Forgiveness is a paradoxical concept, at least the way we Christians put it into practice. On the one hand, we treasure the forgiveness we have from Christ. We teach that we should and must forgive each other. We tell our children to forgive.
On the other hand, in practice, our lives are full of exceptions to the principle. It seems that, for most of us, there is a specific sin or list of wrongs that actually are unforgiveable. There is a certain wrong done to us we do not feel we can forgive or that God really wants us to forgive. Whether it is marital unfaithfulness by our spouse, selfishness by another that leaves us behind, or dishonesty in the church that results in turmoil and upheaval, we seem to shove the concept of forgiveness far into the background.
In short, often we do not feel like forgiving. It is thus timely and critical to circle back to the basics of this New Testament tenet to examine what we are actually called to do, because, like many others of the commands of Christ, forgiveness is indeed based on our actions irrespective of our feelings.
God’s forgiveness of us (Matthew 6:12, 14-15)
It is axiomatic that we have been forgiven of our sins. The singular act of salvation, while we were yet sinners, is the triumphant moment of our lives. As far as the east is from the west have our sins been removed from us.
Forgiveness, however, is not limited to that singular salvation event. We continue to sin, for we have not yet laid hold of the prize. We still see through that glass darkly, and as Paul laments in Romans 7, we do what we do not want to do, and we do not do what we know we are supposed to do. As children of God and royal priests, therefore, we are constantly in need of God’s ongoing forgiveness; we crave our daily relationship with God, yet our sin separates us from God.
In the Model Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask for God’s forgiveness “as we forgive others.” Too often, we tend to hear only the first half of that, the reminder to ask for forgiveness. Jesus does not leave us there and reminds us, immediately after the text of the Model Prayer, that our continued forgiveness from God is tied to how we forgive others.
You may well be saved, but if your daily walk with Christ is hampered, if you feel separated from God, if you do not share the closeness with God you once knew, perhaps the cause is unforgiveness to which you cling. If you are not forgiving the trespasses of those around you, you are unable to access the full offerings God has for you.
The parable of the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:21-35)
Few of Jesus’ parables are this clear or this hard hitting. We have been forgiven of a debt so huge we cannot imagine it, yet we turn around and fail to forgive wrongs that are minuscule in comparison.
There are two causes for our failure in this regard. First, despite the fundamental knowledge we have, we underestimate what we owe God. We forget how overwhelming our sin was before we were forgiven by God. Though we were not ax murderers or child abusers, the sins we did commit were detestable to a holy God, whose very nature means that He cannot commune with any impurity. The wages of our sin was Christ's death. For God to forgive the sins of rebellious creatures and allow them eternal life with Him was the act of supreme generosity and love. Too often, we have simply forgotten the depth of the debt we once owed that we could never pay.
Second, we overestimate what others owe us. We magnify the wrong done to us. In the moment, the denarius owed to us seems to be of such importance that we think (in fact, the tempter is whispering in our ear) that surely God will understand how important it is that this wrong be recognized for what it is. To forgive something that has hurt us so much—the infidelity, the rift in our church, the abandonment—cannot be, we tell ourselves (and in actuality we hear the tempter tell us) what God expects.
Of course God expects it. Indeed, God demands it. Not just once. Not just seven times. But more times than we can count.
The clothes of the Christian (Colossians 3:12-14)
Paul reminds us to live constantly with the recollection of how God has treated us. We must never forget we are “holy and dearly loved” ones, chosen by God. To “clothe ourselves” with compassion and humility is to live out these virtues so that they are seen by all around us.
As a part of this clothing, we are to forgive anyone against whom we have a complaint. Once again, like Jesus has done in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul reminds us that we forgive not because of our personal feelings or because of what seems right to us but rather because God has forgiven us.
Paul adds the final word—the outer garment, if you will—that over all these things we must put on love. This is not just our love for each other, for we humans can and do fail regularly. No, here Paul is talking about the “tie that binds,” the love of the Holy Spirit that covers us and prompts our forgiveness, as it does our compassion and our humility. We must wrap ourselves in the love of God, for it is only then that we can find the way to forgive those around us.
Forgiving little grievances is easy. We would not need these strong commands and parables to remind us to forgive the child who spills milk or the co-worker who accidentally takes our paper clip. It is where forgiveness is hard—where we have been truly and deeply hurt, where the one who has wronged us is not seeking forgiveness—that we need the instruction. Neither Christ nor Paul conditions our duty to forgive on the gravity of the wrong done to us or on the apology of the wrongdoer. We are simply to forgive.
It is not easy. It often does not feel good. It may go unnoticed.
But it is a reflection of our loving, holy, forgiving God.