Forgiveness: Forgiving God

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I’m going to begin with two quotes. I’m going to ask you to listen closely because you may catch something you don’t expect.

The Six-Day War was a moment of profound healing for the Jewish people. Many of us feared that another holocaust was about to happen, this time in Israel. Instead, we won the greatest military victory in Jewish history. Many Jews responded by thinking: if it was fair to blame God for his silence during the Holocaust, it was only fair to acknowledge his miraculous deliverance now. My father, a Holocaust survivor, put it this way: Now I can forgive God. Many young secular Jews began observing Judaism.[1]

Yossi Klein Halevi

And the second,

God may not ask for my forgiveness, but yet I feel a need in my soul to struggle, like a drowning man, to forgive God for all God’s sins against humanity. If I do not forgive God, how can I believe in God? How can I stand and tell others to ask for God’s forgiveness?[2]

Rabbi Will Berkovitz

The first quote comes from American born Jewish author Yossi Klein Halevi, talking about the Six-Day War in 1967. The conflict was seen by some as a divine victory given by God and by others as a military victory by the Israeli Army. The second quote came from a lament written by Rabbi Will Berkovitz for Yom Kippur. Both quotes speak to an idea that is foreign to most of us though if we are honest with ourselves, it may not be as foreign as we believe. It is the difficult and complex idea of forgiving God. 

Some of you may have done a double take at these quotes. “Forgiving God?” you might think. “You’ve got it backwards. God forgives us.” And that’s true. For those of us who grew up listening to old-timey preaching in the south, this might border on absurdity. We ask for forgiveness. God forgives us. Sometimes we find a way to forgive each other, though not as often as we should. But us forgiving God? No.

The general theology around this says, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent—which I was taught means God is all powerful, all knowing, and always present. If God is all these things, and several others I didn’t mention, then God cannot make mistakes. If God cannot make a mistake, God has nothing to be forgiven for. This is the way I have most often heard for teaching the idea of theodicy, “an explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The term literally means “justifying God.”[3] The explanation has led many people to accept original sin making man the source of evil. Others have said God had to create both good and evil since good doesn’t exist without evil. I have even heard preachers say, “God is God and God can do whatever God wants and it doesn’t have to make sense to us.” Atheists sometimes use this conversation as a way of saying God doesn’t exist. According to them, if God did exist, why would God permit the evils of this world. God could simply make them go away. Regardless of your perspective it isn’t an easy discussion.

Let’s look at the scripture I didn’t read from Jonah starting in verse 4.

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Jonah 4

The rest of Jonah gives us an insight into ideas of justifying God, forgiving God, and forgiveness itself. Jonah sees the salvation of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians, as unjust. Why should God want to save the centerpiece of the empire that enslaved Israel? Jonah expects nothing less than justice when he walks thought the city and declares, “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” God sees the repentance of the Nineveh and withholds judgment. 

And Jonah asks God to repent. Jonah says he fled Tarshish to avoid taking God’s message to the Assyrians. He says God is merciful and compassionate and would let the Assyrians live if they repented. And in Jonah’s mind, God is so wrong that Jonah would rather not exist than see God forgive Nineveh. In short, I think Jonah believes God has done wrong and needs to repent and be forgiven by not only Jonah, but I think Jonah believes he speaks for all of Israel. Given the political climate and the world events when this was written, some may think Jonah has a point. 

But this story illustrates what many people fail to consider in this discussion about forgiving God: we have free will. Notice the Ninevites are given the choice—change your ways or the city will be destroyed. It isn’t much of a choice, but it is still an option, particularly to a powerful nation with a massive army. Nineveh chooses repentance. Jonah has a choice. Jonah can accept that God desires to offer forgiveness to all, not just Israel or he can sulk and be angry with what God is doing. Jonah chooses the death-sulk, but it is Jonah’s choice in the end. 

The truth is stuff will happen in life. Some of it will be good from our perspective. Some of it will be bad from our perspective. All of it will happen. And it will happen to everyone. Jesus reiterates this idea in the Sermon on the Mount saying, “God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.” Life is a matter of adjusting ourselves to the reality of our situation. If God allows free-will—the option to choose—we can choose to live well or make a mess of things. And yet, many people will still feel like someone should be held responsible. Given no other choices, they hold God responsible and will have to make peace with God.

As far as the idea of forgiving God is concerned, forgiving God is making peace with our circumstances and understanding that God is with us in them. Some of those circumstances are horrible. I have talked with several people over the past couple of weeks who have faced incredible loss and heartbreak. Where was God? God was grieving along with them, offering the comfort and consolation of the Holy Spirit. God was bringing people into their lives, people led by the spirit of God, to share the burden of carrying their pain and continues to do so. God is immanent, or Immanuel, here with us. And the Spirit of God is with them in their pain. Realizing and coming to grips with this, which is a long process, is where we begin to forgive God.

This is not an easy sermon to preach or hear. My hope is that if you are harboring feelings of anger or hurt toward God, you will be willing to begin the process of healing by seeking God and looking at the reality of our circumstances. 


Berkovitz, Will. “God may not ask for my forgiveness, but yet I feel a need in my soul to struggle, like a drowning man, to forgive God for all God’s sins against humanity.” The Christian Century, Oct. 29, 2014: 9.

Hamilton, Adam. Forgiveness: Finding Peace Through Letting Go. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012.

Heim, David. Israel’s dreams and nightmares: Author Yossi Klein Halevi. Sep. 25, 2015. (accessed Jan. 25, 2021).

Pratt, Katherine Schwarzeneggar. The Gift of Forgiveness: Inspiring Stories from Those Who Have Overcome the Unforgivable. London/Dublin: Penguin Life Books, 2020.

Rohr, Richard. Yes, and…Daily Meditations. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2019.

Tillich, Paul. The New Being. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons Publishing, 1955.

Tipping, Colin. Radical Self-Forgiveness: The Direct Path to Treu-Self-Acceptance. Boulder: Sounds True, Inc., 2011.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston / New York: Houghton Mifflin Publishers, 1991.

Tutu, Desmond, and Mpho Tutu. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. New York: Harper Collins, 2014.

[1] (Heim 2015)

[2] (Berkovitz 2014)