When Wycliffe Bible translator Bob Russell sought a word for "forgiveness" in the language of the Amahuacas of eastern Peru, he discovered their unique way of asking one another for pardon. In that culture, if an offender wants to be reconciled with someone he’s offended, he says to him, "Speak to me."
Russell learned that Amahuacas who are unreconciled typically refuse to speak to each other. So when the offender asks the offended to speak, it’s the equivalent of saying, "Show me we're friends again by being on speaking terms once more."
The many biblical terms translated in English as "forgive" reflect a beautiful array of meanings: to cancel debts; to lay aside or to cast away sins; to spare, to cleanse, to rescue, or to free the sinner. Yet the Amahuaca expression strikingly translates what is the most important biblical meaning of God’s forgiveness—above all, it is a reconciliation, the restoration of a friendship with Him that has been marred by sin.
The prophet Isaiah put it this way: "Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear" (Isa. 59:2). Our wickedness is an offense to God’s holiness, and we aren't on "speaking terms" until the offense is forgiven. But Christ’s sacrifice has made a way for us to be reconciled.
For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins... Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
—Col. 1:13-14, 21-22
The sins that came between God and us can be cast aside so that we can be friends again.
All other meanings of the word forgiveness must be seen in the light of this one. As the various biblical terms imply, our debts have indeed been remitted, our punishment has been averted, our hearts have been cleansed and set free, our lives have been spared—and all with a single purpose in mind: that we might receive the greatest gift of all, to be once again "on speaking terms" with our Father in heaven.
Like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable, we're relieved to be swapping our smelly rags for a silken robe and our pigs' pods for a fat-calf feast (see Lk. 15:11-32). But what could possibly match the thrill of seeing our Father—the one whose heart we broke with our sin—running toward us with open arms? He has welcomed us home again!
If God has gone to such great lengths to reconcile us, why do we sometimes fail to experience His marvelous forgiveness? Instead of returning to our Father as the prodigal son did, why do we so often wallow with the pigs, far away from home?
It’s not that God’s grace isn't great enough or that some sins provoke Him so mightily that He refuses to forgive. It’s simply that God’s offer of forgiveness is essentially an offer of friendship. Since friendship takes two, our response is critical.
Those who have accepted God’s great offer of reconciliation through Christ may sometimes fail to experience His forgiveness in concrete situations because of certain attitudes or behaviors that are somehow marring their relationship with Him.
I had a close friend in college who always seemed to be short of cash. One day he asked me for a small loan. As he well knew, I didn't have much money to spare, but I made the loan on the condition that he pay it back by a certain date when I would need it to pay a bill.
That date came and went, and the loan remained unpaid. At first I was upset, because I had to scramble to pay my bill. But I was well aware of his situation, so
I let go of my anger and determined to cancel the debt for the sake of our friendship.
Yet there was a problem: Because my friend knew he was guilty of breaking his promise and causing me hardship, he started avoiding me. He no longer dropped by my dorm room and never returned my phone calls. He began eating in a different dining hall so he wouldn't run into me.
In short, he lived every day under a cloud of shame that ruined our friendship. And his failure to come to me and talk about his offense denied me the chance to say, "I forgive your debt."
In a similar way, experiencing divine forgiveness and its proper fruit depends in part on our right response to God. Scripture reveals several responses that help us open ourselves to receive God’s forgiveness in its fullness. Consider these.
Confess your sin. The scriptural promise of forgiveness for our daily failures includes an important condition: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9, emphasis mine). King David tells us how his own failure to admit his sin blocked his reception of God’s forgiveness.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long....
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess my transgressions
to the Lord"—
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
—Ps. 32:3, 5
In a sense, our refusal to confess our sins to God is a refusal to be "on speaking terms" with Him. If we would be reconciled, then we must admit to the sins that are damaging our friendship with Him.
Practice humility. We can't ask God to forgive our sin—and we can't accept His forgiveness for it—when our pride keeps us from even recognizing that we’ve sinned. Our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector vividly demonstrates this obstacle to forgiveness (Lk. 18:9-14).
The tax collector was painfully aware of his failings, beating his breast and crying out, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner!" (v. 13). The Pharisee, on the other hand, was self-righteous (v. 11), patting himself on the back for all his good deeds. Yet despite all the Pharisee’s religious accomplishments, his relationship with God was flawed by pride, and pride is blind to its own evil. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus tells us that the humble tax collector went home forgiven, but the proud Pharisee did not.
Fight against habits of sin. Like the conscience blinded by pride, the conscience blinded by habitual sin is unable to recognize its need for grace. Perhaps the most startling scriptural example of a hardened conscience is the mocking thief crucified next to Jesus, whose cruel and blasphemous attitude suggests that his heart had been calloused by his crimes (Lk. 23:39). His scorn of Jesus' sacrifice and his lack of any remorse stand in stark contrast to the humble plea of the other thief, who rebuked the impenitent criminal for failing to see that they both deserved their punishment (vv. 40-43).
The same gift of grace appeared to both men; the same possibility of forgiveness was offered to both. One, because of a seared conscience, refused grace and was lost forever. The other, though equally a sinner, accepted grace—and gained paradise with the Lord.
We may not refuse God’s grace altogether as the one thief did. But if we persevere in a particular kind of sin until it no longer disturbs us, we may become like those whom Paul described as having "consciences... seared as with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:2). Our friendship with God will be damaged by the sin we no longer regret.
Recognize the seriousness of sin. Even when we must admit to ourselves that some aspect of our attitude or behavior is sinful, we may nevertheless convince ourselves that the sin is of little consequence. Yet only when we recognize the true seriousness of even "small" sins are we able to experience fully God’s forgiveness of them.
Remember the "woman who had lived a sinful life" and who came to Jesus while He was the guest of Simon the Pharisee (Lk. 7:36-50)? She wet the Lord’s feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured costly perfume on them. When this scandalized Simon, Jesus observed that her extravagant behavior reflected her own keen awareness of the seriousness of her sin: She was able to love Him deeply, to enjoy an intimate fellowship with Him, because she knew how great was the debt she had been forgiven.
In contrast, Jesus pointed out, Simon had received Him rather coldly. The Lord compared the Pharisee to a man who "loves little" because he "has been forgiven little." Self-righteous Simon probably took that to mean that he didn't have any serious sin to be forgiven. But knowing Jesus' explicit and repeated condemnations of pharisaical pride and hypocrisy, we might more reasonably conclude that Simon’s problem wasn't that his sin was insignificant. He had simply failed to recognize just how serious it was, and thus he had failed to accept forgiveness for it.
Recognize grace as a costly treasure. God’s grace is free, but it isn't cheap: It cost Him the most precious life of His Son. If we fail to recognize the steep price that was paid to reconcile us to God—if we view forgiveness as cheap—then we'll place little value on our restored friendship with God, and we'll be more likely to persevere in sin.
The writer to the Hebrews recognized the seriousness of this problem. He warned that those who "deliberately keep on sinning" (10:26) have actually devalued and despised God’s gift of forgiveness in Christ. Such a person "has trampled the Son of God under foot... has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him... has insulted the Spirit of grace" (v. 29). When we persist in sin with the idea, "No problem—God will forgive me," we lose all sense of the treasure that is God’s grace, and we reject the freedom from sin that it’s intended to bring. Is it any wonder in such a case that our experience of forgiveness will be empty?
Cultivate faith in God’s goodness and mercy. Sometimes the obstacles to experiencing God’s forgiveness have less to do with a inadequate grasp of the seriousness of our sin and more to do with a wrong understanding of God and His great gifts to us. Our Lord’s parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) reveals the sad irony of those who mistrust God because they doubt the goodness of His character. Though they receive the same gifts of grace others receive, they're unable to profit from such gifts—they bury them—because they're paralyzed by fear.
To experience fully the grace of our reconciliation with God—to know the power of His forgiveness—we "must believe... that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb. 11:6). If we doubt that God is willing to forgive us, we won't be motivated to seek His forgiveness. So we must plant firmly in our hearts the scriptural promises of divine mercy, meditating on them and using them in prayer as the psalmist did: "You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you" (Ps. 86:5).
Realize that no sin is greater than Christ’s sacrifice. Sometimes we fail to experience God’s forgiveness because we're tempted to conclude that our sin is so great, or so tenacious, or so shameful that God can't possibly forgive it. But this conclusion is simply a failure to appreciate the magnitude of what God has done to reconcile us to Himself. Think of the infinite value of Christ’s atoning death. Could our sin possibly be greater than His sacrifice?
Forgive others quickly and completely. Finally, we must note that Jesus was quite explicit about the consequences of holding a grudge. After teaching His disciples what has come to be called the Lord’s prayer, He added a sobering comment: "But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Mt. 6:15). Then, as if to underline the point, He later told the frightening parable of the servant who was denied mercy because he himself was unmerciful (Mt. 18:21-35).
The lesson is clear: Bitterness damages our relationship with God and blocks our experience of His forgiveness. What we refuse to grant others, we reject for ourselves. For that reason, we must obey the scriptural command: "Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13).
Is God’s forgiveness available to all? Is it a free gift? Is it greater than the greatest of our sins? Is He always willing to forgive? Yes, on every count. But our experience of His forgiveness depends in part on our right response to His grace.
Once again, I think of my cash-short college friend. Though he hid from me for months, the story had a happy ending. One night we ended up at the same party. When my friend walked into the room, his eyes met mine, and he knew what he had to do. He took me aside to ask my forgiveness. I told him the debt had been canceled long ago and asked him, with a hug, what had taken him so long to find out.
We were on speaking terms again.
The parallel should be clear. To know the breadth and depth of God’s mercy, we must strive, in all the ways we’ve noted, to let no sins or doubts remain between us, causing a separation. Only then can we enjoy the fullness of a restored friendship with the Father who never tires of running to meet us with arms open wide.