tongue-lashing for the Jewish leaders, Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. But before he died, Stephen fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). As he was getting pummeled with stones from his enemies, Stephen called for God’s mercy and forgiveness upon them, again reminiscent of his Savior’s words on the cross (Luke 23:34). And that’s how his story ends.

Jonah. Stephen. A reluctant prophet praying for his enemies’ destruction. A willing servant praying for his enemies’ salvation. Full of anger and bitterness. Full of faith and the Spirit. Which are we? Does it give us satisfaction when our enemies get what’s coming to them? Do we withhold forgiveness and forget that we too desperately need and receive that same forgiveness from God?

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31,32)

It’s not an easy thing to forgive others, especially those whom we believe deserve our wrath and God’s. If we have been hurt, we think holding on to that resentment and anger will punish that person for what they did wrong. But it is really like swallowing a burning poison. We are only hurting ourselves. Jonah was only hurting himself with his anger and bitterness. Stephen prayed for God’s mercy and forgiveness on his enemies, and he died peacefully in the arms of his Savior.

Two men. Two very different hearts. And a God who forgives and forgives and forgives.