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Is There a Time When Silence Is Better than Forgiveness?

Flowers and notes at a memorial

Ecclesiastes 3:7 says there’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Unfortunately, many of us Christians find it difficult to remain silent. We seem to think that pontificating is our spiritual responsibility. 

But we might be wrong.

After the biblical character Job lost his fortune, dealt with the death of all 10 of his children, and faced a potentially lethal and highly painful health issue, some of his friends decided—quite rightly—that it was their duty to be there for him. So they came and quietly sat beside him, not saying a word for seven days. 

But that was all the silence they could handle. 

Their next move was to get preachy. And judgmental. They felt compelled to remind Job that bad things never happen to good people, so he must be guilty of some great sin. At least, that was their perspective on the problem of pain. And they held it with certainty.

Their comments, however well-intended, were misguided and spiritually abusive. Someone in Job’s situation should never be subjected to that sort of causal speculation.  

Now let’s jump forward a few millennia.

In the wake of horrendous crimes that kill, maim, and shred the psyche of souls, I’ve heard Christians publicly pontificate about how the survivors need to forgive the perpetrator(s). And these uninvited spiritual advisers often start their sermonizing scarcely before the blood of the atrocity has stopped flowing.

Don’t get me wrong: forgiveness is a core teaching of Christianity. Yet even Jesus didn’t always forgive. In fact, a crucial caveat in the plan of salvation—the ultimate exercise in forgiveness, I’d suggest—is that God forgives when there’s confession and repentance (1 John 1:9). The implied corollary is that we can expect God’s forgiveness only when those prerequisites have been met. 

As I read it, God doesn’t unilaterally forgive those who have sinned against him. Yet many Christians seem to feel that total forgiveness is a reasonable and ironclad expectation when relating to fellow humans who sin against us. 

While wielding a whip that he had braided, Jesus overturned the tables of the temple money changers, royally dressed them down, and drove them from the temple. You know the story. But note: he didn’t remove any of the sting from his actions and denunciations by assuring them that they were forgiven (John 2:13-17). Because they weren’t. 

And when Jesus called the religious leaders of his day “hypocrites,” “snakes,” and “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23), he didn’t add, “but I forgive you.” Because he didn’t.

Yes, Jesus did ask God to forgive the soldiers who were nailing him to the cross. But he simultaneously explained his rationale: they were ignorant concerning the true nature and magnitude of what they were doing (Luke 23:34). The government had condemned Jesus to death. And as good government employees, the soldiers were just carrying out one of the tasks included on their official job description. 

Despite these examples from Jesus’s life, there still exists a too-frequent demand from well-meaning Christians that survivors must readily forgive, no matter how horrendous the crime, no matter how pervasive the impact, and no matter the attitude of the perpetrator(s).

I’m not suggesting that those who are wantonly robbed of a loved one at a bowling alley, a bar in Lewiston, Maine, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, or an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, Nevada should wallow forever in unmitigated hate. 

But neither should we, as onlookers, consider it our duty or our right to guilt-trip the soul-shredded by telling them that they should immediately get on with the task of unilateral forgiveness while they’re surviving the worst human experiences imaginable.

One of the things that drove Jesus to his scathing rebukes was the willingness of spiritual leaders to create “heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). Christians need to allow space for the heart-broken and soul-shredded to process their emotions—their shock, their sorrow, their anger, and, yes, their hate. For there is indeed “a time to love and a time to hate” (Ecclesiastes 3:8).  

In fact, there’s “a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, emphasis mine). But it is well and truly beyond my pay grade to decide for others when their season for hating has ended and when their season for forgiving has arrived. 


James Coffin spent nearly 36 years as a pastor and editor in both the United States and Australia. After retirement from denominational employment, he served for 11 years as the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Title image by Charlie Jones on Unsplash.

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