Forgiveness is one of the hardest things you will ever be asked to do. “Why should I have to pay for someone else’s sin? Why should I have to bear the consequences of others’ wrongdoing, while they get off scot-free? It’s not fair.” No, it’s not. Forgiveness is always grace. But it’s what followers of Jesus are called to do.
Jesus clearly and repeatedly mandates that his disciples be forgiving people. Not three times. Not seven times. But seventy-seven times over (see Matthew 18:21-22). The point is not that you literally count 74, 75, 76, 77 – “there, that’s it, no more forgiveness for you!” It’s hyperbole, a parabolic number that means limitless. The point is that you live at all times with a heart of forgiveness.
Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone” (Mark 11:25). Whenever. Anything. Anyone. That’s about as comprehensive as it gets.
So what does it mean to forgive?
The two key words used in the New Testament speak of “letting go of, releasing” and “freely and graciously” pardoning the debts of others. Forgiveness is choosing to let go of resentment and revenge; it’s choosing not to hold a person’s sin against him or her.
Note that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. If you or someone you love has been deeply hurt, or left with physical, psychological, emotional, or relational scars, it’s often impossible to forget.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand and just pretending as if nothing bad ever happened. Continuing a superficial relationship with someone who’s utterly unrepentant is unwise and often destructive – to both of you. Often, a change in the nature of your relationship is warranted.
Forgiveness doesn’t preclude you from involving the proper authorities and seeking justice, either. If you are the victim of a crime, for instance, it is both godly and wise to seek the help of those who have the God-given role of administering justice. In fact, that’s one way of letting go of personal revenge: you entrust it to those with that responsibility.
But a key here – even if you can’t forget, even if you can’t continue the relationship just as it was before, even if can’t not involve law enforcement – is that you are letting go of personal resentment, condemnation, and vengeance. You are moving forward free of enmity and bitterness.
This kind of forgiveness isn’t just what Jesus taught; it’s also what Jesus modeled. Consider just two examples from the last few hours of Jesus’ life.
In John 13, at “The Last Supper,” Jesus rose from the table, poured a basin of water, and began to wash his disciples’ feet. Culturally, this was a sign of both humble service and forgiveness. How do you set at a table and feast with people you know are about to deny and betray you? You have to hear Jesus saying, “I welcome you to fellowship at my table because I’ve washed away the stain of your sin and I bear no contempt for you.”
Just hours later, as Jesus hung on a cross, he was the image of an innocent victim. Slandered, beaten, whipped, and nailed to a tree, exposed to the most suffocating shame. As his peers hurled insults and mocked him for hours, he just took it. And then he finally spoke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Whoa, what?
How could God just forgive them? They weren’t even sorry. Nobody asked for forgiveness. Nobody cared. Jesus forgave right in the middle of the worst moment of his life. How? He forgave by bearing their sin in his body on the cross. He forgave by putting their debt on his own account and paying that debt in full. He forgave by dying the death they deserved to die.
So if you want to live like Jesus, if you want to be a forgiving person – not poisoned by the toxic cancer of your own bitterness and resentment – how? How can you?
First, you have to treasure the grace of God toward you.
You have to see and savor the primary fact that, in Christ, you have been completely forgiven. By grace through faith, your sin is gone. Your punishment is gone. Even your shame is gone. Jesus took it. He paid it. He washed it away. It’s not fair; it’s grace.
Do you love grace? Does it amaze and astound you that the One who knows everything about you chose to forgive you? Do you see yourself as unworthy and yet infinitely loved and accepted in Christ? Does that move you to gratitude? Then you’ll be a forgiving person.
Second, you also have to trust the justice of God.
How can you let go of the desire for payback when you know with all your heart that the person who hurt you deserves payback? You have to give that desire to God.
Romans 12:19 says, “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.’” Pay close attention to what this text does and does not say. It doesn’t say, “Give up your desire for payback, you heathen, because that desire is a terribly unchristian thing!” It says, “Give up your desire for payback because that’s God’s job.”
See, God already knows what was done to you. And he cares. So either that person will repent and receive the same undeserved forgiveness you’ve received or they’ll refuse to repent and God will handle them justly. And he’ll do a far better job than you could’ve ever done – all while exercising his authority as Lord of both of you. So trust God to be God.
Do you treasure the grace of God and trust the justice of God. This is what will make you a forgiving person like Jesus.