Perhaps the best way to start our study on forgiveness is to actually pause and think. Yes, let’s think together. Can anyone of us claim to be sinless, that we have never done anything wrong?1 Indeed, we are all sinners, and we have all rebelled against God in one way or another. Now, what are the consequences of our sins?2
In our sins, we have no hope. We are doomed. Yet, despite our rebellion, while we are still His enemies, God gives us hope. Let’s read it together in Scripture:
[Jesus] gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.3
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life?4
Let’s take a moment and really think about this. Jesus is the Logos of John 1:1, the One who created all things. Without Him, states John, none of the things that were created was ever made. He was God in the flesh, the owner of all and Lord of all. He is the Almighty, the Righteous One, in whom there is no sin. Yet, He gave His life for us, to extend us forgiveness for our sins. More than that: He made Himself sin for us, so that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”5
He had all the power in the universe, for He created it all. Yet, He allowed some people to raise their hands against Him to scourge Him, and then to nail Him to a cross. All this was not for Him, but so that He could experience death in our place. While on the cross, Jesus suffered agonizing and excruciating pain, struggling to overcome the pain in order to breathe. Still, He gathered all His strength, pulled up His body against the nails and with that precious breath said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”6
The Example of Jesus
What an amazing grace indeed! What an awesome and moving love! In all His greatness and glory, God loved us so much that He was willing to subject Himself to such agony and pain. He suffered for each one of us. Yes, individually! How moving it is to realize the power of His will in all this. In His amazing love and grace, we find forgiveness, comfort and help. It is a forgiveness we gladly accept, that transforms us from the heart because it is so immense. Oh, how willing we are to accept this demonstration of His love. But then His words shake us and challenge us:
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered fo you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; bor by His wounds you were healed.7
Forgiven … if We Forgive
Yes, He left an example for us so that we could follow in His steps. And yes, that means that we should be willing to forgive others even when it hurts us, just as He did.
In Matthew 6, Jesus gives us a startling warning as He says, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”8 Jesus stated it very clearly. If we refuse to forgive others, He will refuse to forgive us. This does not mean that we can earn our forgiveness by our own actions, by forgiving others. What it means is that we must realize that we are all equally sinners in need of His forgiveness. The parable of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18:21-35 explains this very well. Ephesians 4:32 expresses the principle quite clearly. As Christ has forgiven us, so we should also forgive one another. We should take some time and seriously think about all this to fully grasp its implications.
Forgiveness never comes easy. After all, if it were, then we probably wouldn’t have anything to forgive. It was not easy for Jesus, and it is not easy for us. Yet, contrary to what we may often think, we can forgive! Let me share two examples: one is from Scripture, the other from a real event in modern days.
The Example of Stephen
Stephen was one of the seven deacons who had been charged with the distribution of food to the widows of the early church. He preached and testified before the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for. He was a powerful speaker, and having been confronted in the temple by those who opposed Christianity, Stephen responded clearly and convincingly. Accused of heresy, he offered a testimony for His faith, aware that his words could lead to his condemnation and possibly death.
Before the Jews stoned Stephen, they placed his clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul of Tarsus. This was a gesture indicating a leading role in the accusation of Stephen. Then, while he was still speaking, the Jews began casting stones and rocks at him. He had experienced the forgiveness the Lord had extended to him, and knew of the suffering that Jesus had been willing to endure for him. Because of that, Stephen understood how much that young Saul and the other Jews needed forgiveness. His last words resembled very closely the words of Jesus on the cross. They must have left a deep, profound impression in the heart of Saul. You can read them in Acts 7:60, “And falling on his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ And having said this, he fell asleep [died].”
This example leaves us with important questions about our faith and our appreciation for the sacrifice of Jesus for our forgiveness. How far are we willing to go for Jesus? Are we willing to forgive those who abuse us and take our life unjustly, as Stephen did? Can we forgive as he did? The answer is yes! He was human, just like we are. He had his shortcomings and strengths, just like us all. But the truth of the sacrifice of Jesus deeply affected him and changed his heart. Led by the Spirit of God he was able to follow His example and to forgive even his enemies. We can do that, too. If God instructs us to forgive – and He does – then it means that we can forgive. He will provide for us the ability to do just that.
A Modern Day Example
In June 1973, Marietta, a homemaker from Detroit, and her husband Bill took their five children to Three Forks, Montana for a vacation. During their last night at that camp, in the middle of the night, someone abducted Susy, their little seven year old daughter, from her tent.
Marietta’s initial numbness and denial were soon replaced by the realization that something really terrible had happened. Desperation ensued. The days became filled with a sense of helplessness. Marietta’s nights were a time of anguish and nightmares about Susy’s pain and fear. As the days went by, Marietta became more and more affected, to the point when all she could feel was profound anger and hatred against the kidnapper. One night, after a long struggle between her rage and her religious faith, Marietta realized that the resentment would eventually destroy her and her family. Drawing strength from her faith, she reached a decision and made a commitment to “work toward an attitude of forgiveness,” as she later stated. She did, and began to pray for her kidnapper as well. After five weeks of fruitless searches, Marietta and her family had nothing left besides going home.
On the first anniversary of Susy’s disappearance, at the same time of the night, Marietta received a disturbing call from her kidnapper. He introduced himself as the one who had taken Susy away from her family, and began almost toying with Marietta about the whole event. While on the phone, Marietta managed to remain calm and in control, and was able to keep the kidnapper talking for over an hour. Early in the conversation, Marietta asked him, “what can we do to help you?” and told the man on the other end of the line that she had been praying for him since the day he took her daughter.
Forgiveness Does not Mean Condoning
The man was later identified as 25 years old David Mayerhoffer. However, the FBI did not have sufficient evidence to incriminate him. They believed that only one thing could resolve the case: as strong female confronting him with his crime. So, the FBI asked Marietta if she was willing to go to Montana to confront him. One can hardly imagine what it must have been like for her to go to confront in person, face to face, the very man who had kidnapped her daughter. Marietta agreed and did so.
Although in the conversation David did not say anything that would incriminate him, Marietta’s visit shook and scared him. Not too long after the encounter, David made another call to Marietta in the attempt to divert the investigation. He told Marietta that she would never see her daughter alive again. The FBI eventually arrested him, and shortly after he confessed each crime he had committed, showing no apparent emotion. After his confession, David committed suicide in his prison cell.
Forgiveness Is Demonstrated
Although David had abducted, abused and murdered her daughter, and had even tormented her with those phone calls, Marietta was still able to forgive him. How could that be? During an interview, Marietta stated,
It is not that forgiveness means condoning what happened. I will never condone what happened to my little girl. And it doesn’t mean that I forget it, because I can never forget what happened to my little girl. It is precisely in fact that you can’t forget that you have to forgive so that it doesn’t do you in.
Marietta forgave David, but did not do so blindly. She did it fully aware of what David had done. She did not just forgive, she also reached out to his mother Eleanore. Later, she went to his grave to bring flowers there together with Eleanore and provided comfort to her in her grief. According to Eleanore, at a time when nobody wanted to talk about her son and what he had done, Marietta was the only one that had reached out to her. Marietta later explained her reasoning in the course of the same interview: “Together we were able to grieve as mothers who had lost their children. I hoped that it would help her to know that I had forgiven [her son], and that I understood how sick he was.”
The interview concluded with a comment from Marietta that really made me think:
Forgiveness is hard work, and a lot of times people think that forgiveness is for wimps. I would say then that they haven’t tried, because I know how difficult it is. But it’s worth it, and it means being able to move on with your life, and it means being set free of the past.
Through her tragedy, Marietta had learned the true meaning of forgiveness, and what Jesus meant when He told us to love even our enemy.
What Is Forgiveness Anyway?
Many find it difficult to forgive because they don’t quite understand what forgiveness really is. The moving example of Marietta already dispels some of the most common misconceptions about forgiveness. We learn that forgiveness does not mean to condone or excuse an evil. Doing so would lead to a distortion of the truth. It is not forgetting, either, for that would have been unnatural. How could Marietta ever forget her own daughter and what happened to her? Lastly, forgiveness is not just an emotion. When Marietta made a commitment to forgive the kidnapper of her daughter, her feelings were quite hostile toward him. When Stephen asked Go to forgive those who were killing him, he was experiencing a warm, fuzzy feeling about them.
So, what is forgiveness? Several authors have pointed out that forgiveness is a decision, much like the decision that Marietta made, and a covenant which hinges on four promises:
- The promise not to continue to think about the offense in a recriminatory manner or in resentment.
- The commitment not to bring up the matter again against the offender as in a vengeful attitude.
- The promise not to talk to others about the offense in an accusatory or resentful way.
- The pledge not to let the offense stand in the way of the relationship.
It is essentially a refusal to give in to the temptation to respond to evil with evil, to take upon ourselves the right to avenge a wrong suffered.9
Another reason for the inability of many to forgive is that often we place very strict expectations as conditions for our forgiveness. In one way or another, we expect the offender to earn his own forgiveness before we can extend it. Let’s reason for a moment, however. What if God had such expectations of us? Could we ever be forgiven? Of course, the answer is a resounding no.
Scripture reminds us that we should never take it upon ourselves to exercise revenge.10 Rather, we should be kind to one another, tender-hearted and forgiving.11 This means that forgiveness is not just an option for us, but it is our Christian duty. It starts in our thought processes,12 and then it affects our words13 and actions.14 In ultimate analysis, forgiveness is a decision we take and implement a covenant motivated by the love of God and the example of Jesus, and accompanied by thoughts, words and actions that are consistent with such a decision.
What About My Feelings?
Some at this point tend to think that because their feelings are not “in line” with such a decision, they are unable or incapable of forgiving. Others, feel that doing so without first experiencing the emotion of forgiveness is hypocritical and insincere. Yet, if we stop and think about it, it is easy to realize that doing what is right, even when we don’t feel like it at the moment, is not hypocrisy.
If I have to get to work today to fee my family, but don’t feel like it, it is not hypocritical for me to go to work anyway. It is just the right thing to do. Of course, it would be hypocritical if I were to pretend that I rally enjoyed going to work that day. Chances are that after a while I really won’t mind being at work, even though at first I didn’t “feel like it.” Similarly, none of us “feels” like forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us. We don’t have wonderful feelings at that moment: we hurt and that’s just the way it is.
Something wonderful happens when we stop feeding into the pain with an unforgiving attitude, and we cease reliving the painful experience. It is much like a wound that needs to heal. If we keep opening it up and keep it “alive” (like we do when we refuse to forgive) chances are that it will not heal, but will probably infect and worsen. On the other hand, if we take the dirt out (most often a painful but necessary procedure, just like forgiveness) and then cover it up with a clean dressing, the wound will heal sooner, better, and we will eventually experience relief.
Forgiveness does not need to depend on feelings. It will change the way we see things and experience them emotionally as well. It will never take away all the pain, perhaps, but it will take away the infecting elements of resentment, hatred, bitterness, and vengeance and will make it all bearable.
I Tried It, But It Didn’t Work for Me
Another important objection that some may raise is that after a few attempts to forgive they conclude that for them it is just impossible. Real forgiveness, they conclude, must be for those who are somehow super-spiritual. The truth is that real forgiveness – the kind of forgiveness that Jesus has extended to us – is actually impossible for us. So, then, why did God command it? Is it not a contradiction to ask us to do something we cannot quite do? Let’s understand this a little better.
Forgiveness may be hard for us even impossible in some cases, but it is not impossible for God. In His amazing love for us, God’s forgiveness is supreme, complete, and permanent. When we realize that we are unable to forgive, even though we want to, perhaps we should see it as a sign that we are trying on our own. Peter, in his second letter to the church, reminds us that we are made partakers of the divine nature.15 Paul, as he wrote to the Romans, tells us that the Holy Spirit pours out in our hearts the very love of God.16 Elsewhere we are told that every good gift comes from God, that we are to have the same mind of Christ, and so on.
What all this means is that God does not call us to work out our own righteousness, but to surrender to Him and participate in who He is and what He does. This concept is beautifully summarized in a statement from the apostle Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.17
There is our answer. I may be unable to love enough to forgive, but God is quite capable of doing it. As He is present in me in the person of the Holy Spirit, and I surrender to Him, then He can indeed forgive in and through me. Ultimately it is His work in me, not just my own effort. So, my prayer is no longer for God to help me to forgive, but to change my heart by His presence, to grant me to surrender to Him and for Him to express His forgiveness in and through me.
May the Lord bless you in your communion with Him.
For Further Study:
- Jesus set an example of forgiveness for us to follow (Luke 23:34; 1 Peter 2:21).
- It is commanded (Mark 11:25; Romans 12:9).
- It should be extended without limits (Matthew 18:22; Luke 17:4)
- It is a quality of believers (Psalm 7:4; Proverbs 19:11)
Reasons for extending forgiveness:
- The mercy of God (Luke 6:36)
- Our own need for forgiveness (Mark 11:25)
- God has extended great forgiveness to us, how can we not extend a little to others? (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13)
Should be accompanied by:
- Forbearance (Colossians 3:13)
- Kindness (Genesis 45:5-11; Romans 12:20)
- Blessing and prayer (Matthew 5:44)
- Promises for (Matthew 6:14; Luke 6:37)
- Must be extended in order for it to be received (Matthew 6:15; James 2:13)
- Illustrated in Jesus’ parables (Matthew 18:23-25)
Exemplified in the lives of:
- Joseph (Genesis 50:20-21)
- David (1 Samuel 24:7; 2 Samuel 18:5; 19:23)
- Solomon (1 Kings 1:53)
- Stephen (Acts 7:60)
- Paul (2 Timothy 4:16)