Let’s assume that you have been hurt, more than you ever thought you could. A friend has betrayed you by telling someone else a secret which you had revealed about yourself in strictest confidence. Now everyone knows it, and you are ashamed to show your face. How can you ever forgive that blabber-mouth?
Or maybe a co-worker has presented your idea as if it were his own. He has taken full credit for it and received all the glory for it, including a promotion and a raise. Now he is finding it difficult to look you in the eye. But you don’t even care. In fact, you don’t care if you ever see him again. How can you ever forgive him?
The possibilities for other ways to be hurt are endless. Someone lied to you, or spread a false rumor about you, or ruined a possession, or refused to believe you or listen to you. Your parents are continually trying to manipulate your life. Your ungrateful children have shamed you by repudiating everything you stand for. Your brother has swindled you out of the family inheritance. Your mate has abused you so badly you hardly have any self-esteem left. A so-called “friend” has alienated your mate’s affections. An ex-mate keeps trying to sabotage your life. A pastor has failed to stand by you when you needed him. How can you ever forgive?
There is little that affects our relationships so profoundly and adversely as an unforgiving spirit. Holding something against someone has a tendency to dominate our lives. We may not even realize it. We think we have it resolved in our minds. But all the time it is eating away at us, affecting our disposition, our physical health, and unquestionably affecting the way we treat the people who hurt us. It may be in small ways—looking the other way when they pass, refusing to smile, maintaining a coolness in our voices. It may be in more extreme ways like anger or malicious gossip. But it is always there, extinguishing the warmth and intimacy we long to enjoy with the people around us.
The Apostle Paul made an interesting point about forgiveness in his central passage on human relationships. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Did you notice how he contrasts destructive attitudes and practices like bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice on one hand, with kindness, tenderness and forgiveness on the other? Would you like to rid yourself of those destructive chains that shackle your freedom to get along with other people? One key that unlocks that chain is forgiveness.
But it is so difficult to forgive, isn’t it? “How can I do it?” you ask. The secret is found right here in this verse: “forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” We forgive as God forgives. How is that? If we could learn some of the elements in God’s forgiveness, we would know how we can forgive.
Forgiveness is a dominant theme in Psalm 103 (note especially verses 3 and 10-13). But look at the reason God is so gracious and compassionate as to pardon our iniquities and remove our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west: “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). He knows what we are like, how weak we are. In fact, when He became a man He shared the very same weaknesses. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He has been there Himself. He understands.
Forgiveness begins with learning to be understanding of others. That should not be too difficult. We know what we are like. At least if we are honest with ourselves, we do. We know how proud, how selfish, how spiteful, how jealous, how inconsiderate and how inept we can be. Why shouldn’t we show a little tolerance for those same faults in others? People who refuse to forgive may have the foolish notion that they themselves are almost perfect.
As McGinnis put it, “If we are to forgive freely, we need a tolerance of others as generous as the tolerance we display toward our own errors. It is remarkable how understanding we can be of our own flops in interpersonal dealings—we didn’t intend the error, or it happened in a moment of stress, or we weren’t feeling right that day, or we’ll know better next time. We tend to see ourselves not for what we are but for what we strive to be, whereas we see others for what they are.”9
Being understanding of others does not always mean that we will agree with them. Mary and I used to go around and around on this. “You don’t understand me,” she would say. “Of course I do,” I would insist. “But if you understood me you would agree with me,” she would counter. I didn’t think that was necessarily true and I would tell her so. But I have since figured out what our problem was. I understood her, but I was not being very understanding. And there is a difference.
To be understanding is more than comprehending words. It is trying to look at things from the other person’s point of view, whether or not we agree with them. It is trying to feel what they are feeling, and accepting their feelings whether or not we consider their feelings well-founded. They can usually sense that attitude in us—or the lack of it. And cultivating that attitude can help us forgive when the need arises to do so.
One spiritually-minded young wife shared with us how she managed to forgive her husband when he was short and irritable with her. She said, “I know that’s not the way he wants to be. He wants to be a man who pleases God, and usually he is. Some difficult circumstances have him out of sorts right now.” That is what it means to be understanding, and that attitude helped her forgive.
But understanding alone is not forgiveness. It is merely an important preparatory step. We see the heart of forgiveness in the next thing God does.
Have you ever had someone apologize to you, and you responded with something like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It was nothing. It didn’t bother me at all”? You probably thought your attitude conveyed genuine forgiveness. But it didn’t. In fact, you had probably already complained to several people about what that person did to you, revealing that it really did bother you. And it probably affected the way you acted toward the person. Forgiveness is more than pretending the offense didn’t happen, or pretending it didn’t hurt. Forgiveness is facing the fact that it did happen and admitting that it did hurt, but deciding to pay for the offense ourselves.
That is what God did. In Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians he assures them that God was not counting their trespasses against them (2 Corinthians 5:19). How could a holy God not count our trespasses against us? Paul explains how. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21). He could forgive us because He was willing to bear the penalty of our sin in the person of His son. Or as Peter put it, He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). When an offense is committed, somebody has to pay. When justice prevails, the offender pays. But when forgiveness is granted, the offended party himself pays.
Our sins offended God’s infinite holiness, but He Himself paid the debt they incurred. When Jesus Christ bowed His head in death, He cried, “It is finished.” That is one word in the Greek text, a word sometimes used in business transactions of the day. When written across a bill it meant, “Paid in full.” There is nothing we can add to what Christ has done, nothing we can do to deserve His forgiveness and nothing we can pay to secure it. God in His grace has paid for our offenses in full and has absolved us of our guilt forever. That grace is at the heart of forgiveness.
Our failure to appreciate this truth is one of the major reasons we find it so difficult to forgive others. That was the point of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35), which He told in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he had to forgive a brother who sinned against him. It was the story of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. One of them owed him the enormous sum of $10,000,000. There was no way he could possibly repay it, so the king commanded that he and his entire family be sold in order to recoup a little of his loss.
“The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything’” (Matthew 18:26). He wants an extension of time. He thinks that given enough time he can pay his debt. “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). He got a whole lot more than an extension of time. In an act of unparalleled mercy and grace, the king cancelled his entire debt, forgave him fully. He himself paid his slave’s debt in full.
That king pictures God, and what he did dramatizes the tremendous price God paid for our eternal forgiveness. But in the story, the slave never fully grasped what the king had done. He never received the king’s forgiveness. He still thought he had to pay, and that somehow he could pay. That is the point of what follows. He went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him the equivalent of about $20, and he grabbed him by the throat and began to choke him and demand his money. His fellow slave pleaded with him to have patience, promising to repay him everything he owed. But he was unwilling. He threw his fellow slave in prison until he should pay back his debt. What a hypocrite—to be forgiven so much but refuse to forgive so little!
That is exactly what some of us professing Christians are doing. We have little understanding of the reality and immensity of God’s gracious forgiveness. And because we misunderstand God’s grace and think we have to pay Him off with a certain level of performance for the forgiveness He has offered us, we think we have the right to turn around and demand payment from others before we have to forgive them. They have wronged us, so they owe us and now they have to pay. And we are going to see that they do, in one way or another. So we begin making our demands. We may demand an apology, insist that they crawl back to us and admit their blame. “It’s all your fault,” we insist. “Admit it.” We may demand that they try to undo the wrong they have committed against us, to change the unchangeable past. We may demand a guarantee that they will never do it again.
If they will not pay what we think they owe, we may punish them. We can do that with an angry tirade, or we can change our tactics and snub them with the silent treatment, acting as though they weren’t there. In addition to that, we will probably tell others about the awful things they have done to us so we can put them in a bad light with their friends. That will fix them. We may even take them to court. But one way or another, we are going to make them pay.
That was the problem in Corinth. Believers were taking each other to court over trivial matters. They had not grasped the meaning of God’s grace and the reality of how much God had forgiven them. “Why not rather be wronged?” Paul asked. “Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). It is far better to suffer insult, injury, loss or damage ourselves than risk the slightest possibility of inflicting it on other believers. That is the essence of forgiveness—paying the damages ourselves, canceling every demand, giving up the right to seek any kind of revenge, blatant or subtle, overt or covert. It is giving up our right to hurt others simply because they have hurt us. That is what God does for us, and that is what He wants us to do for others.
Do you remember what happened to the slave who refused to forgive in Jesus’ parable? When his fellow slaves saw what he had done, they were grieved and reported it to the king. He called the slave to him and said, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” And he handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that he owed. Jesus concludes the story by saying, “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). That is a frightening thought. We are not sure who the torturers are, but some have suggested that they are the inner tormentors that plague the person who refuses to forgive—the acid of anger, resentment, bitterness, malice, guilt, depression and despair that eats at us and destroys us. What a horrible plight!
Dr. S. I. McMillen tells of a college student who came to his office suffering from burning sensations in his upper abdomen as well as acute indigestion. Medication did not seem to help, and the doctor was baffled with the case. One day a fellow student reported to him of hearing the young man give a heated diatribe denouncing some people who had defrauded his grandfather, and with whom he was determined to get even one way or another. The doctor confronted the student with his grudge and encouraged him to forgive, but he refused. His condition eventually got so bad that he had to drop out of school.10 As much as forgiveness may cost us, the expense is usually greater when we withhold it, particularly in terms of inner tormenters.
God loves us, and love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The word Paul used in that description of love was an accounting term used of entering an item on a ledger so it would not be forgotten. When a person takes account of a wrong committed against him, he marks it down in his mental calculator so he can use it when he needs it. God does not do that. He chooses to push the clear button on His calculator and forever lose that derogatory information. Several times in Scripture He assures us that He will remember our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 10:17; Isaiah 43:25). How does God forgive? When He forgives, He forgets, and we need to do the same.
But now we have a problem because it appears as though our mental calculator has no clear button. We cannot actually erase an event from our brain cells. Medical science tells us it is always there, able to be recalled, unless, of course, we have shock treatments or brain surgery, neither of which is recommended to help us forgive properly. What then does it mean for us to forget?
First of all, when we truly forgive, the wrong will not dominate our thoughts anymore. When it comes to our minds, we will be able to dismiss it promptly. We won’t keep reliving it and talking about it to others. Some people say they have forgiven, but they can talk about little else. They want to keep rehearsing the awful thing that was done to them. Their inability to stop thinking about it and talking about it exposes their lack of forgiveness.
Second, the offense won’t hurt anymore. The fact will be there, but the deep emotions will be gone. We can think of it without bitterness and resentment, without feeling the pain all over again.
And third, we will be able to treat the offender as though the offense never happened. Not pretend that it never happened. It did happen, and we need to be honest about that. But treat him as though it never happened. If we forgive as God forgives and keep no record of the wrong, then it cannot possibly affect our actions. We will be free to reach out with warmth, kindness, openness and trust to restore the relationship. And that actually leads us to the last element of God’s forgiveness that we need to understand.
The aim of forgiveness is reconciliation. There is no such thing as forgiveness that says, “Well, I’ll forgive him, but I don’t ever want to be close to him again. Let him live his life and I’ll live mine.” That is not the way God’s forgiveness operates. He seeks out sinful people like us (see Luke 19:10). He actually reaches out to His enemies and endeavors to reconcile them to Himself (Romans 5:10).
But as you might expect, reconciliation is a two-way street. In order for the sinner to be reconciled to God he must acknowledge his sin and repent. And there is a lesson in that for us. One-sided forgiveness on our part may relieve the bitterness in us and drain some of the tension out of the relationship. But there can never be true reconciliation until there has been loving confrontation and repentance, until the wrong has been worked through together, until both parties have acknowledged their wrong and both are willing to trust each other again. We cannot demand that other people repent. We cannot insist that they work through the wrong with us. But we can acknowledge our part of the wrong, then reach out to them and let them know we are willing to work at reconciliation. That is all God asks of us.
If you are the offended party, your responsibility is to take the first step. “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). You must do it in love and meekness, but you must do it.
If you are the offender, again, your responsibility is to take the initiative. “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24).
If your brother has something against you, then evidently you have offended him, and you are to make the first move. The Scripture knows nothing like, “Well it was more his fault. He should come to me.” God wants alienated brothers and sisters in Christ to be reconciled. And whichever role you fit, the offended or the offender, if you want to obey the Word of God you will reach out. Biblically, it is always your move.
Is there a wall between you and some other believers? You have been hurt, more than you ever thought you could. God wants you to forgive just as He has forgiven you in Christ. Be understanding toward them in their weakness. Be willing to pay for their offenses in full. Put the wrong behind you permanently, and then reach out in love to effect a reconciliation. You will contribute to greater harmony in the Body of Christ. You will feel better emotionally and physically. You will enjoy life more. You will find greater reality in your walk with God. You will experience greater effectiveness in your spiritual service. And God will be glorified!