An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam, but the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. ~Deut. 23:3-6
I am always a little bemused by those who like to chastise “holding grudges” and tout unforgiveness as a weapon wielded against anyone who desires to be selective in those who gain access to their hearts. They quote Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven” in Matthew 18:22; and at times follow up by expressing concern for the state of your salvation because you don’t “forgive and forget.”
Forgiveness. It’s a thorny, convoluted subject. Unfortunately, there are no prefabricated answers that apply to every situation; just as any aspect of working out your salvation before the Lord is about hearing and obeying rather than applying a strict set of rules to every scenario.
We know that God never changes. He is the “yesterday-today-forever” God who transcends time and knows the end from the beginning. How, then, can we reconcile Jesus’ command to forgive even as we are forgiven with the Father’s mandate to shun the Ammonites and Moabites? Did God suddenly change His mind and decide to forgive? Is He asking us to practice something He, Himself, did not?
No–that would make God unjust and therefore contrary to Himself. He cannot be unjust. Psalm 33:5 says that He loves righteousness and justice, and Psalm 89:14 says that they are the very foundation of His throne. We are His image-bearers, and He would not call us to a higher standard than He holds Himself. The very purpose for His standard is to make us holy, like Him, that we may have relationship with Him.
We gain insight into God’s perspective of the forgiveness process when we look at what Jesus said in Matthew 7:6–“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” He began His thought by saying (in verse 1), “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Again, we seem to have a contradiction–or do we?
Perhaps God does not consider shielding your heart as being judgmental or unforgiving after all. Perhaps, instead it is as the great scholar, Matthew Henry said in his commentary on Matthew 7:
Our Lord Jesus is very tender of the safety of his people, and would not have them needlessly to expose themselves to the fury of those that will turn again and rend them. Let them not be righteous over much, so as to destroy themselves. Christ makes the law of self-preservation one of his own laws, and precious is the blood of his subjects to him.
Jesus Himself practiced the selective giving of His heart.
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man. John 2:23-25
The word “commit” here literally translates: to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in. Though the people flocked to Him and claimed to love Him, He remained skeptical and held His heart back from them because He knew what was in their heart.
If a known pedophile bought a house on my street, I would be vigilant to guard any children in my circle from him/her; others would not see this as unforgiving, but as wisdom to shield what has been entrusted to me. In the same way, we are wise to shield our hearts from those who are known to be unkind in their treatment of others. As Matthew Henry says, this is “over righteousness” that leads to our own, needless destruction. Kamikaze love is not righteousness; it is rejection of a tenderness God wants to keep forefront in our hearts, for it leads to calluses over the places that keep getting hurt until we disengage from all people.
So what is the guideline here? Can we just go around rejecting people at will, saying they are godless and beyond forgiveness simply because they have wounded us? Definitely not. But it does mean that we can be selective in who gains access to our hearts until we see the fruit of genuine repentance. Joseph did much the same, testing his brothers to see if their ways had changed over the years before he revealed himself to them. And although God commanded the Israelites to keep the Moabites from their assembly, He allowed the Moabitess, Ruth, to marry a prominent Israelite and be counted in the lineage of Christ; He saw her heart and it pleased Him, just as did the humble faith of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:22-28.
We must always be willing to forgive when the other side asks for forgiveness; we also must follow the leadership of our Savior in knowing those He wants to have ready access into the life He so tenderly shepherds.