|By: John F Weldon DMin, PhD; ©2013|
|Forgiveness is one of the most important things in the world although sometimes one of the hardest.|
“Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13)
Forgiveness is one of the most important things in the world although sometimes one of the hardest. In a sense, forgiveness is also an expression of Christian evidences or apologetics, i.e., psychological and cultural apologetics. Freely and genuinely forgiving other people their sins against us is an undeniable expression of the truth, of the reality of God’s essential nature and character.
Over my lifetime I have met a number of individuals who simply refused to forgive or seemed incapable of forgiving others – and the cost was evident everywhere they went. In anger, bitterness, rage, broken friendships, broken health, broken marriages, you name it. But given how much we have been forgiven by God through Christ – literally infinitely – one would think that forgiving others’ (by comparison) infinitely inferior sins would be something easy. Somehow it isn’t.
In part I think it’s because many of us, for whatever reason, are simply unwilling to forgive. In part, it’s because we don’t understand how much we ourselves have been forgiven by God. And of course, we may hurt deeply and profoundly. But however deep or profound our hurts, they are nothing compared to what Jesus had to experience that we might be forgiven.
There is a good reason why God gives us no choice in the matter of forgiving others. He loves us too much and too much is at stake. Biblically speaking, forgiveness isn’t an option, it’s an absolute command. And it needs to be taken seriously. Why? For three reasons: the consequences to God, to us, and to others.
First, if God has forgiven us all our sins (Colossians 2:13) through personal faith in Christ – even forgiven us throughout all eternity – despite the fact that our sins deserve infinite punishment which for finite creatures can only become eternal punishment – and yet we refuse to forgive those who sin against us comparatively just a little, we dishonor God and we rob Him of the glory due Him. In effect, we contradict or deny His nature and we imply the cross of Calvary means little or nothing when in fact it means everything.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus spoke specifically to illustrate the hideous disparity, hypocrisy and unjustness between a great King who had freely and inconceivably forgiven a lowly servant’s debt of a billion dollars – who then went out and severely beat his best friend for refusing to pay him the debt of a single penny. How can someone graciously be forgiven a billion dollars (when he is that person’s enemy no less, Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21) – and then in the next step go out and severely beat his best friend (who begs to be forgiven) for not paying back a single penny – especially when that friend promised that he would pay back the debt with just a little more time? Worse, the man so greatly forgiven by the gracious King then proceeds to have his friend cruelly tossed into jail – all of this merely for a penny. Clearly, somehow, this man had no appreciation whatsoever at being forgiven his billion-dollar debt. Is anything more unbelievable, hypocritical or cruel? Here he was forgiven a billion dollars by none less than the King himself, yet he won’t forgive his best friend the debt of even a little penny. If God has freely forgiven us much more than this man – to a literally infinite degree, then how can we possibly refuse to forgive others made in His image, those for whom He died (let alone our own brothers and sisters in Christ) – when their sins against us by comparison are virtually nothing, much less than a penny? It doesn’t compute.
To see how important forgiveness is to God, just look at the cross of Calvary and the total cost involved – not to Jesus alone (an infinitely great price), but (one can only imagine) to the Father and Holy Spirit as well. Or do a Bible study related to the word “forgiveness” and similar terms using a concordance. If God truly forgave us everything, as He did, then how can we possibly refuse to forgive others what amounts to virtually nothing by comparison? Obviously, we just can’t.
Second, lack of forgiveness has significant, even major personal costs. I doubt there is a qualified psychologist or mental health counselor on the planet who is unaware of the importance of forgiveness.
Lack of forgiveness, in effect, builds a temple of worship to the devil through bitterness, anger, wrath and all types of sin within us and the price we pay can be exorbitant, far more than we ever thought possible when we first started harboring resentment anger and bitterness in our hearts. In terms of its overall consequences, the bitterness we have against others may rebound upon us tenfold. It’s never worth it, not for a second. Even apart from God’s command (Matthew 6:15) – which, particularly given the cross of Calvary, should be more than enough – forgiveness is always in our own best interests: it’s to our advantage on every level. It brings us genuine peace and true freedom within ourselves and in our relationships with others and with God Himself. Refusing to forgive costs us greatly, and God knows it. He would much rather we not suffer such a price because He loves us so much (1 John 3:1).
In addition, few people are aware of the established connection between unforgiveness, the resulting overproduction of cortisol and adrenaline (e.g., their depleting of natural killer cells), and resultant physical diseases such as cancer, the world’s number one killer by far.
Third, lack of forgiveness doesn’t only negatively affect our relationship with God and our individual quality of life, as if these weren’t more than adequate. God warns us not to let any root of bitterness spring up and thereby defile other people as well. The NLT translation is to the point: “Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many” (Hebrews 12:15). Sin is rarely done in isolation; like poison gas it seeps out into our relationships, our families and potentially even our communities. Lack of forgiveness is probably responsible for more relationship problems than anything else: emotional pain and scarring, misery, hatred, revenge, crime, bitterness, divorce, loss of friends and family, loss of job, domestic violence, stress, high blood pressure, clouded judgment, depression, substance abuse and eventually physical disease, the loss of joy and love and much more. Ironically, the greatest recipient of the cost of not forgiving others isn’t paid by the ones we refuse to forgive but in ourselves. (For true stories illustrating the great personal cost of unforgiveness see Johann Christoph Arnold, Why Forgive? or noted psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s, classic study of evil, People of the Lie.)
In other words, it’s our own life that is ruined – our resentment or revenge returns to wreck us. But not just us – our children pick up on it and even our grandchildren. Sooner or later everybody picks up on it. It’s almost as if God has built into the creation a personal lesson about the Cross – if we refuse to forgive as we have been forgiven, we reap the consequences of our own sins upon ourselves time and again; it just keeps on going (cf. Galatians 6:7; Colossians 3:25). Consider the peace, joy, healing and well-being that comes from truly forgiving others, particularly when it helps one to understand the price of Calvary that Jesus endured – and certainly not for Himself.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that the lack of forgiveness that results in the hatred of others ultimately results in the hatred of our self and our God – is anything worth such a terrible price?
What’s the solution? We need to know and understand exactly how much we have been forgiven by God. Do we really believe God has freely forgiven us our sins, all of them, down to the last one? Aren’t we to be like God? If we truly understand how much God has forgiven us (millions of sins forever), then how can we not forgive others merely those few comparatively minor sins in this very short lifetime – especially when it honors the God we claim to love and those He has already forgiven? Especially when it can save us all kinds of trauma and tragedy, when it’s best for us by far? After all, if God Himself has truly forgiven others all their sins, completely, how is it that we can’t forgive others merely one or two of their sins when God Himself has already done so and forgiven them everything else besides? How can we hold against others what God has already forgiven forever?
Meditate on your own innumerable sins for a while and also the fact that their perfectly fair and just punishment involves living in Hell for all eternity and then the fact that an infinitely holy God has freely forgiven all of them down to the last one in thought word and deed, even the motives behind the thoughts (1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 16:2). And He did this all at an incalculable cost to Himself. Ponder how much an infinitely just and holy God has been offended by your sins and yet so graciously and lovingly proceeded to freely forgive every single one of them. Then have a sober conversation with yourself about whether or not you should forgive others. Even if they never ask for it, you must forgive them. Because of who God is and what Christ did, you know you should forgive them, so do it -- and find that glorious freedom. On the other hand if we do not understand God’s forgiveness in truth, possibly it is an indication that we have never yet received Christ as our personal Lord and Savior and that we need to seek God’s forgiveness of our own sins by transferring our trust from ourselves to Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins (John 3:16)?
Put simply, if we love, we forgive, and we then gain a great deal more than love. If we don’t forgive, we don’t love, and we then lose a great deal more than love. “Little children, we must stop expressing love merely by our words and manner of speech; we must love also in action and in truth” (1 John 3:18, ISV). “Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive" (Luke 17:4, NLT). “…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
This last Scripture is critical. Recalling the apostle Paul’s writings, imagine how much this once wretched man had to forgive. First, as a non-Christian, he had severely persecuted the earliest Christian community and been involved in the murders of Christians (at least Stephen’s), so he had to deal with his own tremendous guilt and issue of personal forgiveness. Second, he was repeatedly beaten, whipped, tortured, hated immeasurably and persecuted in numerous other ways by those he loved so dearly – his own Jewish countrymen, including the Jewish religious leaders who constantly plotted to murder him, so he had to deal with forgiving others. Third, further, and worst of all, because of his great love for Christ’s Church, he suffered all kinds of trials, disappointments and even betrayals from his own Christian brothers in Christ, whom he had sacrificed everything for (2 Corinthians 6:4:10; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; 2 Timothy 1:15).
These are just some of the things the apostle Paul might have become bitter and resentful about. Most of what we experience doesn’t come close to what the apostle Paul went through, let alone Jesus. However, the apostle understood the meaning of the cross, which was key. He knew that everything past is always water under the bridge – nothing could ever change it, so there was no point at all in dwelling upon it or letting it affect him, because would not only be a waste of time it would be destructive to God, ourselves and others. And so our beloved brother Paul set his heart and mind in one direction only – forward, toward the future, tort the upward call of Christ, and he refused to dwell on the past – which is precisely what we need to do. Forget the past. Once and for all, forever. Nothing can ever change it; nothing ever will: dwelling on it will only lead to more anger, frustration and bitterness and the spiral downward. God has forgiven it and done away with it; so must we. That’s why this was Paul’s attitude: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
We must also not fool ourselves by “forgiving” only on the surface, or simply thinking that we have forgiven others, all the while continuing to hold smoldering little, moderate or large grudges and resentments that become obvious in our relationships. If we have truly forgiven those who have wronged us, we may not easily forget, but we will not keep bringing up people’s offenses to them, reminding them in various hurting ways of how much they have hurt us, keeping a record of wrongs, being angry over little things, etc. – that’s not true forgiveness. What would our relationship with God be like if God had that kind of forgiveness toward us? Walking on pins and needles wouldn’t begin to cover it.
Forgiveness is actually a clean slate which is precisely why it brings us such freedom. We know in our hearts whether or not we have truly forgiven others and if we haven’t, then we need to continue to ask for the Lord’s help in forgiving, and we must continue to remember and understand how much we have been forgiven by God – and refuse to be hypocritical by on the one hand accepting God’s infinite forgiveness of our millions of massive sins (in light of God’s infinite holiness) while refusing to grant others the smallest finite forgiveness over a few minor sins. That’s why God requires that each of us “forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35) – because anything less isn’t real forgiveness. And I have also had to forgive. I’ve suffered great losses – financial, ministry, health, etc. – from both genuine and professing Christians but I have also realized that in light of the cross, it is truly a privilege to be able to forgive them – for Christ’s sake.
Because it is something divine (Luke 5:21), forgiveness is actually a joyous and wonderful thing, plus an opportunity to be like Jesus Himself who not only forgave those who brutally crucified Him, but all the trillions of sins of billions of people – and not just good people but evil people who wanted nothing to do with Him (Matthew 7:11; John 3:20; 15:8; Romans 3:9-18). He actually paid the divine legal price of their sins, judicially and spiritually, so they could be forgiven eternally; He didn’t just grant it psychologically. Anyone who has read a medical account of a Roman crucifixion knows all too well the extreme, beyond terrible, beyond bearable physical torture Jesus experienced so that He could truly and ultimately forgive others – but the emotional torture was, I believe, far worse and then the spiritual torture far worse than both the physical and emotional torture combined.
That’s why God really does have the right to demand we forgive others. He isn’t even asking us to do one millionth for them compared to what He has already done for us and, after all, He is only asking us to forgive the debt of a little penny when it comes to others trespasses against us while He has already forgiven us beyond description debts carrying true eternal weight – actually a debt so great that we will never conceive it properly throughout eternity.
So, show God how much you love Him by truly, from your heart, forgiving those who have hurt you, whatever their offenses, once and for all. In the last 2000 years, because of Calvary, Christians have truly forgiven those who have molested and murdered their own children, raped their spouses, tortured their parents and even worse things. It’s probably true that your forgiveness won’t need to rise to this level. If they can find such forgiveness in their hearts because of Jesus, so can you. So whatever the situation, forgive those who have offended you, especially your brothers and sisters in Christ. And keep doing it. Then enjoy the lasting peace and satisfaction, knowing you have brought glory to God and His Son and healing to your relationship with God, yourself and others.
Of course, the most important thing about forgiveness is this: if you have never personally received God’s forgiveness through personal trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, nothing you will ever do in life will be more important. (For specific information on becoming a Christian, please see the homepage of JAshow.org.)
Here are some practical tips that may help with forgiveness:
Charles Stanley, The Gift of Forgiveness
RT Kendall, Total Forgiveness
TD Jakes, Let It Go: Forgive So You Can Be Forgiven
Stephen Cherry, Healing Agony
Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace?
Lewis B Smedes, The Art of Forgiving
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace
Brian Jones, Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive
Willard Gaylin, Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence