No one ever said forgiveness would be easy. In my years of ministry I have been betrayal, leveled by criticism and felt the disdain of those who should (are commanded to) love me. I’m sorry, I’m far too human, and when I recall these events I can still feel the sting of tears in my eyes, the ache in the heart. Yet we are commanded to love our enemies: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Now that’s hard. Forgiving is hard.
Yet we are commanded to forgive. Repeatedly.
Jesus says that if we don’t forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14; Mark 11:25). God will not forgive us? The stakes could not be higher! The parable of the unmerciful servant elegantly demonstrates that the debt we owe each other is far smaller than the one we owe God (Matthew 18:23-35).
The real question is, how? How do we forgive? Thankfully, we have that answer, too: We forgive “as” Christ has forgiven us: “Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Bearing with one another in love, and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).
Oh, you thought it was easy for Christ to forgive you? Perhaps you believed the level of his caring for those whom you hurt was shallow? Perhaps he is not capable of feeling disappointment and hurt as much as you?
- None of us was worthy of Christ’s forgiveness.
- Nothing we could do would earn his forgiveness.
- He need not have forgiven any of us. Ever.
- And yet he does. Over and over again, certainly in my case!
Can I draw a distinction here? Often it is pointed out that the Lord demands repentance of the one who sins before he forgives. Therefore, some say, we should wait on the offender to repent. The difference is this: When God forgives, it is to save that person’s soul. When I forgive, no soul is saved (except my own), because I do not have the power to save souls. Only God has such power. The distinction is not subtle!
I forgive in order to expunge the stench of anger, the blackness of resentment from my heart. In many ways, I forgive for my benefit as much as for his. This is a case of not being overcome by evil (it is so easy to be consumed with anger and resentment) but to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
That is why, and how, we should forgive each other. We the forgiven, forgive. We the mercy-given offer mercy; we, the beneficiaries of grace, offer grace. We only have two options, forgive each other or have no relationships. And when we fail to forgive, the Lord is clear, we lose a relationship with him, the most consequential relationship of all.
Yes, it is hard to forgive and those we forgive are undeserving (that’s why they need to be forgiven, they have erred, sometimes gravely). Spend a moment to revel in the warmth of Jesus’ love, given so freely and undeservedly, then, my beloved, forgive your brother.