One of the hardest lessons God asks us to learn as believers is how to forgive others that have treated us unfairly. It seems especially egregious when those people are our brothers or sisters in Christ and they don’t seem penitent in the least or even acknowledge the pain they caused us. Today, I would like to talk to you about why God asks us to do this and what happens to us and to them when we do embrace forgiveness.
Why Forgiveness is Essential Regardless
When Jesus was sharing the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6), He was explaining to the Jews what keeping the law really looked like in everyday life. At the time, the Mosaic law had been reduced to a checklist. It had changed so much that it was actually possible for people to complete the dictates of the law without the corresponding character that God wanted for His people to hold. This meant that while they were technically “holy” according to the law, they did not have the Godly qualities and traits the law was intended to develop within them. An example of this is found in Matthew 5:38-42. Jesus said,
‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.’
Lest we think the law only requires forgiveness one time, Matthew 18:21-22 records this conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter:
Then Peter came up and said to Him, ‘Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times.’
One final example of God’s requirement for us to forgive comes in Matthew 6:14-15 when Jesus said to His disciples,
‘For if you forgive other people for their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses.’
Forgiveness Is Hard
I think we can see from these scriptures that God’s will is that forgiveness becomes a way of life for us, not just something we do from time to time when we feel like it or it isn’t too hard. But honestly, our ability to walk in this level of forgiveness just isn’t a part of our fallen human nature. It isn’t fair. It doesn’t make sense to us.
Trying to follow these guidelines then, in our own power and ability, becomes another “law” for us to break as we struggle to obey. Knowing what God requires and performing those things are two very different things! So what is the answer to this?
Paul responds to this lament in Romans 7:21-25,
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully agree with the law of God in the inner person, but I see a different law in the parts of my body waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin, the law which is in my body’s parts. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
We Aren’t Alone
So Paul tells us to look to Christ for the will to obey God’s will. And as we receive what He did for us, His Spirit in us fulfills God’s will through us and for us!
How did Jesus fulfill the requirements of forgiveness for us? Let’s look at His response to the very men that accused Him, spat on Him, beat Him, tortured Him, robbed Him, ridiculed Him, crucified Him, and killed Him without a reason. His response, in Luke 23:34, was,
‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’
Jesus took our place in regards to the law and fully fulfilled the dictates of it. What does this mean? As far as God is concerned, in Christ, we have already forgiven and we can thus be forgiven. We have already fulfilled God’s righteous requirement of holiness in our character, so we are free to receive His mercy and grace in our time of need – whether it is a need to forgive, or anything else.
Do you know what else is amazing? Because we have received His Holy Spirit when we received Christ as our Lord, we now have His ability in us to walk in His will in all things. The same Spirit that forgave Christ’s murderers and abusers lives in us and wants to help us do the same.
Our response to all of this is now that we are forgiven, we can freely forgive. Receiving Christ’s full obedience as our own and God’s forgiveness for all of our sins is the key to our ability to forgive others as well.
Unforgiveness Hinders What God Wants To Do
The Lord loves us so much and wants us to walk in victory in every area of our lives. He wants us to live lives of significance and purpose, fully trusting in Him and His power. Our only part to play in this is to receive what He has done for us and allow Him to do what only He can do through us. That includes walking in forgiveness.
If we look at the example of Job, we can see this in action. Job had been judged, criticized, and scorned by three of his “friends” when he was at the lowest point of his life. They accused him of harboring sin, demanded that he change his story, and mocked him for holding to what he knew was true.
When God finally showed up and answered the cries of Job’s heart, He required Job to then turn and minister grace and forgiveness to these very men who had treated him so poorly. God even required Job to pray for them – to intercede for the very men who could have interceded for Job before God, but chose criticism and judgment instead. As Job submitted to God’s request, we see something amazing happen to him and for him. The power of God– the anointing – was released in Job’s life to be able to restore all that the devil had stolen from him. Not only that, but Job also received a double portion of all that was taken from him.
How Can We Tell We Haven’t Forgiven?
Friend, there may be some areas in your life where you receive God’s supply of forgiveness. You may be holding on to offenses done years or even decades ago. You may be holding on to sins you yourself have committed. Here are some signs that you need to apply forgiveness in a greater measure in your life:
- You keep thinking about the offense
- You still feel slighted and upset by the offense
- You look for meaning behind the offense: “Why did they do that? Have they learned their lesson? What if they do it again?”
- You close down your heart because you don’t want to be hurt again
- You secretly hope that same thing happens to them so they can feel the way they made you feel
How Can We Tell We Really Have Forgiven?
- You treat them just as if they had never sinned against you
- You pray for them to be blessed and restored to God
- You ask God not to hold them accountable – you don’t condemn them
- You genuinely want good things for them
- You know that you may not understand why they did what they did, but you know God still loves them and wants good things for them
- You trust God to help them to grow in grace and peace so they won’t continue to struggle with the destructive habits they are bound in
- You want them to be free because you love them, not out of a desire for self-preservation
- You are freely willing to help them when they need help
The Key to Walking in Forgiveness
When you are struggling with unforgiveness, do these things to help you:
- Remember you have been completely forgiven and brought near to God because of Christ. Receive the truth of that and rest in its comfort.
- Remember that God is still working on that other person or people and pray for them with a sincere heart.
- Remember that God will not ask you to do more than He can do in you. His grace is present with you at all times to help you do His will in this. He is faithful.
- Remember that God wants to release His power into your life, but if you hold on to unforgiveness and bitter resentment, it will stop the flow of the Holy Spirit and power in you. No one’s sin is worth holding on to if that is the cost.
Forgiveness Glorifies God and Reveals More About His Character
All of these things seem really hard when we try to do them on our own. In the natural, we just don’t have the ability to freely forgive others when they have hurt us. We don’t have the margin to draw from in ourselves. But with God, all things are not only possible, but doable and joyful!
God’s love in us can answer the pain and sin of the world with His inexhaustible riches.
As we learn how much God loves us, we allow His love to flow through us to those around us that don’t deserve it. To be honest, we don’t deserve it either. And if He can love others through us that much, He surely loves us the same way!
I’ll close with Romans 11:33-36:
Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him, that it would be paid back to him? For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.