I do not believe most people find it easy to forgive. In fact, I wonder if anyone has an easy time forgiving. I have even found myself thinking how difficult it must have been for God to make the forgiveness of our sins possible, for that was so costly. If we think it is difficult for us to forgive those who have sinned against us, those who have offended us, those who have wounded us, those who have caused us grief, those who have betrayed us, think how much more difficult it must have been for Jesus to pray for those who had nailed Him to the cross, those who were gambling for his only possession, throwing dice for his robe beneath the cross, those who were mocking him in the hour of his greatest grief, those hardhearted onlookers who were taunting him (Matthew 27:33-44). Nevertheless, when he was dying the cruelest kind of death, not for his own sins but for our transgressions, he prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:33). Think how brokenhearted his Heavenly Father was to see his “only-begotten Son” (i.e. his one and only Son, his unique and solitary Son, not created but “begotten,” of the same substance) bearing such pain, being ridiculed and rejected, tormented and tortured. What wondrous love is this, a love that could be spat upon, so cruelly mocked, and yet remain love? What forgiving love, a love that was greater than all our sins!
During his teaching ministry, as he was preparing his disciples for their mission, when they did not yet know that he was also preparing them for his departure, he was explaining to them the importance of cultivating the proper attitudes (see the “be-attitudes” in Matthew 5:1-12) as citizens of the new age (i.e. the “kingdom age”) he had come to establish. The members of the Church he was going to build as an outpost of the kingdom of God on earth, a company of believers, a “communion of saints” who would be engaged in spiritual warfare against the “powers of hell,” the organized forces of evil in this world (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 2:19-20, 6:10-18), as “aliens and exiles in this world,” conducting themselves as the sons and daughters of God. If followers of Christ were to reflect his image in their attitudes and actions (1 Peter 2:9-12), that had to begin with the relationship they had with each other as his disciples. Serving one another, encouraging one another, loving one another as he had loved them, forgiving one another as he had forgiven them. It could not end there, however, for they had to also demonstrate the mind of Christ even in their attitudes toward their enemies. Imagine how his disciples must have felt when Jesus told them, “love your enemies,” “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” or “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-47).
In teaching his disciples how to pray (i.e. what has become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” but is actually the “disciple’s prayer” – Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus included this petition: “…forgive us our debts (i.e. our sins, our “trespasses”) as we also have forgiven our debtors” (i.e. those who have sinned against us). Has it ever occurred to you that it can be dangerous to pray? That particular petition makes liars of us all, for I do not believe any of us truly want God to treat us sinners (i.e those who have sinned against Him) as we treat those who have sinned against us! I certainly don’t – do you? However, that is precisely what we are asking God to do when we pray as Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Father forgive us our sins to the same degree we are willing to forgive those who have sinned against us.” Immediately after teaching his disciples this model prayer, according to Matthew, Jesus singled out this particular petition, telling them “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (vs. 14-15). Perhaps you will remember that time when the Apostle Peter asked the Master, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times (for the number seven symbolized “completion” and “perfection”)? Jesus answered, ‘I tell you not seven times, but seventy times seven!'” (Matthew 18:21-22). The teachings of Jesus were revolutionary, counter-cultural, the most transforming words ever spoken. That’s why the soldiers who had been sent by the religious leaders to arrest Jesus, when they returned without him, proclaimed incredulously, “No man ever spoke like this man” (the most amazing reason ever given for a non-arrest).
First, we need to acknowledge that it seems too good to be true that God’s love is unconditional and unending, and yet it is too good not to be true! Furthermore, it is hard for our minds to grasp another amazing biblical truth, that by repentance and trust in Jesus Christ, in His atoning death on the cross, our sins are totally forgiven and completely forgotten, making it as though we had never sinned at all (the real meaning of “atonement”). Jesus, who had done nothing wrong, died on the cross for all those who through the ages would do everything wrong, that all sinners who put their trust in him might someday stand before God as if they had done nothing wrong! That’s why we sing hymns like “Amazing Grace.” But we must really believe the faith we sing. It must be more to us than lyrics someone else has written or as the Good News of the Gospel set to music – it must be what we ourselves truly believe. I said this comes “first” because we know how difficult it is for us to forgive others, and how easy it is to harbor resentment and hold grudges. Sadly, this is even true in family life, and in church life. The refusal to forgive leads to discord and division, broken relationships, fragmented families, and church splits. It is a spiritual weakness, a sin of the spirit, that Satan can use for his evil purposes to devour and destroy.
Consider the “wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11), and the counsel of the Apostle Peter: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9). In other words, God has a special blessing for us that we will never receive until we learn to practice this principle of blessing, which means that before we respond and react to someone who has offended us, wounded us, we ask ourselves: “What is the unmet need in his or her life that is causing them to act this way, to say or do these hurtful things?” Then we try to meet those needs. It may be the need for acceptance, for someone who will really listen to them, the need for understanding, the need for empathy (i.e. for someone who will truly hurt because they are hurting, someone who will reach out to them, embrace them, and even “weep with them”), the need for unconditional love (i.e. love without demand, “authentic love” – see Romans 12:9-21). Consider the Apostle Paul’s words of admonishment to the believers in Thessalonica: “Be at peace among yourselves…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all. See that none of you repays evil for evil but always seek to do good (i.e. seek to be a blessing) to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:13-15), doing so lovingly with gentleness, kindness, and patience (Galatians 5:14-17, 22-23, and 6:7-10).
So many times when there are disagreements and arguments, we selfishly assume we are right and the other person is wrong, or we are convinced the fault lies with the other person, and we refuse to take the initiative to achieve understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In other words, we refuse to humble ourselves. My friends, be aware of the peril of pride! Furthermore, if we nurse our hurts, if we feed our resentments, if we hold on to our grudges, we are actually hurting ourselves, crippling ourselves emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We need to forgive others for our own sake! This does not mean we excuse them. This does not even mean there will be a true restoration of a broken relationship (or that there should be, such as in cases of domestic violence, family abuse), but there should be no desire for revenge (do not confuse justice with revenge). God says, “Beloved, do not repay anyone evil for evil…never avenge yourselves…Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). None of us have the right to judge, which in the Bible means “to condemn.” Beware of playing God! Also, avoid keeping a score of wrongs. Don’t forget the dangers of an unforgiving spirit, which generates anger (Matthew 5:21) – anger is a normal emotion, but it is anger out of control that divides, devours, and destroys. We need to be angry about such things as injustice, poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism, the abuse of power, corruption, for such anger about all wrongdoing can lead to positive change. We need to direct our anger toward such circumstances and conditions, such critical issues that should be a matter of common concern among all caring and compassionate people who want to make a difference, who are trying to be agents of change (i.e. change for the better), rather than directing our anger toward people, wishing them ill, rejoicing when bad things happen to them, even praying for their misfortune. It should not be so among us as Christians, or among those belonging to other faith groups that believe in laboring for the common good of all and praying for divine intervention, and resting in the sovereignty of the one true God who alone has the power to change human nature, and is able to “work in all things for good” in the lives of those who are seeking to fit into God’s plan and purpose for all humankind (Romans 8:28).
Finally, let those of us who are Christians remember that Christ condemned the utter inconsistency of believers who have an unforgiving spirit. Once we have experienced God’s forgiveness of our great debt, how can we refuse to forgive the lesser debt of those who have sinned against us? I encourage you to read a parable of Jesus that dealt with this very question, the “Parable of the Wicked Servant” (Matthew 18), and call your attention to the final words of our Lord, when the master of that unforgiving servant called him to appear before him, and told him: “You wicked servant, I forgave you the great debt you owed…should you not have forgiven the much smaller debt your fellow servant owed you? As I had mercy on you, should you not have had mercy on him? And in anger (i.e.righteous anger) his Lord delivered him to the jailers until he was able to pray his debt?” (vs. 23-24), Then Jesus warned his disciples, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (vs. 35). Once we have received mercy and experienced God’s amazing grace, how can we excuse ourselves from offering the same grace gift to fellow strugglers? We may have a passion for justice, and we may also believe in showing mercy from time to time, but what about grace? Do we understand the difference? Justice is when a person receives what he or she deserves (personally, I will not want justice from God, who will be my final judge). Mercy is when a person does not receive what he or she deserves (and I will pray when I stand before God for judgment, “Be merciful to me, a sinner” especially when I am reminded of my “sins of omission”). Grace is when a person receives what he or she could never deserve, and that is what all of us need most now and forever – and that is what God freely offers to all who trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of all our sins (a righteousness “given” as a grace gift to all who repent, turning from their sins and turning to Jesus), rather than trusting in their own self-righteousness (a righteousness “gained” from keeping the moral law of God). For salvation is “by grace alone” (Ephesians 2:4-7), “…and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of good works, so that no one may boast. For we are what Christ has made us” (i.e. “his workmanship” – vs. 8-10). In other words, Christians are not self-made individuals. They are Christ made men and women!
We are forgiven sinners, the “forgiven people of God,” that we might also become the “forgiving people of God.” When that happens, many more critics of Christianity who have seen how we Christians cannot even get along with each other, and have said such things as “Christians are the only ones who shoot their wounded” may just visit our churches to see if it is really true, wondering if they will be welcomed, loved, forgiven, and accepted. For that is what so many people in this broken and fragmented world, this critical and cynical culture, are looking for and longing for. Is your church a place where the lonely, unloved, and lost can experience God’s forgiving love? If not, why not? Are you a leader in your church? Well, every church, like every other organization, tends to take on the lifestyle of its leadership. If you do not have a church, if there is not a community of faith to which you now belong, but you feel the need for such a fellowship, I encourage you to not give up their search – keep looking, keep searching, for there are such churches out there. They may be hard to find, but Jesus said, “Seek, and you shall find.” The Greek word that is translated “seek” literally means “keep on seeking” – in other words, persevere, don’t lose heart. Furthermore, remember you too are a person of influence, and you too can make a difference. You too are a person for whom Jesus died, and he believes in you, even if you do not at this time in your life believe in him. You may not be seeking him, but he is seeking you! Perhaps you have been playing “hide-and-seek” for too long. Stop hiding and let Jesus find you, and then he will help you find the fellowship of Christians, the “fellowship of love and forgiveness” you need in order to become the person God created you to be, the person God had in mind when he first thought of you. Then you can be a channel of his love and forgiveness, a blessing to others, for all of us need to pass it on!
A final question: Who do you need to forgive? This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go to them. It doesn’t mean you need to get up right now and try to straighten everything out, but it does mean you need to straighten yourself out, you need to forgive yourself, you need to forgive those who have hurt you, you need to get rid of an unforgiving spirit, you need to experience God’s forgiveness and God’s power to become a more loving and more forgiving person before you go to sleep tonight! The Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” If you go to bed angry, you will get up still feeling angry (maybe even angrier). Refocus, fix your heart on Jesus. If something is wrong in your heart, ask Christ to help you to make it right. Get it settled in your own mind and in your own spirit. Ask God to also help you to know his will, so you can become obedient to his will for you. Today is the beginning of the rest of your life, so make it a good beginning, a new beginning.