By Javan Rowe
I have heard it said that we are very forgiving people. This is evident when we see our heroes from sports or entertainment fall from grace and then work to get their lives back on track. The public tends to cheer them on and forgive their prior wrongs. Is this true forgiveness though?
Though we tend to use this terminology, it is not true forgiveness because we are not directly affected. There has been no offense to us personally. When the offense hits closer to home—that is when forgiveness is required. Such forgiveness, though, can be exceedingly difficult.
Forgiveness is the act of not holding someone’s offense against them. It is a deliberate action we take, not necessarily based on feelings. When someone wrongs us, forgiveness is our decision to put our hurts and/or anger aside and move on.
David explained it best when he wrote about God’s forgiveness:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:8-12).
One of the main attributes of God—at least where we are concerned—is his willingness to forgive. We are given the promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God undoubtedly has a wrath that opposes sin—it is what makes him righteous—but if we repent before him, he is eager to extend forgiveness.
Similarly we are called to offer forgiveness to those who offend us in some way. Paul said we are to “bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Part of forgiveness is putting up with people’s shortcomings. We do not withhold forgiveness when it is in our power to offer it, especially considering God has forgiven us.
What is great about forgiving is we are promised God will grant the same forgiveness to us. In the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), it is implied that if we forgive others, God will do the same. Elsewhere, Jesus said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). How often do we want God’s forgiveness but neglect our duty to forgive others?
Though there may be many reasons to forgive, I have highlighted three:
1. Gratitude. It mustn’t be thought that we only forgive to get something in return, such as God’s forgiveness. This appears more like a hostage situation than godly forgiveness. We should, instead, forgive primarily as a reaction to the blessings we have been given.
Ephesians 4 is a powerful chapter that deals with unity within the body of Christ. Paul begins by calling us “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (v. 1). He reminds us that each of us has received a specific amount of grace from the Lord (v. 7), which gives us certain responsibilities. Paul then lists how we are to treat others, culminating with verse 32, which summarizes our duty quite well: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” In short, we are to forgive as a response of gratitude.
2. Blessing others. Romans 4:7 says, “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” By forgiving others, we are bringing God’s blessings into their lives. One of the greatest blessings we bring is a restored relationship. At the risk of being overly simplistic, we were created for relationship. God made us for relationship with him, which was marred by our first parents’ sin in the Garden of Eden. When we accept Christ’s sacrifice, that original relationship is restored.
Forgiveness brings the same effect to our earthly relationships. Through forgiveness, we restore a severed connection and step closer to that created design God intended for us in relationship.
3. Resisting Satan. Besides gratitude toward God and for the benefit of others, another reason to forgive is because Satan wants us to hold grudges. In 2 Corinthians, after urging the people to forgive, Paul said the reason for forgiveness is “in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2:11).
This life is one of spiritual warfare, and we are in the fight together as a Christian community. When we forgive, we are locking arms and standing together against the evil forces marching against us.
Forgiveness is more than a onetime event. In quarrels, we often unearth the memories of past hurts that should have been forgiven. The fact that we dwell on a prior offense and use it to wound is evidence that the issue was never initially resolved.
Other times, the same offense is committed repeatedly against us. Jesus answers this concern: “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:4).
This means forgiveness requires us to dig down deep. We must will ourselves to forgive, praying fervently that God will give us the spirit of forgiveness to accompany our actions of mercy. Along with our ongoing petitions to the Lord, we must repeatedly put our feelings to death, which can be difficult when we feel the ongoing consequences of the hurts someone caused us.
The writer of Hebrews made an interesting point about forgiveness when he wrote, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (9:22). Ultimately, it took the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in order for us to obtain the forgiveness of God. Daily forgiveness takes sacrifice from us as well. Not to the level of Jesus, of course, but forgiveness does require some kind of sacrifice.
Forgiving the Unrepentant
We cannot contemplate forgiveness without considering the unrepentant—those who never own up to the offenses they have committed against us. I have heard people say that we only need to forgive those who repent. I am not so sure about this.
Look at the example of Christ on the cross. Luke 23:34 records these words of Jesus while he was in the process of dying: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He asked the Father to forgive the very ones who were unashamedly inflicting pain on him. I realize we cannot live up to everything Christ did, but this appears to be a vivid and memorable example he set.
I am not going to pretend that forgiveness is easy though. In fact, it can be one of the most difficult parts about the Christian walk. It is obvious from the vast amount of passages about forgiveness that this is something that needs our attention. It takes an act of faith.
We may never see our offender come to repentance. However, when the hurts done to us come to mind, we can be comforted to know that justice will ultimately prevail. By forgiving we fall on God’s side of justice. God stands up for his children, perhaps not in a way we will fully understand this side of Heaven, but we can trust God’s ultimate care of the situation. Forgiveness takes the feelings of vengeance off us and places everything in the Lord’s hands.
The answer to why we are to forgive can be found in Romans 5:8, which says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God chose to forgive us when we were still in our state of rebellion. Before the foundations of the earth were set, God loved us and forgave us—then he sent his Son to die and materialize that forgiveness. All he asks us to do is to remember his forgiveness and offer a no-strings-attached kind of forgiveness toward others.
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
It’s been 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda—the killing of one million people in 100 days. The path the country has taken since that time is astounding—they’ve chosen reconciliation and forgiveness over retribution and punishment. The boldness, humility, and success of this approach is an encouraging challenge to those of us who struggle with everyday forgiveness.
• As We Forgive: This documentary is about two Rwandan women “coming face-to-face with the men who slaughtered their families during the 1994 genocide. . . . The government has returned over 50,000 genocide perpetrators back to the very communities they helped to destroy. Without the hope of full justice, Rwanda has turned to a new solution: Reconciliation. But can it be done?”
• Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace by L. Gregory Jones and Célestin Musekura (Inter-Varsity Press, 2010)
“Following the Rwandan genocide, Musekura lost his father and other family members to revenge killings. But then he heard God tell him to forgive the killers. The healing power of forgiveness in his own life inspired him to work for forgiveness and reconciliation across Africa. [This book shows] how people can practice forgiveness not only in dramatic situations like genocide but also in everyday circumstances of marriage, family and congregational life.”