In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the villain, Khan Noonian Singh, seeks to take revenge upon Admiral James T. Kirk for marooning him and his shipmates on a distant planet. During the tense conflict, Khan recites a ‘Klingon’ proverb stating that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” This, according to Khan, justifies is hate and search for vengeance. The only thing that matters to him is not the relationship, but the satisfaction of his personal hate and need to see Kirk pay for what he did.
However, Christians do not operate under Klingon law. We do not abide by the rule of vengeance. Jesus tells us that, as believers, we are required to forgive those who repent (Luke 17:3-4). There are no limits to the number of times to forgive. We are not to seek vengeance against the person nor ensure they ‘get what’s coming to them.’ We are not to be the arbiters of wrath. What are we to do, then?
We are to rebuke the sin
To rebuke the sin does not mean exact revenge against the sinner. We are not to act like Khan, seeking revenge against those who did us wrong. Rebuking the sin means letting the person know that what they did was wrong. For example, if your best friend lies to you about something, they did something wrong. If they come to you later and apologize for lying, some people would think, “I’ll get them for that.” They do not want to do anything but disregard the repentance and ensure that “lying so-called ‘friend'” pays for their lie. When we do this, then the relationship suffers and the body of Christ suffers.
As a believer, though, when your friend comes to you and apologizes for lying, we are to let the person know that the lie was wrong and hurt us. Let your friend know that it may take a bit for you to trust them like you had before. However, this is not the end of the duty of a Christian.
We are to forgive every time the person repents
Christians are to forgive those who repent every time they repent. Following the example given above, when your friend apologizes, you are to forgive them for their lying. This means not holding it against them as barter or ammunition. Some people would bring it back up every time something even appears to be wrong. They would think, “Yeah, there goes that liar again” or might tell the friend, “Remember that time you lied to me? Well, you owe me for that.” These are thoughts not of a forgiving heart, but of a vengeful heart.
If your friend lies to you over and over again, and repents over and over again, then they should be forgiven over and over again. When this is done, the relationship is restored and the body of Christ is strengthened. No matter how many times the person does something wrong, they must be forgive each time they repent.
Something to consider is this: do we expect God to forgive us each time we repent? If so, we should also live by the same standard and forgive others every time they repent. Remember the Example Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4)?1 It included the statement that we would be forgiven in the same manner in which we forgive (Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4). In other words, this meant to be a call for us to forgive those who repent just as God forgives those who repent. None of us is innocent of all wrongdoing. We all have sinned and, therefore, need to repent and receive forgiveness. So when someone sins against us, when we choose not to forgive, we are claiming a pious attitude that is not ours to claim.
Some readers out there may object to this command to forgive everyone who repents every time they repent. I shall address some of those objections.
That’s just not how the world works, today.
That is absolutely correct! Indeed, the world does not operate in this fashion. The world seeks revenge just like Khan. The world exacts wrath against wrongdoers in order to see them suffer. The world does not forgive; the world fights back. However, God’s kingdom does not operate like the world. God’s kingdom operates by God’s rules, not the worlds. God is holy, perfect, and righteous; the world is sinful, depraved, and unrighteous. As believers we are not to conform to the ways of the world, but to the ways of God.
Forgiving means they suffer no punishment at all.
This objection misunderstands forgiveness. Forgiving does not mean the person does not pay a penalty or suffer punishment. Forgiving means that the sin is not held against the person for eternity in order that the person suffer for our own gratification. When someone does not forgive and only wants the person to suffer, it is not out of a sense of justice. Instead, revenge is sought because the one seeking it wants to satisfy himself or herself. Revenge is selfish; forgiveness is selfless.
This is too hard for anyone to do.
Jesus knows this and so did the disciples (Luke 17:5-6). They realized the extreme difficulty of this command and thought it required a great deal more faith than they possessed. Therefore, they asked Jesus for more faith so they could do what seemed impossible. However, Jesus told them that to obey this command only required them to use the faith they had, no matter how small it may seem.
By using the mulberry tree, a plant with a very extensive root system, and a mustard seed, the tiniest seed around, Jesus explained that even the smallest amount of faith can do the greatest of things. Therefore, it is true that it is impossible for us to forgive anyone who repents if we had to do this on our own. However, when we use our faith in Christ, we can forgive every time. It is not ourselves doing this mighty work, but God enabling us to do this mighty work. Without faith it is impossible; with faith it is very possible.
Christians are not to live as Khan. Revenge may be “a dish best served cold,” but revenge is not the life of a believer. Christians are to forgive those who repent every time the repent. This is a very high standard of life and very difficult. However, Christ has given us the faith to do the impossible and forgive each time. Just as God forgives those who repent, we are to forgive those who repent. This is our duty, this is our life.
1This prayer is traditionally called the “Lord’s Prayer.” However, it is not a prayer that Jesus prayed, but is an example of prayer given by Jesus. This prayer teaches both the content and attitude of prayer. Matthew records the prayer as part of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount; Luke records it as a response to the disciple’s request for Jesus to teach them to pray. Therefore, based on the context in which it was given, I use the more appropriate title of the “Example Prayer.”