“Always forgive your enemies,” Oscar Wilde reportedly said, “Nothing annoys them so
much.” In Acts 7, our martyred brother Stephen followed the example of Jesus in asking God to forgive those who put him to death while they were in the very act. These two examples seem to be exceptions to the way we’ve seen forgiveness explained in Luke 17 and Matthew 18. There is no repentance here – just the opposite. And so Stephen and Jesus do not extend forgiveness to them. Instead, Stephen and Jesus talk to God, and ask Him to forgive them. All true forgiveness comes through the cross, and if they haven’t been crucified with Christ, they can’t receive forgiveness. So Jesus and Stephen ask God to show mercy, hoping that God’s kindness will lead their persecutors to repentance.
Well, the forgiveness they ask God for doesn’t just annoy their enemies; it enrages them. Stephen’s killers were absolutely sure that they were serving God, and his suggestion that they needed forgiveness for that was an extreme insult. They were expecting a reward from God, not punishment. But their spectacular blindness left them exposed to spectacular judgment, judgment that was only averted by the prayers of their victim on their behalf. God had been so angry at the death of His Son that He snuffed the lights out of the sky, and grabbed the earth and shook it. But Jesus prayed for those who were just following orders, because they had no idea what they were doing, and God spared them.
When we think about forgiving those who aren’t our brothers and sisters in Christ, we should remember the pattern that Jesus and Stephen set: instead of rebuking an unbeliever and expecting repentance, we should go straight to the top, addressing things not to the people sinning against us, but to God. God takes sin against His children very personally, and He is quite capable of raining down fire from heaven. But as Jesus instructed James and John, the better way is to heap burning coals on their head, and kill them with kindness and mercy. Both ways, it seems, they end up dead. But the fires of judgment lead only to death, while the coals of mercy lead to life after death.
It sure seemed like Stephen was the one in danger, but he knew better, and showed mercy to his murderers. Because of his intercession, the young man who kept the coats was not instantly engulfed in a heavenly fireball, but was given time to repent. Stephen’s words doomed Saul, but much differently than we would have expected. The coals of forgiveness burned hot on Saul’s head, and even though they took a while to reach his heart, the old Saul was indeed consumed by the fires of mercy.
So don’t ask a non-Christian to repent, which they are incapable of doing until they have been killed by God’s forgiveness. Instead, intercede for them right in front of them. Tell God not to destroy them, and by doing so, start piling on the coals. Forgiveness is a powerful weapon against an unbelieving heart. Forgiveness kills, but it is a kind death that leads to new life.