Five Reasons to Forgive

Five Reasons to Forgive

Most people don’t find forgiveness comes very naturally. Even when we know we should forgive, it’s hard to get our hearts in the right place. If it’s a minor infraction, forgiveness is easier. But what if it’s a major offense? What if it happens again and again? How many times do you need to forgive? 

Forgiveness means a complete pardon, a clean slate. We release someone from the guilt and punishment of their wrongdoing. We don’t hold the wrong against them. There is no grudge.

We’re not the first people to struggle with forgiveness. Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness in Matthew 18. Jesus answers his question and then tells a story, a parable, to teach us more about forgiveness. 

1- Christ expects us to freely forgive. 

“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (21-22)

Peter’s question is not hypothetical. We’ve all had people wrong us in multiple ways, multiple times. People lose their temper, say insensitive things, disappoint us. 

Jesus calls his followers to freely forgive – and not just what is reasonable, but beyond that. Jesus expects us to graciously pour out forgiveness without keeping tabs. Whether for repeated, frustrating hurts of everyday life, or forgiving some major, traumatic offense from your past, God’s Word calls us to be generous. 

When your heart wants to hold a grudge, remind yourself that forgiveness is not optional. 

Even with this reality, there’s an important question to address: What about when an offense is both repeated and especially harmful? What do you do when someone continues to hurt you? Jesus is clear that we’re called to forgive them, but that doesn’t mean you continue to let the person hurt you and walk all over you. The Christian call to forgiveness does not mean you forfeit your right and ability to protect yourself. Sadly, this teaching has been distorted in the church and people have been expected to continue in abusive marriages or harmful situations. God calls us to love other people as we love ourselves – that means that we are supposed to love and protect ourselves. 

Forgiveness and reconciliation are different. Forgiveness takes one person; reconciliation takes two. We are always called to forgive – even if reconciliation isn’t possible. Sometimes you need to both forgive a person and then keep them at a safe distance, or involve other parties (like church leaders or governmental officials).

2- God has forgiven you an immense debt. 

Jesus follows up his direct answer to Peter’s question with a parable in Matthew 18. It’s a story about a servant who owes his king an incomprehensible debt. When the servant pleads for leniency, the king has pity on the man, forgives the entire debt, and sets him free. But afterwards, the servant goes to a man who owes him a paltry amount and grabs him by the throat, yelling “Pay me what you owe!” It is a startling – if not ridiculous – picture, but the point is clear. How can the servant not forgive others when he has been forgiven such an immense debt? 

This is a metaphor of forgiveness in the Kingdom of God. God is our Creator and King and we owe him our lives. We racked up an overwhelming debt of sin when we rebelled against him. But God had compassion on us, and sent his Son Jesus to trade his life for ours, so our debt could be forgiven. In light of this, how can we not forgive others?

If you have truly received God’s compassion and forgiveness, then forgiveness for others should flow from that. If you are an unforgiving person – like the servant in the story – have you truly received God’s forgiveness? 

3- You are guilty of wronging others as well. 

What makes the servant’s unforgiveness so absurd is that he was guilty of exactly the same type of wrong. They both had borrowed money and failed to pay it back. It should have been easy for him to identify with the other servant and have compassion. But the cold-hearted servant failed to give the same type of compassion to the man he had just received from the king. 

For our hearts to be open to forgive others, we must recognize that we are guilty of disobeying God and wronging others as well. Refusal to forgive someone means you are puffing yourself up above them. Forgiveness requires humility. Unforgiveness is arrogance. 

On some level, we can still identify with the spiritual depravity that led to another person’s sin, even if we cannot fathom committing the sin to the degree they did. You might never kill someone in a rage, but have you fostered anger in your heart? You might never abuse someone, but have you disrespected and belittled others to get your way? You might never commit adultery, but have you lusted and daydreamed about someone other than your spouse? You might never have used hard drugs as an escape, but you have used food or alcohol to comfort you? As heinous and depraved as some of these acts are, are they primarily different kinds of sins than those you have committed or different degrees of sin?

We do need to clarify: the Bible does not say that all sins are equivalent. The Bible says that some sins are greater than others, more severe, with worse impact on the people around us (Jn. 19:11, 1 Jn. 5:16-17). I am not equating the common moral lapses that most of us are guilty of with the most abhorrent and despicable sins. Yet, while there is a difference, don’t be too quick to exalt yourself – because when you do, you put forgiveness out of reach. 

4- Holding onto past hurts will destroy your heart.  

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” (Heb. 12:14-15)

Unforgiveness leads to bitterness and bitterness taking root in your heart has drastic consequences. Unforgiveness eats away at you. It consumes you with anger and resentment. It steals your peace. Like the roots and branches of a poisonous tree, bitterness digs deep into your heart and grows and expands to every corner of your life – taking over, choking out everything else, leaving you empty. 

It’s been said that holding on to unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick and die. Without releasing the hurt, bitterness will destroy you from the inside out; through forgiveness we find freedom. Remember, forgiving someone who hurt you – and telling them you forgive them – are steps in the process of reconciliation. But, even if there is no reconciliation, you need to forgive the person for your own sake – to give your heart peace, to keep you right with God. 

People often say, “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget.” Sometimes this is used as a justification to claim you’ve forgiven them, but to still hold onto anger and bitterness. Other times it is a recognition that while you’ve tried to forgive, the memory still hurts. Are we called to forgive and forget? Is forgetting even possible? 

God says several times in both the OT and the NT that he will forgive our sins and remember them no more (Isai. 43:25, Jer. 31:34, Heb. 8:12, 10:17). Now, God is all knowing, so I don’t think it’s the case that he literally couldn’t remember our offenses if he wanted to. But the point is, he doesn’t want to. Our offenses are no longer a conscious part of how he thinks of us. When he interacts with us, he chooses not to remember our sins. 

God calls us to forgive as he forgave, and so I think that both forgiving and forgetting is possible for us. This has to be a divine work – the Holy Spirit can remove the active memory of our past hurts from our daily consciousness. I think we can live without those painful memories impacting our daily interactions. 1 Corinthians 13:5 says that love is not resentful; it keeps no record of wrongs. When true Spirit-led forgiveness pushes out the bitterness, it is possible to live a life free from the haunting memory of past hurts. Forgiveness is a blessing to you!

5- God will have vengeance on those who have hurt you. 

After the servant in the parable had been forgiven his immense debt, he shouldn’t have cared about the little bit that the other guy owed him. Not only does this show his own ingratitude and lack of compassion, but it shows how little trust he had in the king. He should have known that a just king with a watchful eye was governing the kingdom.

He didn’t have the authority to carry out vengeance. 

We too have a just King that oversees all injustices in his kingdom. We are called to forgive because true justice is not our responsibility. Once we realize this, we can be free to forgive. It is often hard to forgive when someone hurts you because it doesn’t seem right in our hearts; we want vengeance. But God’s Word says this: 

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:18-21)

Those coals will either lead to his repentance or his judgment. Vengeance belongs to God, not you. Understanding the just vengeance of God frees your heart to forgive. 

See, forgiveness is not “Oh well, no big deal. How they hurt me is not important; I’ll just forget about it.” No, how you’ve been hurt is a big deal! In fact, it’s such a big deal, it is too much for you to handle. You need to turn it over to the God of the universe to handle the wrong done against you. He is the only one who is good, wise, all-knowing, impartial, just. 

When we forgive someone, that doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about justice. It means we are letting go, so we can put it in God’s hands. Forgiveness must be backed by justice. Remember God forgave us because justice was fulfilled on the cross. Our sins are canceled because Jesus paid our debt. God’s mercy doesn’t undermine his justice. Our forgiveness is grounded in God’s justice! Either God will handle the hurts of this life by punishing the person for their wrongs in eternity or Jesus will take on their sins just like he took on yours. We can forgive people because we are not the ultimate judge. 

As the grace of God fills us, and the Spirit of God enables our hearts to grasp these five truths, we can be a people who graciously forgive others as God has forgiven us.

“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.” (Col. 3:12-13)