The Spiritual Need to Forgive Others

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The Spiritual Need to Forgive Others

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First, let’s understand that there is a difference between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. When God forgives us, He completely blots out the sin and removes the guilt (Isaiah 43:25; Psalm 103:1-12). Only God can forgive sins in that way (Mark 2:5-11). When you forgive someone for hurting you, you are deciding to cancel his or her indebtedness to you personally and to not harbor any more resentment or grudge. We human beings are not able to quickly “forget” how someone has hurt us, but we can treat the person as if we’ve forgotten the hurt.

In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus Christ said: “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”

There are several things to notice in this passage. “If he repents,” then it is especially essential to “forgive him.” But other scriptures show us that we must forgive even when the guilty party does not repent. This scripture also shows us that it is often appropriate to “rebuke” the person who has hurt you. That means to tactfully confront the person and let him know how he has hurt you. One of the benefits of that is he will be more likely to repent and apologize.

Forgiving someone does not mean you should stay in a position to be seriously hurt again. If you are in a relationship that is likely to continue to be dangerous or seriously abusive, you should remove yourself from that vulnerable position.

And why “seven times?” Seven is not meant as an exact number. It was an expression that meant “many times.” At another time, Jesus said, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

How is it possible to obey this command from Jesus Christ? Even the apostles were stunned at this statement that their duty was to forgive their brother again and again! Their reaction is in verse 5: “And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” They knew that they needed divine help to be able to do that. They sensed the truth of a later saying, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

The command to forgive is most difficult because sometimes we don’t want to forgive. We want to strike back, we want justice, we want the other person to know the pain he or she has inflicted on us. We want to wear it on our sleeve, as it were. If we forgive someone seven times, aren’t we just letting someone get away with a wrong? If we simply forgive, won’t we just be allowing people to take advantage of us?

This is a natural, human response to hurt—but look at how Christ further illustrates this teaching for us in what is commonly known as the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:12-13). He then explains: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Sin is represented here as debts (compare Luke 11:4), and it’s in the plural form—indicating it has amassed or piled up. We cannot expect God to forgive our debts, the penalty we owe for sin, if we are not also forgiving. For our debts to be absolved, we must forgive those who have hurt us. If we show mercy to men, we receive mercy from God.

Forgive again and again?

What should we do if our brother repeats an offense numerous times? God forgives us time and again, so we must follow His example.

God passes over our sins, and as Proverbs 19:11 states it is our “glory to pass over a transgression” (King James Version). Address it, resolve it if possible, forgive it and move on! Vengeance is God’s alone. It is not ours (see Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19).

But what if it’s a great wrong? Not forgiving is a greater wrong. Forgiveness reflects God’s character, which we are supposed to emulate. When we forgive, we reflect the Father’s love.

The standard is this: Forgive as He has forgiven you. Forgiveness gives us the opportunity to extend to others what God has extended to us—and our purpose in life is to develop God’s character. But our corrupted human nature and its accompanying pride are the antitheses of forgiveness. Pride opposes and resists our need to forgive. It demands justice and wants to get even. Our nature does not want to forgive.

Those who deal with human relationship problems see this firsthand. For example, Catholic priest Robert Hagedorn said: “When I was first ordained a priest, I believed that over 50% of all problems were at least in part due to unforgiveness. After 10 years in the ministry, I revised my estimate and maintained 75-80% of all health, marital, family, and financial problems came from unforgiveness. Now after more than twenty years in the ministry, I have concluded that over 90% of all problems are rooted in unforgiveness.” He makes a good observation of the degradation that a failure to forgive brings to society, and it’s directly linked to the command that Christ gave.

A well-known authority on marriage once wrote that he believed the most important key to a harmonious marriage was the husband and wife being willing to forgive each other day after day after day.

Human nature is vindictive, and it must be overcome in order to extend and experience true forgiveness. You can see a desire for revenge, retaliation and mudslinging in our entertainment—on the movie screen, in music, on television—but also in everyday social interaction, in business and in politics. It surrounds us; but in spite of all this evil, confusion and hatred, we are told to forgive as often as we have opportunity.

Our critical need for God’s forgiveness

All people sin, and therefore all need God’s forgiveness. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t need to be forgiven. Therefore, we had better be forgiving of those who hurt us. And just abstaining from “getting even” doesn’t cut it. Bitterness and resentment will occur even if you do not retaliate, because without forgiveness you’ll never get rid of your inner turmoil. The score is never settled; the anger and pain are never gone.

Christ gave a very sobering example to help us grasp this concept of forgiveness. It’s a parable of a king and his servant. The servant owed the king 10 thousand talents. “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made” (Matthew 18:25).

The servant begged for forgiveness, and the master forgave him his debt. Soon after, the same servant came across a fellow servant who owed him a debt and demanded it be repaid. This fellow servant could not pay and also begged for forgiveness, but the servant who had just been forgiven refused and had the man jailed. When the king heard of this, he was very angry that his servant had not also been forgiving and sent the man away to be punished until he could repay (Matthew 18:32-34).

Christ is here contrasting two debts. The first servant owed the king a huge fortune—10,000 talents. The second servant owed a measly 100 denarii. Let’s say that the servants’ debts were to be paid in nickels. The 100 denarii debt could be carried in one person’s pocket. But it’s been estimated that the 10,000 talents (in the form of nickel-sized denarii) would take an army of 8,600 lined up single file, in a line that stretched five miles long. This is with each of the men carrying a sack of nickels weighing 60 pounds! What an enormous contrast.

Obviously, the first servant with the huge debt pictures you and me in our relationship with God. The second servant pictures our relationship with those who have inflicted injuries on us that are small by comparison.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer

Of course, the amount owed really doesn’t matter, does it? The point is, no wrong that men may do to us in any way compares with the wrong that we have done to God. And we pray for the merciful reprieve that only He can give, taking away our accumulated piles of shortcomings and failings.

Author C.S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Forgiving is a major part of loving others. When Jesus gave us the outline that we call the Lord’s Prayer, it was a part of His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which teaches the necessity to love everyone, including through forgiveness. In particular, read Matthew 5:38-48 about how we must follow God’s example in being merciful and loving toward everyone, rather than having the mentality of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

What did Jesus mean by “turning the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:39)? He meant that loving other people will always make you more vulnerable to being hurt, but you should be so dedicated to loving others that you are willing to run the risk of being hurt.

How merciful and loving we are toward others largely determines how merciful God will be when He judges us and deals with us (see Luke 6:27-38; Matthew 7:2-5). “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving someone, we are trusting that God is better at justice than we ever could be. God does everything out of love, not spite. When forgiving, we give up our desire to get even, leaving all of the issues of fairness for God to work out.

By doing so we are following the Scriptures, and we can truly say, “I will forgive my brother, not seven times only, but as many times as is necessary.”

It’s by softening our hearts and allowing forgiveness to develop toward those who have wronged us that we open the opportunity for ourselves to be forgiven by God. Make no mistake—God wants to forgive you, no matter what you’ve done in the past.