It is undeniable that forgiveness should be a key element in the Christian life. It is arguably the center of the entire Christian faith. Consider, that without the initial act of forgiveness from God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, there would be no Christian life and yet it is often one of the harder things to do in this fallen world, to forgive. But what is forgiveness? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it this way: “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender): pardon. In other words, forgiveness is releasing someone from a debt owed to you because of a wrong done against you.
As we mature in Christ and study God’s word, we find the necessity of forgiveness. Consider Matthew 6:14-15, this, of course, is not referring to losing one’s salvation if he does not forgive because justification is through faith alone in Christ, but this passage does make it clear that forgiveness or the lack thereof affects the Christian life. “How?” one might ask. If our passage above does not mean we will lose our salvation, then how does unforgiveness affect us? The passage indicates a sort of, daily washing or cleansing if you will. When we forgive, God is faithful to forgive us, as we repent, of course. This is more of daily renewal, if you will, rather than a salvific issue. So when we refuse to forgive, we are “dirty” (1Jn 1:9). Also, to remain in unforgiveness is to sin against God, this is really the heart of the issue, when we refuse to forgive we are in defiance of the living, Holy God of the universe and scripture makes it clear that God chastens His children who are in disobedience to Him as Hebrews 12:5-7 reveals.
The reality is that when we remain in unforgiveness, we are opposed to God himself. This ought to be our primary concern, for if a man is opposed to God, then what else really matters? Rather, we should find ourselves desiring to please God out of gratification for His mercy, love, and kindness towards us. In fact, the word Christian means “follower of Christ,” it comes from the Greek Χριστιανός, transliterated Christianos which comes from another Greek word “Christos,” ultimately meaning “adhering to, belonging to, or slave.” In other words, we belong to and are slaves of Christ Jesus, as the Apostle Paul often describes of himself. As such, we are to be imitators of Christ, and certainly, His entire ministry was one of forgiveness and reconciliation.
If we are to appropriately imitate Christ, then we must forgive. Jesus came, and from the very beginning of His ministry was healing the sick and forgiving them of their sins. Obviously, we cannot forgive people in the exact same way as Jesus, but we can release people from wrongs done against us and forgive in that sense. In Luke 23:3, we see Jesus praying to the Father, asking for forgiveness towards those who were in the process of murdering Him. Consider that! Imagine, these soldiers have cursed, spat on, abused, and mocked Jesus. They have treated Him with contempt, hatred, and malice. They have ignored His kingship and mocked God even, and yet Jesus looks at them with a compassion that is unfathomable and asks God the Father to forgive them because they “know not what they do.” What an example we have in Jesus.
Digging a little deeper into the practice of forgiveness, it is important to recognize that forgiveness is hard. Let’s just admit that upfront. We have a fallen nature. We are prone to unforgiveness, anger, bitterness, resentment, etc., and the sooner we recognize the struggle, the more likely we are to trust the Holy Spirit to help us forgive others in our weakness. First and foremost, we forgive because we love God, but there are other benefits of forgiveness that we should know about and thank God that we can enjoy.
Forgiveness, as we’ve mentioned above, allows God to forgive us, thus cleansing us, like having our feet washed. Whereas salvation may be compared to a bath, so to speak. Walking in forgiveness also humbles us. As we realize that we are equally sinful, deserving hell and damnation, and yet Christ saved us, we can then humble ourselves to forgive others, knowing that they are no different than ourselves. The Bible tells us that “all have fallen short of the Glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and that “none are good” (Rom 3:10).
Living a life of forgiveness can also contribute to our physical health, emotional well being, and impacts the relationships around us. There is no doubt that unforgiveness breeds bitterness and anger. These things can actually have an effect on our bodies. Stress, high blood pressure, and such can be natural results of a sinful attitude and in extreme cases can lead to major issues such as heart attacks, thrombosis, etc. Not only does the willingness to forgive leave us with a state of peacefulness, but it also shows the love of Christ in a practical way to those around us. Family, friends, relatives, and acquaintances all respond to our attitude, and there is nothing more inviting than a humble and forgiving-natured person. This is the kind of person that everyone wants to be around, and more importantly, it was in the nature of our Lord.
Truthfully, as Christian, we have no right to be unforgiving. We must realize that we belong to God; we are His possessions purchased with the highest price, the blood of Christ. This ought to be a consistent thought in the Christian life. We forgive because God has commanded us to, this is first and foremost. When we fail to forgive, not only do we experience difficulties in our families, friendships, and communities, but even greater, we sin against God. When we fail to forgive, we shake our fists at the God of the Universe and say, “No, my way is better.” In doing so, we become more like our former selves, sons of Satan, rather than like the redeemed of the Lord. At the end of the day, our love for God should be our greatest motivation, but our obedience is nonetheless demanded of us, and without a doubt, all sin comes with consequences and refusing to forgive others is no different.
Jesus, when talking with the disciples, made an extraordinary statement when He told them that they must forgive seventy times seven (Matt 18:22). No, he didn’t mean that we keep a ledger and on the four hundred ninetieth time we could cut someone loose. What he meant was that we are to be always forgiving. That is a tall order, especially when we really do not like the person we should be forgiving. Our love for God should compel us to forgive as often as we have the opportunity. We should look for opportunities to forgive. We should also check ourselves from time to time to see if we are holding a grudge or any unforgiveness towards someone. Not a “naval gazing” type of thing, but at times we should sit down in prayer before God and ask Him to help us remember if there is any unforgiveness in our lives and take the time to think through our lives.
Forgiving, as mentioned, is not always easy. If our forgiveness flows out of our own “grit” and sheer determination, we will most assuredly fail. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even keep the ten commandments, much less forgive someone that has legitimately harmed me. However, if we forgive because we desire to please God because we recognize that the person needing forgiveness is no less sinful than ourselves because we were first forgiven, then we will be able to walk in this life a greater reflection of the one who saved us, Jesus. A caveat: I do not mean to communicate that there should never be consequences for wrongs done to us, but even in the midst of possible restitution or accountability, there should be forgiveness.
In summation, we must conclude with a concise observation about forgiveness. Firstly, we are commanded to forgive. Ultimately, because we love Christ, obedience should be the marker of every Christian life. Secondly, as Christians, we have been purchased by the blood of Christ and no longer belong to ourselves, but rather to God, and Jesus is meant to be our example in many ways, therefore because He forgave, we must also forgive. Thirdly, our responses impact those around us. If we are a loving, forgiving person, we give those relationships around us the best opportunity to thrive and exhibit Christ-likeness towards them. Lastly, forgiveness is the mark of maturity and humility. It is without a doubt, difficult to forgive those in whom forgiveness is not deserved, and yet we must because Christ first forgave us. This will be a battle until we die, but it should be a joyful one, in which we persevere.