Several years ago, I participated in a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount. Amid a global pandemic, as cultural and political tensions ran high, Jesus’ words about what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God seemed to take on new meaning.
During that time I was hurt by some people I cared about, so Jesus’ take on forgiveness really stood out. I read Matthew 5:7 like it was the first time. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” In the very next chapter, Jesus repeats this concept: “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 trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
What does that mean? I thought. Is it saying that if I’m withholding forgiveness from someone, God will withhold forgiveness from me? While the answer to that question is complicated, and one theologians have debated for centuries, there is ample evidence in Scripture that forgiveness is freely given to those who forgive. That seems reason enough to examine any unforgiveness in our lives to see if it is out of place.
Why we forgive
I recently had another opportunity to exercise forgiveness toward people in my life who have hurt me. As I’m walking through this new season, I’m reminded of three reasons to forgive.
- I am a debtor. When someone sins against me, it’s easy to view myself as the more righteous person in the equation. The truth is, I am that person’s fellow debtor. We may sin in different ways, but death is the wage for both of our actions. I deserve God’s wrath for the sins I have committed — and yet, as a believer, I have received mercy!
Psalm 103:10-12 (NIV) paints a beautiful picture of this mercy.
“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
While I may be tempted to heap scorn on someone who has “messed up,” (especially if his or her actions affect me), God shows no bitterness toward me when I repent. He doesn’t require me to make sacrifices for my sins (even if that were possible), because Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice (Hebrews 10:11-14). Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, when I come to Him in repentance, He wraps me up in His arms and forgives me fully.
Sometimes I need to be reminded of that picture of grace. My natural inclination can be so different. But as I seek to exercise God’s character in forgiveness, I see more fully how deep His love and mercy flow for me. This gives me strength and power to forgive those who have wronged me.
- I am a disciple. When you read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes clear that forgiveness is a key part of walking with Him. Colossians 3:12-13 describes this as “putting on” a new way of relating to others.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
We live in a compartmentalized world. It’s easy to believe we can love and serve Jesus at church but hold that grudge against a family member on the side. We can feel justified in ostracizing that person who has wronged us, or simply not dealing with our “complaint” against him or her. But Scripture squashes the notion that we can be unforgiving and have Christ’s love flowing out of us. Forgiveness is a process, so painful feelings and the struggle to forgive may be part of our story, but we should always be seeking to forgive others through the power of the Holy Spirit.
- I want Christ’s power in my life. Jesus taught that unforgiveness creates a spiritual problem that hinders the believer’s relationship with God. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The order is clear: reconciliation first, worship second.
Forgiveness is not to be put off. In fact, Paul speaks to this directly in 2 Corinthians 2:7 when he tells the church how to handle the sinning brother: “So you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” We are to be timely in our forgiveness, so that God can work. This can be hard to do when the hurt or betrayal has been significant. However, it points back to the idea of showing mercy as God shows us mercy.
A higher calling
In this post, I have stayed mainly on the topic of forgiving fellow believers. At times we may have to forgive someone who does not know Christ. Many times, we will be required to extend forgiveness to someone who is not sorry, doesn’t validate our hurt or has not asked for our forgiveness. While these situations are difficult, with God all things are possible, even forgiveness that frees us to accept God’s mercy more fully.
I think an iconic example of human forgiveness is Elisabeth Elliot, who returned to the people who had slain her young missionary husband, Jim. Her forgiveness of the people who took so much from her seems otherworldly because it is. In her book “Discipline,” Elliot offers the secret to her ability to forgive: “It is the will that must deal with the feelings. The will must triumph over them, but only the will that is surrendered to Christ can do this.”
Years later, the men Elisabeth forgave would come to saving faith in Christ, in part due to her example. Forgiveness is not always easy, but God demands it of His followers. I’ll end with one of my favorite verses, Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” We forgive because God forgave us. That truth should inspire tremendous gratitude that fuels us to forgive even the worst of sinners.
Copyright 2023 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.