A Focus on Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a topic that is probably thought about and discussed much more often than it is applied. This is because forgiving others can be a challenge. Like dieting and exercising, people know the benefits of forgiving, so they talk about it, but when there comes an opportunity to put the principle into practice, they find it is easier not to.
As Christians, however, we cannot take the subject of forgiveness lightly, because it is central to the Gospel message. The plan of redemption for the human race is dependent upon it, as well as maintaining our own personal salvation. It is important that we understand why we need forgiveness, how it is obtained, and why we must extend it to others.
Who needs forgiveness and why?
One definition of the word forgive is “to grant relief or pardon from a debt, to set free, or to release.” This aspect of forgiveness—pardoning—is something every person born into this world needs. Romans 3:10 says, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one,” and verse 23 of that same chapter explains, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
Sin is a universal problem; the first man, Adam, disobeyed God, and brought sin into the world. Every person born since then, with the exception of Christ, has been born a sinner. Mankind is in need of a solution, because the Bible tells us no sin or unrighteousness or unclean thing will be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 we read, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” The solution is that our sins must be removed, and when God forgives us, that is what He does. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.”
Being a law-abiding citizen may give an outward appearance of being ready, but it does not equip a person for Heaven. Only when our sins are forgiven and removed will we qualify to enter in.
Some people do not realize that forgiveness is needed for their souls to enter Heaven. Several years ago, I worked with a man who believed that as long as he did not mistreat his wife or neglect his duties, like paying taxes, he was ready for Heaven. In contrast, the Bible says in Isaiah 64:6 that “our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Being a law-abiding citizen may give an outward appearance of being ready, but it does not equip a person for Heaven. Only when our sins are forgiven and removed will we qualify to enter in.
The need for receiving forgiveness does not end after our sins have been pardoned. This is because moral perfection—having a heart that is right toward God—does not equal human infallibility. There will be times when we speak without thinking first and say something regrettable, use bad judgement, or behave immaturely. We will need to receive forgiveness in these situations.
There will also be times when we will need to extend forgiveness, because there will be times when others commit wrongs against us. A second definition of the word forgive is “to cease to allow feelings of resentment; to let go of the right to hurt back, and relinquish thoughts of vengeance.” The Bible teaches that this aspect of forgiveness is necessary in the Christian life. We must forgive others for their trespasses against us, as well as being ready to apologize and make amends for our offenses toward them. Christ stressed the importance of this when He taught His disciples how to pray and included, “. . . and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” and again, when He said, “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 6:12, 14-15).
Forgiveness is ongoing, and receiving forgiveness for ourselves is directly connected to our ability and willingness to forgive others.
Who grants forgiveness?
A popular idea in the world today is that we can forgive ourselves. Some have counseled that “in order for any healing to take place, you must first forgive yourself.” There have been many books and articles written on this subject, including those tailored to certain offenses such as “Forgiving Yourself for Cheating and Lying,” and how-to books like “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself.”
It is true that we must not let wrongs that God has forgiven oppress and weigh us down, nor should we allow the enemy of our souls to discourage us over shortcomings and unintentional mistakes. However, nothing in Scripture supports the idea that we can pardon our own sins. The Word of God says just the opposite. In Ephesians 2:8-9 we find, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Forgiveness for sin is a gift from God. He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for those sins, and only through Christ can we be forgiven and set free.
Scripture also teaches that when we have committed an offense against another, we cannot move on without making amends. Matthew 5:23-24 says, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” If we know that we have hurt or offended someone by our words or actions, we need to go to that person and reconcile with them. When there is something between ourselves and another, there is something between ourselves and God, and our prayers will be hindered.
The Lord asks us to forgive in the way He does. It is not natural; it is supernatural. We are to be pro-active and take the first step in reconciling and restoring that relationship.
This also applies when we are the one who has been hurt or offended. Matthew 18:15 instructs, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” In a situation where someone has wronged us, a natural response would be to say, “They are at fault, so they can come and apologize to me.” However, the Lord asks us to forgive in the way He does. It is not natural; it is supernatural. We are to be pro-active and take the first step in reconciling and restoring that relationship. God made the first move when Christ forgave us. When we weren’t looking for Him, He pursued us. Some of us were running in the opposite direction, yet the Lord took the initiative to seek and find us, so that He could forgive us.
Whether we are the offender or the offended, the instruction is the same. As Christians, we are to take the initiative in making a situation right.
How is forgiveness obtained?
Before we can receive forgiveness in the form of pardon for our sins, we must first acknowledge our need by recognizing and taking responsibility for the sinful acts we have committed. The next step is to confess those sins to God. We read in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Repentance is another crucial aspect of obtaining forgiveness. In Acts 3:19, Peter admonished, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” Without repentance, there can be no forgiveness. It is possible to take the steps of acknowledging your need and confessing your sins, as many people do on a weekly basis, without receiving forgiveness. The further step of repenting, which includes turning away from sin and being willing to forsake it with God’s help, is vital.
My grandpa, Marvin Lambert, had a testimony that made clear the power of repentance. As a boy, I remember hearing him tell about when he was a young man growing up on a farm in Mississippi. He would say, “I pretty much felt like I could paddle my own canoe.” He had a descriptive way of speaking, but he meant that he was independent and didn’t need anyone’s help. His life went along well for a while as he did his own thing, but that all changed the day a bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. He would say, “That got me shaking in my boots, because I knew that if I got killed on the battlefield, I would go straight to Hell.” He began talking to the Lord out on the farm, and one day, the question came to him, “What are you going to do about those old sins?” He told the Lord, “I’ll quit them, I’ll forsake them, and I won’t do them anymore.” In that moment, the peace of Heaven came down and flooded his soul. He testified that his fear of death was gone. He had the assurance that God had met him, his sins were forgiven, and if he died the next day, he would go to Heaven.
If we will recognize our need of a Savior and genuinely repent, God will forgive our sins.
Extending forgiveness to others
Extending forgiveness to others is not always easy, and can be especially difficult under certain circumstances such as when a person continues to offend.
Peter wondered how many times forgiveness should be extended to one person. He asked the question of Jesus while already having an answer in mind that he must have thought was generous or at least reasonable. He asked, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). His meaning was not that we are to forgive 490 times, but that forgiveness is limitless. We are to continually let go of the offenses toward us and not carry them in our hearts. Forgiveness is as much about releasing ourselves from a burden as it is about releasing the other person. There is a popular quote by Lewis B. Smede that says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Jesus asks us to forgive, because He wants us to be free.
One common misconception is that forgiveness equates to trust being restored. In actuality, forgiveness is a gift that is freely given, while trust is a privilege that is earned over time.
One common misconception is that forgiveness equates to trust being restored. In actuality, forgiveness is a gift that is freely given, while trust is a privilege that is earned over time. When a person has a history of being a repeat offender, we are to forgive each time, but this does not mean we put our trust in that individual. If someone stomps on your foot every time you see him, you should avoid him or set some parameters. Forgiveness allows for the repeat offender to work toward restoring trust, but it does not mean trust is automatically given.
Another circumstance which makes it difficult to forgive is when a person refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing and does not show any sign of remorse. In such situations, we can ask God for a spirit of forgiveness while looking to the example of Christ. As He hung on the Cross, He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He was praying for those who had beat Him, mocked Him, spit in His face, and driven spikes through His hands. He knew the people He prayed for were not remorseful, yet He was able to extend forgiveness because He saw beyond their sins to their souls. If we will also look beyond the offense to see the soul in need of a Savior, and pray for that one, we will find it easier to forgive.
We cannot forgive in our own strength
Often, our ability to forgive is tied to the seriousness of the offense. There are times when it is humanly impossible to forgive. In those situations, if we will supply the willingness to be obedient to God’s Word, He will supply the ability, the grace, and the strength to do it.
An example of this is found in the life of Corrie ten Boom. During World War II, her family was arrested by the Nazis for hiding Jews in their home and helping them escape the Holocaust. Eventually, Corrie and her older sister, Betsie, were taken to the Ravensbruck concentration camp where Betsie died. After the war, Corrie traveled and spoke to thousands of people telling of her experiences and teaching on God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation. One evening after concluding her message, a man approached and introduced himself as a former guard of the Ravensbruck camp. Extending his hand to her, he said he had become a Christian and knew God had forgiven him for the cruel things he had done, but wanted to know that she had forgiven him also.
In her own words, published in the November 1972 edition of Guideposts magazine, Corrie revealed her thoughts and reaction:
Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.1
Corrie could not have forgiven in her own strength, but when she looked to God, He gave her the ability. As a result, she experienced more of His love. If we will look to God, He will help us as He did Corrie.
When we choose not to forgive
When we choose not to forgive, we foster pain and resentment in our hearts. Over time, that resentment can become bitterness, which destroys lives. Hebrews 12:15 says, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.” The end result of this state is brought out in the parable of the two debtors found in Matthew 18:23-35. Jesus gave the parable, saying there was a king who called his servants to him to give an account. One servant owed ten thousand talents, which was an immense amount—in today’s terms, it would be the equivalent of about six billion dollars. In this parable, the king is representative of God, and the servant, of us. The amount owed likely was exaggerated to show that our debt of sin is something we could never repay. The king ruled that the servant, his family, and everything he owned would be sold to pay the debt, but when the man begged for mercy, the king had compassion on him and forgave the debt.
That servant then went out and found a man who owed him one hundred pence, which was about one hundred days’ worth of wages or four months’ work. He took him by the throat, demanded payment, and disregarding his pleas for mercy, cast him into prison. This is a picture of what an unforgiving heart looks like. When the one hundred pence is compared to the ten thousand talents, it is nothing. Likewise, whatever we need to forgive, no matter how grievous, when we look at it in the context of what the Lord has done for us, it is small in comparison.
When the king heard what the forgiven debtor had done, he referred to him as a, “wicked servant,” threw him into prison, and delivered him to the tormentors. It is clear from this parable that an unforgiving heart eventually leads to eternal punishment in Hell.
The Lord takes the subject of forgiveness very seriously and so should we. If we receive His pardon for our sins, we can look forward to the blessing of eternal life in Heaven. And if we forgive others as we have been forgiven, God’s blessings can flow unhindered in our lives.
1 Corrie ten Boom, “Guideposts Classics: Corrie ten Boom on Forgiveness,” Guideposts, July 24, 2014, www.guideposts.org/better-living/positive-living/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness.