We’ve all had someone cause us great hurt, pain, suffering, or injustice. Our knee-jerk reaction may be to make them pay, retaliate, or hope they get what’s coming to them. But Christians are called to forgive. That can be hard even for the smallest offenses, but what about when we have deep, lasting pain, trauma, or scars (mentally, physically, and/or spiritually)? How can we forgive people who have done downright heinous, wicked things against us or someone we love? The Bible gives us some things to consider when it comes to forgiveness.
Forgiving people doesn’t mean what they did was okay.
It is easy to think that if we forgive someone for wronging us, it means we are condoning their actions. The most common response given when someone says they’re sorry is, “It’s okay.” Well, sometimes it’s not okay. And it’s okay to acknowledge that what they did was not okay and still forgive them anyway. You are not giving approval to their actions. You are just acknowledging that you will not hold a grudge, harbor anger against them, or constantly rub the past in their face.
When God forgives us, He removes our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). The prophet Micah tells us that God tramples our iniquities underfoot and throws them to the bottom of the ocean floor (Micah 7:19). If we were going to try to forget something or not bring it up anymore, the bottom of the ocean sounds like a pretty good place to put it! And that’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews says God does with our sins—He promises to remember them no more (Hebrews 8:12, 10:17)! Of course, God is all-knowing so He can’t actually forget anything, but it does mean He will not hold our sins against us anymore or lord them over our heads making us feel guilty. And we are to do the same when we forgive
Forgiveness is not based on the merit of the person being forgiven; it is based on God’s character.
Sometimes the person we are forgiving did something absolutely horrible to us or someone we love, and we may feel they don’t deserve our forgiveness. And we would be right; they don’t. When we extend forgiveness, however, we must remember we were not forgiven by God because we deserved it or because we were good enough but because of the merit of Jesus and his death on the cross in our place. We should offer the same grace to others—we don’t forgive people because they have earned it or deserve it, but because God is loving, merciful, gracious, and slow to anger (Exodus 34:6).
We must also trust God’s character when we want the wrongs done to us to be righted immediately. We so often want justice to be done on our timetable or in our way, but we must trust that God is good, just, and holy. He is good, so He won’t allow His people to suffer endless hurts and injustices. He is holy, so He won’t allow sin to go unpunished or evil to win. The Bible says He will by no means pardon the guilty (unless they repent and believe in Christ), and that vengeance belongs to God. His punishment of sin and righting all wrongs may not happen the moment we think it should. He is patient with people, not wishing that any should perish in their sins but that everyone should get the chance to repent (2 Peter 3:9).
We should be glad He is longsuffering, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here today but would have been struck down in our sins a long time ago. It doesn’t always make forgiveness easy, but thinking on these things and how much we did not deserve God’s mercy and grace can really help.
Because we have been forgiven much, we need to forgive much.
In Matthew 18, Jesus answers Peter’s question about how much we should forgive with a parable. He speaks about a servant who owed the king a debt so enormous he would never be able to repay it, even if he worked for two thousand years! The king had pity on him and forgave his debt. How amazing is that? That same servant turned around and would not forgive a man who owed him a mere hundred days’ worth of wages.
Jesus’ point is that we were like the first servant—the debt we owed God for the sins we committed against him was too great to number or ever be paid in a lifetime; we could exhaust all of eternity and still never reach the end of it. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were deep in our sin debt, forgave us, saved us by his grace, and made us alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:4–5). Therefore, when a fellow human sins against us, it is comparable to the debt of the second servant—it looks minuscule when we hold it up against the size of our debt to God. That is not to downplay the reality of the wrong done to us, but if God has forgiven us such a tremendous, unimaginable debt, we should forgive others. We would be hypocrites not to.
In all things, we must imitate our Savior, who endured such hostility from sinners, yet gave his life so they could be forgiven: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12–13).
Furthermore, Jesus warns us that if we do not forgive others, then our heavenly Father will not forgive us, but if we forgive, then we will be forgiven (Matthew 6:14–15). Our wounds from the wrongs we have suffered may not go away instantaneously, but one promise we can know for sure is that when we offer mercy to our offenders, our own lives will be enriched by mercy (Matthew 5:7).
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