We know we are commanded to forgive, but what does that really mean? It simply means to give up our right to revenge, restitution or recompense – like forgiving a debt.
As important as the word forgiveness is, it is interesting to me that when you see it written in the Old Testament it usually refers to the LORD’s attitude toward man in light of man’s sinful nature. That doesn’t mean that God didn’t deal with men’s attitudes and dealings amongst themselves; there are the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. And Leviticus 19:18 states “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” You see the same commandment in more than one place in the Gospels and James even refers to it in Chapter 2 of his epistle as the “Royal” commandment. Galatians 5:14 says, “The entire law is summed up in a single command; “Love your neighbor as yourself.””
Given what forgiveness means, we see that love is being contrasted in Leviticus 19:18 as the opposite of un-forgiveness; therefore we know that love and forgiveness are two words that go hand in hand. We are all familiar with 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 which says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Another verse very close to this is 1Peter 4:8 which says, “Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins.”
I wonder, is it really possible to forgive someone without love? Specifically, can we forgive those who spitefully use us without God’s love in us? I’m not sure I believe that we can forgive anyone, even those we love without God’s love. I think we can fool ourselves into thinking we have by putting their transgressions out of our mind and choosing by our will not to think of them, but what if something happens to remind us of what that person did to us? What if they do it again? What if they’ve done it many times?
Maybe we can forgive those we love on our own without Him. Is it worth taking a chance?
In the Gospels, we can see that the disciples made two practical requests of Jesus, one was when Peter asks in Mathew 18:21 how many times he should forgive someone: “Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Right after Jesus tells Peter he should not just forgive 7 times, but 70 X 7 times, He reinforces it with the parable teaching about the unmerciful servant who begged for and received mercy, but immediately after being released, met someone who owed him a fraction of his forgiven debt and showed no mercy. As you know the master heard and rescinded the mercy that had been extended and Jesus finished by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The other request was in Mathew 6:5-14 which says, “and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. This then is how you should pray:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
This is incredibly clear; there is no ambiguity here and these are not the only admonitions in scripture concerning our responsibility to forgive. If we have such a hard time forgiving those we love (and we do whether we realize it or not), how are we going to forgive those who spitefully use us? Mathew 5:43-48 says, “You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How many times have we heard this passage and the others like it and we can’t help agreeing with it; after all, it is the Lord’s command, but how do we do it? I think that often when it comes to things that are difficult in scripture we think if we repeat it enough and apply our self-will, we can cause it to become internalized in us, i.e. forgiveness will start to happen because we want it to. That is dangerous as we are just as likely or even more likely to just start paying it lip service, lulling ourselves into a false sense of security. Our minds are wonderfully adept at justifying our thoughts and often betray us to that end.
I submit to you that we must have love in our hearts to forgive and we cannot love adequately apart from the Holy Spirit. Even when we are submitted to the Lord there are things that are difficult for us and sometimes we have to make the decision to forgive and ask the Lord to cause our mind and emotions to catch up to our decision. This in itself is not possible if we are not appropriately submitted to the Lord.
Forgiveness will be a lot easier if we can try to see ourselves and others from God’s perspective instead of always viewing others and ourselves from our own unique and selfish perspective. If I could manage that, I might be able to see the real motivations behind other people’s thoughts, words and actions. I might see that we are fighting a common battle, but separately (isolated) and that one or both of us may be losing and getting hurt badly. I might even see the possible tragic consequence in eternity for others (and/or myself) of not persevering or maybe never even engaging in that spiritual battle. If I could even get a glimpse from God’s perspective, I/we may get some indication of what really makes our heavenly Father sorrowful and angry.
How is it that we want Justice for everyone else and Mercy for ourselves? Scripture is clear, if we want mercy, we must be merciful. We must love and forgive. How do we do that? We have to start by getting our mind off ourselves and realizing that we are here to bring Glory to God, not to promote ourselves.
The easiest way I’ve found to forgive others is to pray for them with no strings attached – to pray the LORD’s blessings over them for whatever they need, not that which will make it easier on me. It is very hard to be reasonable when you are angry or emotional, but it is impossible to stay angry at someone when you are truly praying blessings over them.
My very favorite scripture passage right now is James 2:12, 13 which says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom. Because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!”