One of the most challenging aspects for any Christian in their walk with the Lord is the ability to forgive unconditionally. We all have victory in receiving forgiveness, but granting forgiveness – especially when the other party has no desire to be forgiven – can be flat-out distressing.
While this article is written mainly with the new believer in mind, I believe the mature believer should find much to appreciate in this study. One can live a lifetime knowing the Lord and His Word, but when it comes to the act and commandment to forgive, we are never too settled in our growth not to be reminded of this very difficult subject that pushes against not only our flesh but of logic and reason as well.
Let’s take a look at the Scriptures concerning forgiveness and see what we might be able to learn when it comes to our God-given responsibilities and roles in this very difficult human endeavor.
Forgiving Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ
At first glance, this seems to be the easiest of all forgiveness requirements. After all, each and every believer has accepted God’s grace and free gift of salvation through Christ’s forgiveness of our sins on the cross, so it really shouldn’t be a burden to forgive our brothers and sisters of transgressions against us. Or so we might think. Let’s dig in.
After warning the disciples of those who cause offense against the “little ones” and that it would be better if a millstone were hung on his neck and drowned in the sea, Jesus gives another warning:
“Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
The key to this passage, in my opinion, is the trespasser is repenting and asking forgiveness. One would think this would be an easy proposition for the offended believer. But, honestly, being offended seven times in just one day does seem to be a little much. Yet Christ wouldn’t have commanded us to do such a thing if it weren’t in our capacity, with the indwelling Holy Spirit, to do so.
Paul, after his teaching on putting off the old man of sin and putting on the new man being made in the image of Christ, added that they should also…
“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:12-13).
Here’s the crux of the matter: Just as Christ freely forgave us of our sins, we should always be willing to forgive those whom He also has purchased with His precious blood in payment for their sins. Their sins are no different than ours, and we would desire the same from them if the tables were turned; and turned they will be, because, until the Lord calls us home, we are just as susceptible to transgressing against them as they are to transgressing against us.
Paul, admonishing the Ephesians not to grieve the Holy Spirit, directed them to…
“… be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Just as Christ’s everlasting mercy was applied to us in our infirmities – past, present, and future – just so, our mercies should always be extended to the family of God as we are altogether being made into a new creation in Christ Jesus.
When Christ had finished his discourse on how trespasses against a brother should be handled in His church, Peter had a question:
“… Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” (Matthew 18:21b).
“Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” seven” (Matthew 18:22).
In the Luke passage above, Christ admonished a believer to forgive a brother or sister seven times in one day. Now it’s up to seventy times seven? Wow! What a challenge! But when one considers what Christ has done for us, we come down a little easier to earth in understanding that what He is requiring of us really isn’t as difficult as it appears to be when a brother or sister is genuinely sorry and truly repentant. Especially when His Spirit is leading and guiding us.
And after the parable of the wicked servant who was forgiven of his master of much and did not forgive his own debtor of a little, Christ warned those who would not forgive:
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matthew 18:35).
There’s no exception to this rule: We must forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ, or the Father will not forgive us. This is sobering. But this challenge of forgiving brothers and sisters in Christ is just beginning!
Now we progress from our brothers and sisters in Christ to men and women who haven’t put their faith and trust in the Lord – those who often mistreat the Christian in everyday living and, at the very least, don’t honor our Lord as they should. We must certainly have more leeway in not having to forgive them for trespasses and sins against us as believers, right? At least a little bit?
A warning from Jesus after teaching the disciples how to pray:
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Well, I guess not. The standard seems to be the same with all men as with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Very high standards, indeed! But what should we expect from such a loving and merciful God who desires that all come to repentance and salvation in Jesus Christ?
When teaching on the power of prayer, when one believes and has faith to move mountains, Jesus gave the same warning:
“And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).
Regarding mercy and forgiveness, Jesus declared:
“Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:36-37).
Just as we were moved by the grace and love of Christ in His compassion for the salvation of our souls, so too will many of those who have yet to give their lives to Him. This is the lesson: There are more souls to save, and we have the obligation – in fact, it should be our firmest desire – to represent the Lord as He would have us represent Him. What greater way in showing fallen mankind the love and grace of God than for His people to show that same love, mercy, and grace, through forgiveness, to those who so desperately need Him!
The disciples asked the Lord how they should pray. And in the example of an acceptable prayer to God that Jesus gave them, He acknowledged the disciple should petition of God to…
“… forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us …” (Luke 11:4).
In this, the Father will always hear our prayers and petitions as we will be carrying out his will in the forgiveness of trespasses and sins committed against us by believers and unbelievers alike.
Well, that should be it, right? Wrong!
Forgiving Our Enemies
How can a man forgive his enemies? According to Christ, his disciples must first love their enemies:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
“For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
We must remember that Christ loved His enemies:
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Christ prayed for His enemies who crucified Him:
“… Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do…” (Luke 23:34).
If we can love our enemies, then we most certainly can forgive them. We must forgive them – whether they ask for it or not – as forgiveness is just as much needed for the person who gives the forgiveness as for the one who desperately needs to receive the forgiveness.
It is this love for enemies that ultimately brings those enemies of Christ to Christ. Will everyone come? Of course not. But knowing who will come and respond to the love and grace of Christ shown through the believer, often because of forgiveness, is not for us to know. What is for us to know is that every last human being on earth needs Jesus, and it is our job as ambassadors for Christ to show them Who they so desperately need.
“And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ …” (2 Corinthians 5:15-20a) (emphasis mine)
I would like to share a couple of practical tools I have used throughout the years to assist me while relying on the Holy Spirit for guidance as I seek to forgive others. The two keys are “forgiving” and “forgetting” and, depending on the situation – at least for me – not necessarily in that order.
But don’t be remiss: As Christians, we must forgive all people – family, friends, acquaintances, believers, unbelievers, and enemies – each and every one.
Forgiving and Forgetting
When somebody has wronged me – and they apologize and/or ask me for forgiveness – forgiving and forgetting is the proper sequence for me. I would think it would be for everyone else as well. This is the formula we should all seek to use when somebody sins against us and is repentant and sorry for their actions. Forgiveness is never really complete until the forgiver can truly forget. So, after you have forgiven the offender, never forget to forget. We should never remember their past trespasses against us, for we are to never bring them up again – they are forgiven.
What I have found, though, is that reversing the order can be quite advantageous when dealing with the opposite situation.
Forgetting and Forgiving
When somebody has wronged me – and they do not apologize and/or ask for my forgiveness – forgetting, then forgiving, seems to work best for me. But if you venture to take this approach, don’t neglect the forgiving once you have forgotten, or you will have missed the point of forgiveness.
Now, if you can forgive and forget in this situation as well, you should absolutely do so as this is the appropriate way. But there are times when someone has been victimized and/or intensely mistreated, and with the abuser unable or unwilling to acknowledge their sins against them, that forgiving and forgetting may be a difficult endeavor. You can do it – you have the Holy Spirit – but, honestly, sometimes it can be very, very difficult.
So, when this has happened to me, I will sit down and write out a responsive reply to the person who has wronged me but has never asked for forgiveness. I never intend to actually give it to the person; it’s strictly for me. (Although I would give it to the person if he or she pushed the issue, but not until I have completed the process.)
By writing out what you would like to say to the person regarding their wronging of you, what you are trying to accomplish is releasing any animosity, frustration, and ill-will you may have against that person. You may find this rather therapeutic. These are very real feelings that need to be expressed in righteousness and sincerity. At first, what you write down may often be very harsh and, honestly, rather un-Christlike. Therefore, because you are a child of God, you need to edit, rewrite, add to, take away, etc., for an undermined period of time. You do not want your write-up to be anything other than godly and respectable. Your finished product must be something that you would give to or say to the person if he or she insisted on pushing the issue even further, invariably causing more unnecessary harm and malice.
At times, I’ve even gotten up in the middle of the night because the situation was weighing on my mind, or I thought of something else to add, or a different way I should have said something. By getting up and typing out what was on my mind, I was able to release what my mind was preoccupied with, so I was able to sleep, knowing that I had progressed positively in my pursuit to complete the task at hand.
Once you are comfortable with what you have documented – what you would say to the person should it ever be brought up again without them offering you an apology and/or asking for forgiveness – then you begin the process of putting it all behind you and forgetting. You will find that as you begin the process of forgetting, you’ll invariably, often unbeknownst to yourself, start the forgiving process. It’s just a natural progression that I’ve found works really well for me. Again, there’s the very real possibility that once you’ve forgotten, you may forget to forgive. Don’t let this happen, or the process is incomplete.
Again, if you’re a person who can always forgive and then forget, by all means, keep it up! For me, personally, it really does make a difference in whether the person is willing to apologize and/or ask for forgiveness, but not always, though. Whichever way works best for you, just make sure you’re able to do both – forgive and forget.
The Challenge of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is needed for the believer because of sin – sin in our own lives and sin in the lives of others. We have wronged others just as we have been wronged, and no one is exempt.
While there are many different aspects to sin and trespasses – and we need to be honest here, they are all an abomination before a Holy God – to our finite minds, we have the tendency to categorize sin by degrees of impact. But sin is sin, and we all have this scourge living inside of us. And until we are called home, sin can always, without warning, raise its ugly head at any time. This is the battle of the believer until glory, and we dare not wink at this truth. We are all susceptible and need to remember our frailty when it comes to forgiveness – both to receive and to give – following the leading of the Holy Spirit and pattern our lives after Christ, who is our example.
The Lord Jesus Christ gives His children The Challenge of Forgiveness not as a request or a suggestion – but as a command. Our Savior would never command us something that was impossible for us to achieve. He promised us His Holy Spirit, and He has gifted us with Himself to help us in our pursuit to be conformed into His image – a process that takes time.
With the indwelling Holy Spirit as our guide, and as difficult as it may seem at times to be, we have His power to grant absolute forgiveness of those who have wronged us. This is a given. All we have to do is give our hurts, our insecurities, our human emotions and fears, and render it all to Him for healing. He wants it all. He paid for it all. And He will give His all that we may become the people of God He has predestined us to be. He will not fail if we are willing to be used by Him and for Him.
God, in His Word, has promised the believer that sin will one day be put to death entirely:
“He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
Even though the above promise was made to Israel, we can – as the bride of Christ – apply this to ourselves with utmost confidence.
“For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).
Gone forever will be the curse, and sin will no longer have any hold on the child of God, nor be remembered ever again:
“… their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Isaiah 10:17).
For in preparation of the Eternal Kingdom, where righteousness will reign supreme, God says,
“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
This will be the ultimate reward for all of God’s children who, in Christ Jesus, heed and fulfill The Challenge of Forgiveness – an eternity of fellowship with our Creator, Savior, and King in His glorious Eternal Kingdom!
Love, grace, mercy, and shalom in Messiah Yeshua, and Maranatha!
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