By Conover Swofford
“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10). Part of doing good is forgiving others.
Forgiving others allows us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1) so that we may run the race God has set before us without being weighed down by anger and hurt. While we are actively doing good, we don’t have time to sit and brood over the wrongs we think have been done to us.
Forgiveness frees us from having a bad attitude and from fretting about what we should do to get even with those who have wronged us. This is just one of the many benefits of forgiveness. When we forgive others, we also bless them by taking away their burden of guilt toward us. By forgiving each other we help
others and we help ourselves.
Of course the main benefit of forgiveness is the remission of our sins. Jesus died on the cross so that God could forgive us. God tells us, “All is forgiven,” not “All will be forgiven.”
God’s forgiveness is complete and final. We can only forgive others because we have been forgiven ourselves. If we were more aware of how completely God has forgiven us, we might be more willing to forgive others.
What if the phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” meant that God would only forgive us as much as we forgive others? What if God limited his forgiveness of us based on our forgiveness of others? We might find ourselves in a real mess. “As we forgive our debtors” could imply that when we are in the very act of forgiving, we become more aware of how much God has forgiven us.
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of our injured feelings. When we tell others how we were wronged, we may feel a sense of importance because we are attracting sympathy from those who agree with us. It makes us the center of attention. However, we need to realize that we keep the injury alive every time we tell our version of what happened. Often retelling our story makes us angry all over again.
Forgiving the person who wronged us sets us free from the cycle of repetition and anger. It allows us to put the offense behind us and move on, and it can help improve our relationship with the person who has wronged us.
An Unforgiving Servant
In Matthew 18:23-35 Jesus told a parable about a servant who owed his master a great deal of money. The servant could not repay his debt and begged his master to take pity on him. The master showed pity on the servant and canceled his debt. Soon afterward the forgiven servant found a man who owed him a much smaller sum of money and instead of taking pity on him, had him thrown into prison. When the master heard what had happened, he was outraged. He called the servant to him and demanded to know how he could behave like that. Then the master had the servant thrown into jail.
This parable illustrates how holding a grudge can hold us hostage. The servant had been forgiven and set free, but because he insisted on being unforgiving, he found himself in the very prison he thought he had avoided.
Jesus taught this parable in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Peter thought forgiving an offender seven times was plenty, but Jesus told him to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Some people may keep a literal count, thinking that when they have forgiven 77 times, they don’t have to forgive any more. But Jesus didn’t intend that we take the number literally. It was his way of telling us to keep on forgiving.
Forgiveness is proactive, not reactive. Forgiveness offers a second chance.
How to Forgive
The very act of saying the words, “I forgive you,” can goad us into the act of forgiveness. When we pray for forgiveness, we remind ourselves of our duty to forgive others and we are bound by that duty. Sadly, some people want to be forgiven but don’t want to forgive others. It isn’t always easy to find a way to forgive someone.
When Chris was 8 years old, her biological mother gave her to a neighbor to raise, telling Chris she was unlovable and that she didn’t want her around.
Chris grew up resenting her mother for giving her away. Because she lived next door to her mother, Chris saw her mother regularly. But Chris’s mother never once treated Chris like anything but the neighbor’s child.
As the years passed, Chris’s anger toward her mother grew until it consumed her. It was all she thought about. She spent most of her time trying to figure out ways to make her mother pay for what she had done. When Chris turned 40, a wise person told her, “Don’t look at the intention; look at the result.” Chris did. The result of her mother giving her away was that Chris was raised by a loving foster mother and grew up with a foster sister who became Chris’s best friend.
In Genesis 50:20 Joseph told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” Chris took that verse to heart. She hadn’t been sold into slavery, and no matter what her mother had intended, Chris had benefitted greatly from being raised by someone else. Because of that perspective, Chris was able to let go of her anger, forgive her mother, and move on with her life.
Chris never became close to her mother, but forgiveness doesn’t mean that we automatically have a relationship with someone who wronged us. Forgiveness means we have changed our attitude and released our anger.
Forgive and Forget?
Is it possible to forgive and not forget? Absolutely. We can’t just shut things out of our minds. Even so, not forgetting does not mean we haven’t forgiven.
Joseph forgave his brothers, but neither they nor their descendants forgot what had been done to Joseph. This is how we learn our life lessons. We don’t forget what happened; we remember how we coped with it. The Scriptures record the offense committed against Joseph and his response to teach us how to cope with the challenges that come our way.
When I was growing up and I got angry at someone, my mother would often tell me, “It’s not the offense; it’s the offender.” We may quickly forgive an offense committed by someone we love but respond differently to someone we dislike. In the same way, it’s often easy to take advice from someone we are close to, but more difficult to take advice from someone we dislike.
We have a tendency to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. Like Chris, we need to look at the results and not the intention. Sometimes this perspective makes it a little easier for us to forgive others.
What about when we have wronged others? Matthew 7:12 says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” This is the Golden Rule. We need to ask ourselves, “Do we really want others to forgive us in the same way we forgive them?”
Conover Swofford is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
Inspiring Stories of Forgiveness