Two brothers went to their rabbi to settle a long-standing feud. The rabbi got the two to reconcile their differences and shake hands. As they were about to leave, he asked each one to make a wish for the other in honor of the Jewish New Year (a time of new beginnings). The first brother turned to the other and said, “I wish you what you wish me.” At that, the other brother threw up his hands and said, “See, Rabbi, he’s starting up again!”
This story challenges us to ask: Why is it so easy to detect an unforgiving spirit in others but not in ourselves? Which leads to another important question: What kind of forgiveness do you offer, if you offer any at all?
Let’s realize that every day we live with the results of our decisions to forgive or not forgive. Our desire (or lack thereof) to the challenge of forgiving either grants us a new lease on life or perpetuates emotional and spiritual paralysis. And God doesn’t want that for us. It’s not a part of Jesus’ calling to “Follow Me.”
Christ made plain the course we are to follow in what is commonly called “the Lord’s Prayer” when He said, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:12And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
American King James Version×)—the debts here referring to unpaid penalties for wrongdoing. He further amplified this in following verses: “For if you forgive men their trespasses [the wrongs they have committed against you], 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 Matthew 6:14-15 14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
American King James Version×).
This stunning statement brings us to a frank spiritual reality: Once we are made aware of God’s desire and willingness to forgive us of our wrongdoing, that forgiveness is conditional and proportional to our willingness and desire to forgive others.
At this juncture you might be protesting, “But—but—but—!” Okay, I get it. I’m human too, but our Heavenly Father has given us a calling to be like His Son Jesus Christ, and not to continue as we’ve been. How then do we respond to Christ’s call of “Follow Me” in forgiving others? As we explore the matter, let’s remember: Jesus never said following Him would be easy, but He did say it would be worth it.
“So ready to forgive”
Let’s begin by understanding what separates God from man and what truly makes Him One we should adore and emulate. Psalms 86:5 Psalms 86:5For you, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy to all them that call on you.
American King James Version×portrays God’s incredible attributes in declaring, “O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive , so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help” (New Living Translation, 2007).
God is ready to forgive. This most challenging attribute of true love permeates His existence. God is actually leaning forward in anticipated readiness to forgive.
There’s no greater example of this readiness than the recorded utterance of a dying man nailed to a beam of wood. It’s here on Golgotha that Jesus with one of His last breaths says to those within earshot, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34 Luke 23:34Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.
American King James Version×).
It’s here that we not only sense the immediacy of a spirit ready to forgive, but the intimacy between what Jesus preached (Matthew 6) and now practiced under the most trying of circumstances.
Christianity 101, simply put, entails fully grasping that God doesn’t ask us to do what He hasn’t done. We need to remember what’s been done for us because of what we were before God’s saving grace forgave us.
Sometimes we forget where Christ picked us up along the road and said to us, “Follow Me.” God’s merciful forgiveness isn’t our personal property, but is to be shared with others. What we say and do defines this understanding.
Long ago someone embraced this understanding. In a cemetery not far from New York City is a headstone engraved with a one-word message— “Forgiven.” The message is simple and unembellished. There’s no date of birth or further epitaph. There’s only a name with the word. What an incredible testimony of one’s temporal existence before one’s Maker—the great forgiver.
But that’s only half of the equation. Truly accepting God’s forgiveness means we too must in turn be ready to forgive. To simply accept divine forgiveness and not be prepared to forgive others is being only half a Christian. That’s like being half pregnant! You can’t be that. You either are—or you’re not.
This is a challenge for all who seek to follow Christ. When the 18th-century British evangelist John Wesley talked one day with the founding father of the American colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, about a corrupt individual, Oglethorpe said, “I never forgive.” Whereupon Wesley said, “Then I hope, sir, you never sin!”
Moving beyond our hurts and pains
How do we move beyond Oglethorpe’s and our mutual far-too-often spiritual short-sightedness and expand the gravestone’s words to “forgiven and forgiving”? A Christian must realize and embrace three great truths:
1. We have been forgiven and now experience God’s continuing grace. Psalm 103 tells us to look up and praise our personal Redeemer: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and forget not all His benefits: who forgives all your iniquities” (Psalms 103:2-3 Psalms 103:2-3 2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
3 Who forgives all your iniquities; who heals all your diseases;
American King James Version×), “who redeems your life from destruction” (Psalms 103:4 Psalms 103:4Who redeems your life from destruction; who crowns you with loving kindness and tender mercies;
American King James Version×), who “has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities” (Psalms 103:10 Psalms 103:10He has not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
American King James Version×), and who has removed our transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalms 103:12 Psalms 103:12As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
American King James Version×). Sounds like He’s leaning forward, doesn’t it?
2. Although forgiven, we will remain imperfect even as we strive to emulate a perfect God. The apostle Paul had something to say about this in Romans 7:18-19 Romans 7:18-19 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
American King James Version×: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” The apostle here is reminding us that we all have some serious spiritual personal homework yet to deal with.
3. Because we have been forgiven, we must ourselves be forgiving. What we have received we must in turn share as God’s human instruments. Acts 20:35 Acts 20:35I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.
American King James Version×reminds us of the full equation of being Christian: “And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Yes, accepting and expressing God’s sovereignty in our lives isn’t merely receiving forgiveness, but passing it on to others.
Cutting off the price tag
In reading this you know it’s important, and you appreciate God’s example, and you understand the spiritual hazard of not forgiving. But why is forgiveness so difficult?
Allow me to quote from Tim LaHaye’s 2010 book Anger Is a Choice :
“Forgiveness is very costly. It costs you, not the person being forgiven. Forgiveness means that justice will not always be fulfilled. Forgiveness does not rebuild the house that has been burned down by someone carelessly playing with matches. Forgiveness does not always put a broken marriage back together. Forgiveness does not restore virginity to the rape victim. Forgiveness is letting go. It’s the relaxation of your death grip on the pain you feel” (p. 88).
Yes, it’s cutting off the price tag of what it costs you. No, it’s not easy to forgive, but consider the alternatives: 1) being a slave to past injustices, 2) allowing present emotions to daily take you hostage, 3) thereby robbing you and loved ones of a positive future.
Let me share a story regarding the hard work and ultimate benefit that the process of forgiveness brings. During World War II many Dutch families hid Jews from the horror of the Nazi regime. Some paid with their lives while others were incarcerated. Corrie ten Boom, later to become a renowned author and lecturer, was such a one. She shared her forgiveness journey in a 1972 Guideposts article titled “I’m Still Learning to Forgive.”
Years after her concentration camp experience in Nazi Germany, she was giving talks on forgiveness and met face to face one of the cruel German camp guards whom she and her sister had to degradingly walk naked before. Her sister had died in that awful place. Now this man said he’d become a Christian and stretched out his hand to her, asking, “Will you forgive me?”
She writes: “I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But … the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently … 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.”
In this example we see a profound truth: To forgive is to set a prisoner free—and discover that the prisoner was you.
Several years ago my wife and I were at a funeral service in a cemetery. As we wandered on the gentle grass through rows of markers, we came upon one reminiscent of the previously mentioned “forgiven” tombstone. On this one was simply a name, date of birth, a dash, a date of death and a short phrase.
So often, it’s in the silence of the dash in which God does His loudest work in us if we so allow. The dash here was amplified by three engraved words that demonstrably said it all— Jesus is Victor.
What kind of person will you be?
Now please read carefully. Does this mean we are to continually allow ourselves to be subjected to harmful behavior such as verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse and just keep on taking it? Is that what’s required in being forgiving? Absolutely not! Sometimes we run out of cheeks in “turning the other cheek.”
True love, wisdom and patience tell us some matters and some people need to be dealt with from afar, over a period of time, and with meaningful spiritual preparation on our part in light of Christ’s example. Galatians 6:1-2 Galatians 6:1-2 1 Brothers, if a man be overtaken in a fault, you which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering yourself, lest you also be tempted.
2 Bear you one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
American King James Version×makes this readily plain: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
With some people we must be forgiving without necessarily being reconciled to them at this time. Forgiveness means we do not hold a grudge. We desire that offenders repent rather than seeking vengeance.
Some matters and people will simply need to be committed to God’s providential safekeeping to be reconciled to Him and restored to us in His perfect timing alone. But until then, we are to lean forward with hearts desirous to forgive even as we have been forgiven.
Will you be forgiving too? Follow the example of Jesus Christ. He will be there with you all along the way as you practice Christianity 101—in which you have no time, no space, no person to waste!