By Thom Mollohan
Forgiveness may be both the most necessary of responses to the grace that God has bestowed upon us and the most misunderstood. Consequently, it is the most neglected. Yet, it is when we spend ourselves in this very activity that we most resemble our Father in heaven as well as find ourselves being groomed for full and unfettered fellowship with Him.
The following passages exemplify God’s heart for us regarding forgiveness:
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Frankly, Jesus Himself is the embodiment of forgiveness—literally! He not only lived forgiveness in the daily wear and tear of life, He demonstrated it perfectly in interceding for His haters and persecutors while dying at their hands. As it says in 1 Peter 2:23, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Even facing injustice, Jesus trusted God the Father.
And if He, sinless and guileless, could pray while dying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34), then we can be expected to, and are enabled to, employ that same attitude towards others.
So we find that forgiveness is something that we give, even when it has not been requested by others. Note that Jesus sought forgiveness for those who had not sought such forgiveness. Forgiving others who may not care if we forgive them is not about taking on an air of spiritual superiority, but rather is a matter of quietly releasing them from any indebtedness to us while entrusting their behaviors, attitudes and actions to the Lord.
We do, after all, belong to Him once we have placed our faith in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. We are therefore intended to partake of His nature by submitting to the lordship of His Holy Spirit and allowing Him to transform our character as well as our hearts. We are consequently expected to forgive. His love and power give us the ability to forgive others, but it is helpful to clarify what we mean by forgiveness.
Forgiveness in the Scriptures had a strong connotation associated with financial dealings between people. If someone borrowed money from another, then that person owed the other a debt. If that person could not repay the debt, the one who made the loan could “forgive” that debt, canceling it so that recompense would not be pursued and the debt would not be held over that individual’s head. If the debt was not forgiven, failure to repay could result in imprisonment, slavery or forfeiture of something very dear to one’s heart or survival—like livestock, land or even children.
Forgiveness in the relational sense works pretty much the same way. When we’ve been hurt or “sinned against”, then the one who has injured us has incurred a debt to us. This is why we often struggle with the temptation to get even or settle the score when someone hurts us physically, emotionally or materially.
It is also important that when someone has hurt us that we do not dismiss it or rationalize it, but acknowledge it to the Lord, so that we can then forgive that person. Some argue that when we are injured, we should pretend that nothing ever happened, but that’s not forgiveness in the biblical sense. Our Lord never dismissed sin as a trivial matter but in extending forgiveness to others, exhorted them to stop sinning and live transformed lives, (see John 8:11 as an example).
If we have been hurt by another, we are not called upon to willfully hand that person the means to do so again when it is likely he will do so. Nor, is it expected that if someone has fallen morally that we, in forgiving her, continue to tempt her in her weakness. It would be a bad idea, for instance, to have someone convicted of embezzlement handle money without very close supervision. It would not be wise to allow a narcotic addict to have access to painkillers. Forgiveness does not mean that we pursue abusive relationships that endanger our lives or the lives of our loved ones.
Forgiveness is simply the releasing of another from their indebtedness to us. It is taking the position that the offending party is not going to be made to account for his or her actions—not by us at any rate—and that we offer to them the same kind of love that Jesus has shown us. Forgiveness happens when we stop trying to make others pay for their misdeeds or hurtful words. Instead, we just let it go.
Forgiveness is, obviously, a key arena in which we employ faith in God. Forgiveness both frees us from bondage to anger and hate and also helps get us out of the way of God’s redemptive work in the lives of others. Forgiveness even allows us to be entrusted by God with the ministry of intercession —praying on the behalf of others—and might, perhaps, be the very means by which the seeds of God’s grace can enter the life of someone else who needs God’s help as much as we did before God forgave our sin.
We do well to remember the admonishment from Paul, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).
This doesn’t mean that forgiveness is easy, or comes naturally. In fact it’s not something we can do on our own. When one has been deeply hurt, or hurt repeatedly over time, it requires more than an effort of our own will to disentangle ourselves from the complex web of emotions that are spun from our anger, grief and fear. We can only truly forgive by the Spirit of Christ, and there will likely be occasions when we will especially need the help of God’s Holy Spirit to be successful in forgiving others—even though we try with all our might to do so. When in such straits, we can cry out to the Lord to deliver us from the terrible bondage of an unforgiving heart, and trust that He will give us the same heart for others that Jesus has for us.