Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith. No one becomes a follower of Christ without first receiving God’s forgiveness and no one matures as a follower of Christ unless they practice the discipline of forgiveness.
Webster defines forgiveness as “the act of ceasing to feel resentment against (an offender)…the granting of relief from a payment of a debt”. When thinking about forgiveness, it’s important to stress that forgiveness does not include trusting an untrustworthy individual, condoning someone’s hurtful actions, or making excuses for their offenses.
Here are some of my favorite definitions from over the years:
- Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.
- Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin.
- Forgiveness means giving up all hope of ever having a better past.
The pictures of forgiveness in the Bible are quite remarkable and strike most of us as not available to the common person like us. Here are three stories that are good examples:
The first is about Joseph and it’s pretty dramatic as you’ll see.
And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also came and fell down before him and said, "Behold, we are your servants." 19 But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? 20 "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. Gen 50:17-21 NASU
Then there’s Stephen.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:59-60 NIV
And of course, Jesus.
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals — one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. Luke 23:32-35 NIV
So there you have the biblical standard. If your brothers throw you in a well, then sell you to slave traders-you forgive. If the townspeople don’t like your teaching, stone you to death, forgive with your last breath. If you live a perfect life, claim to be God, and the religious and government leaders of the day nail you to a cross to die between two criminals-you forgive.
What Joseph, Stephen and Jesus did is the very same thing that Jesus is telling his listeners to do in this famous sermon on the side of the mountain.
Forgiveness is something virtually all Americans aspire to – 94% surveyed in a nationwide Gallup poll said it was important to forgive -- but it is not something we frequently offer. (In the same survey, only 48% said they usually tried to forgive others.)
Here are a few quotes about forgiveness from our contemporary culture:
“In the Bible it says they asked Jesus how many times you should forgive, and He said 70 x’s 7. Well I want you to know I’m keeping a chart.” -Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Forgive your enemies but never forget their names.” -John F. Kennedy.
“We read that we ought to forgive our enemies; but we do not read that we ought to forgive our friends.” -Sir Francis Bacon.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” -Gandhi.
“All families have to deal with four matters: anger, love, loss, and forgiveness.” -Dr. Uri Ruveni.
“I never forgive,” Gen James Oglethorpe said to John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist church). “Then I hope sir”, replied Wesley “that you never sin!”
Forgiving and being forgiven are all of one piece. They cannot be separated. An unforgiving heart is unforgiveable. The man or woman who receives the forgiveness of God is forgiving of others. Forgiving others is proof we have received the forgiveness of God. Forgiveness is something that flows through us, not something that originates in us. We don’t muster up forgiveness. Instead we recognize its presence in us and we pardon others as we understand our own pardon by a Holy and just God.
True forgiveness is rare. Forgiveness never overlooks or just winks at sin. It does not make light of a wrong. It’s not mere politeness, tact, or diplomacy. And it’s notforgetting. Forgetting is the result of something losing its significance in our memory like what I had for breakfast 3 weeks ago. Forgive and forget is not a biblical principle, at least not by us humans. God can do it but He doesn’t say we can forget the deep offenses we may have experienced in our lives. We prefer to smooth things over, let them fade away, excuse them. But God never does. They’ve always got to be dealt with.
Not only is forgiveness rare it’s also hard. I might go as far to say it’s impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. True forgiveness may be the hardest thing in the universe.
Our ideas of justice pull us the other way. “He has wronged me, let him pay,” we say. We want to hold the grudge, defend ourselves, and pin the blame where it is due. Not only is it hard but it costs dearly most of the time. When you forgive you pay a tremendous price according to the offense. To forgive me, you must accept the consequences of my sin and turn me over to a higher court.
No one ever really forgives another, except he bears the penalty of the other’s sin against him.” That’s what forgiveness costs! In the deepest sense, the Christ of the cross is our forgiver and our forgiveness. Jesus Christ substituted Himself for us to pay the cost of forgiving. The price of forgiving is high!
An unforgiving spirit is inconsistent for a person who has been totally forgiven by God. You must bear the cost of forgiving just as God did for you. The cost is high but the value of doing it is higher! What must I forgive? Not just the small things, the trivial irritations, the tactless thoughtless mistakes others make, but everything. Even the hurts that cut and sear. There are no exemptions.
How do I do this? You do it in a prayer. The prayer goes something like this: Dear God, I forgive __________ for _________. I turn him/her over to you to deal with as you see fit.
That prayer will begin a healing process in your life that can only be understood through the lenses of forgiveness. Rick Reynolds runs a counseling center in Austin, TX. Rick says, “Pain that is not transformed will always be transmitted.” Said a little differently, “Hurt people hurt people.” Great title for a book written by Sandra D. Wilson, Ph.D.
Your forgiving another will heal you from the sinful effects of their offense. It will also enable you to experience closeness with God, the one who has or wants to forgive you of all things in your life. And it will break a cycle of hurt and pain that may even have been in your family for generations.
Have a great day. I welcome your comments. God bless, Matt.