To forgive is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges for mankind.
However, forgiveness is also one of the pillars of faith in the gospel in the New Testament. After all, who hasn’t heard of the command to “turn the other cheek”? Forgiveness needs to be one of the main attributes in the life and character of anyone who wishes to follow God. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote:
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
It’s no coincidence that the command to forgive others is based on the fact that God forgave us. Prayer is how we connect with God. When Jesus taught about prayer, he repeated three times in three verses about our need to forgive others.
“…And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:12-15)
The word “forgive” appears six times in these three verses.
In other words, do you want to connect with God? Do you want God to hear your prayers? Then first of all, you must learn to forgive.
Forgiveness is the heart of the gospel and is a crucial factor in our relationship with God.
What is true forgiveness?
Before we talk about forgiveness, we need to talk about revenge because revenge is the opposite of forgiveness. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
Jesus teaches about forgiveness as a contrast to revenge. Seeking revenge means storing anger and bitterness inside, and it has two consequences:
Firstly, not only does it hurt our relationships, it also has damaging implications on our health, because bitterness is something that eats us up from the inside. According to the research of Dr. Loren Toussaint and Dr. Grant Shields, unforgiveness directly affects the immune system, blood pressure, and the physical health and wellbeing of the heart.
Second, revenge hurts others and leads to a never ending cycle of revenge. Forgiveness sets us free from this vicious cycle and can turn our sworn enemies into our greatest friends.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ ” (Matthew 5:38)
Jesus is referring to a passage in Exodus 21, in which the Law of Moses sets the boundaries for revenge and introduces for the first time the principle of proportionality. If your neighbor punches you in a fight and breaks your tooth, you can’t take revenge by stabbing him with a knife. “A tooth for a tooth.” The Law of Moses was meant to set boundaries and to restrain the human heart which seeks revenge, so that the revenge would be in proportion to the damage done. It’s important to understand that the Law of Moses does not represent the ultimate moral principles of God, principles of grace, compassion, and forgiveness. Not at all, rather it was God’s temporary compromise:
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you. As the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive.” (Matthew 19:8)
If Moses set boundaries and restraints, Jesus raised the standards back to God’s ultimate moral principles. Rather than starting a vicious cycle of revenge – forgive. Note that Jesus is talking about taking revenge on the offender, and not about taking revenge on the act of offense itself.
In other words, he is not saying that going against evil, protecting ourselves, or seeking justice is forbidden, rather we are being told to not take revenge on the person who hurt us.
Did your neighbor accidentally run over your dog? You don’t have to take revenge and kill his dog – you can just forgive him.
Did your other neighbor steal your sheep? Don’t take your revenge by stabbing his son, just go to the police and let them deal with it.
Later on, in his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes similar words and elaborates:
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 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.” (Romans 12:17-19)
The law and justice is good and honorable, but taking revenge – never.
“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
To slap someone’s right cheek one needs to use the back of the hand – a degrading and humiliating act against someone. During the second temple period, this was used especially by the Roman guards, when a Roman guard would (justifiably or not) slap a common citizen. Many of the Jews would be so humiliated to receive such treatment from a Roman gentile that they would lose their temper and fight back; not against the evil itself but against the evil doer – the Roman guard – and would strike him back. This of course brought harmful consequences to the insurrectionist, to his family, and sometimes even to the whole town.
As believers, we need to learn to suffer injustice when peace and forgiveness are the objective, even if it means suffering physical harm, losing property, or enduring mistreatment. And all this, by the way, was exactly what Jesus endured for us – he suffered injustice so that we could receive grace and peace. As an example from our times: Say a police officer strikes you and humiliates you – you need to take him to court and not try to hit him back.
A few chapter later, in chapter 18, one of Jesus’ disciples, Simon Peter, asked him:
“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-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Jesus is not saying that by the 78th time it’s ok to not forgive anymore, rather he is basing his answer on Genesis 4:24 and is using the symbolic number 7 to represent something infinite and perfect. If we are called to forgive over and over again, then we can be sure that God also forgives us – over and over again. Jesus continued and told his disciples a parable:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)
A man who owed an enormous debt was brought before a king, a debt of 10,000 talents, an amount worth millions today, and a debt which was obviously more than the man could pay. Therefore the king ordered that the man, the man’s family, and his possessions be sold. This man did not deny his debt but asked for more time to pay the king back.
“And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matthew 18:27)
The king decided to forgive his debt.
Note the three elements of forgiveness:
- To have mercy
- To release
- To pardon
For instance, say I borrowed a friend’s car and accidentally wrecked it. If my friend decides to have mercy on me, it means that he decided to not be angry with me and to not let the incident hurt our relationship. However, I still owe him money to cover the repairs of the damage done to his car. If my friend also releases me from my debt, it means that he decided to take care of the repairs himself and to not ask me to return the money. This doesn’t mean that the cost for the repairs just disappeared – rather that my friend covered that cost from his own pocket in my stead. He paid the debt that I was supposed to pay. If my friend decides to pardon me as well, it means that he decided to not hold a grudge against me now or in the future, in other words he is willing to lend me his car again.
My friend could have just had mercy and forgiven me for my mistake yet demand that I cover the costs.
He could have also released me from my debt but decide to cut off all communication with me.
He could have had mercy on me, forgiven me for my mistake, and even released me from my debt, but refuse to lend me his car in the future.
But he was such a good friend that he not only had mercy on me, forgave me, discharged me from my debt, and covered the costs that I was supposed to pay – he even agreed to lend me his car in the future.
This is true and perfect forgiveness. This friend sounds too good to be true, right? Yet this is the kind of forgiveness God gave us through the Messiah and the kind of forgiveness that we too need to extend to others.
When we sin against God, for instance when we harm his creation or hurt others we are in debt to God, a debt that we could never pay back. In other words, our relationship with God is damaged and we became distant from Him.
During the times of the Old Testament, we would return to God by offering a sacrifice. An animal was sacrificed, and this sacrifice would bring us back to God again. The sacrifice atoned, or covered, the debt that we were unable to pay.
The Messiah came to do just this
He took our sins upon himself and by his blood paid our debt for us and in our stead.
In his epistle to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul writes:
“…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. As the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:1)
In other words, we also need to be able to forgive others for sins they have committed against us. Whoever truly understands the depth of forgiveness which the Messiah gave us will surely be able to forgive others as well.
“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:28-30)
How ironic it is, almost comical, that a moment ago you were forgiven but now you yourself are unable to forgive another. The forgiven is unable to forgive. This is a true depiction of mankind. Aren’t we all like that? We all want to be forgiven, but we’re not so quick to forgive others.
What about justice?
When someone sins against you and hurts you, you want to see justice done. You demand that justice be done!
For example, in an incident where a kindergarten teacher causes the death of a small child by negligence, the mother of the child demands that the teacher be put in prison. Why? Because that would bring back her child? Of course not. But when we see the person who caused us pain in pain it makes us feel as if justice has been done. It gives us a strange feeling of satisfaction, because now that person is being punished and is paying for his sins.
When someone sins against you and hurts you, there are two ways you can respond:
The first, is to remove that person from your life, take revenge, and hope that that person will suffer as well, and when he’s suffered enough, only then will you feel that he’s paid the price for his deeds. This is the response that the Devil wants you to choose.
What is the alternative? The alternative is Jesus, to remember that you also were forgiven so much, and that’s why you choose to pay the price in place of the person who’s hurt you.
You choose to repel those feelings of hate and desires for revenge and refuse to remove that person from your life completely, even if you’re still fuming over what that person did to you, deep inside. You make a conscious decision to replace those negative feelings with forgiveness.
Psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Swartz of John Hopkins University in the United States, explains that true forgiveness isn’t just done verbally:
“[Forgiveness] is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.” – Dr. Karen Swartz
Forgiveness isn’t easy at all and often times it’s counter-cultural. It’s important to understand that forgiveness doesn’t dismiss the accountability of the offender, rather that it chooses to show grace despite the offense.
Forgiveness is undoubtedly one of the hardest things for mankind to do.
Forgiveness is a conscious decision, because you choose to forgive in your mind first, and then let the feelings of your heart catch up later. It takes time, and it’s hard.
Forgiveness isn’t a feeling. We never really feel like forgiving.
Forgiveness is first and foremost a mindful and wilful decision and that’s why Jesus instructed us:
“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
We could choose and select the few people we want to forgive, when it’s convenient for us and we get something out of. But if we decide to forgive only a few, one day when we stand before God he’ll do unto us what we’ve done unto others and will forgive us as we’ve forgiven others.
Wait, that doesn’t sound so just, does it? Why am I the one who needs to pay the price and suffer? Why? Because forgiveness hurts and is a costly thing. When God forgave us it cost the life of the Messiah. Forgiveness is a painful thing because there’s a price to be paid, and when you forgive, you choose to pay that price yourself. It’s painful, but as a result of forgiveness not only is a heart of stone softened and emptied of bitterness, it will also frees the heart from the chains of anger, animosity, and hatred.
Forgiveness paves a path of repentance for the one who’s been forgiven.
Forgiveness means choosing to have mercy on the one who’s sinned against you, in order to not damage the relationship. Forgiveness is choosing to release the one who’s sinned against you from the debt he owes you. And forgiveness is choosing to set that person free, to pardon him, and to give him grace now and in the future, and to not hold a grudge against him in the future.
“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:32-25)
Forgiveness is something God takes very seriously because forgiveness is the heart of the gospel in the New Testament.
In this parable, we get to take a close look at the man’s heart. He knows how to beg for forgiveness from others but he doesn’t acknowledge the forgiveness that was given him and that’s why he is unable to forgive others.
Our human nature is an expert at self-justification. “Me? Of course I deserve forgiveness!” But we all know how to blame others: “That guy? He’s a thief!”, “Who, him? He’s a liar!” But when we’re the ones caught telling a lie, we’re very good at making up excuses. “I’m not a liar, I just didn’t have any other choice, I just couldn’t tell her the truth.” When we’re in the wrong, suddenly the situation can be explained away through context and surrounding circumstances. But for others? All the others are just liars and thieves.
But when we realise that we sin exactly like everyone else, without exception, we stop looking down on others and acknowledge the fact that we too need forgiveness, that we too have been forgiven an enormous debt – and that’s why we forgive others.
By the way, in this passage, Jesus doesn’t say that if you’re unable to perfectly forgive others “you’ll be sent to hell”, but it does have damaging effects on your relationship with God.
If I’m unwilling to forgive my brother, it affects my heavenly Father as well.
As believers, we know that we’ve been forgiven so much. If we truly understand this, it enables us to forgive others, always. A person who is unwilling to forgive is actually saying that he’s not like everyone else, he’s distinguishing himself from the rest of sinful mankind because he sees himself as better and holier than everyone else, he’s a person who doesn’t really need forgiveness. This mindset shows that this person hasn’t really understood the gospel.
It’s important to understand that we’re not talking about permissiveness or allowing injustice. There’s the congregation, society, government, and the authorities, whose job is to help you achieve law and justice. But on a personal level, seeking justice doesn’t have to replace forgiveness.
Seeking justice without forgiveness isn’t really seeking true justice.
It’s seeking revenge.
Only through forgiveness can broken relationships be restored.
Social activist, Martin Luther King Jr., fought against racial discrimination in the United States against black Americans, and in 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for leading a nonviolent protest in the struggle against racial discrimination in the United States. Dr. King, who was also a minister, often preached from the New Testament. In addition to his famous “I have a dream” speech, he also explained why he chose to fight against discrimination in peaceful ways and not through attempts for revenge:
“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King understood and applied Jesus’ message. Revenge only leads to a vicious cycle of revenge.
Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman, hid many Jews during the Holocaust with the help of her sister. They were sent to a concentration camp, where her sister died. Corrie, who survived, told that shortly after the war she met one of the Nazi guards from her camp during one of her lectures on the Holocaust. After the lecture, the former Nazi guard came up to her, ashamed, to shake her hand. At first, Corrie admitted, she was filled with feelings of anger and hatred, but she immediately chose to forgive and shook his hand. Later on, she described the feeling as a supernatural love that only God could provide. If Corrie hadn’t known the gospel and about the forgiveness she had received from God, she probably wouldn’t have been able to extend forgiveness herself to the former Nazi guard.
In conclusion, we need to identify with the people who sin against us, because we too are sinners.
Jesus took upon himself not just the punishment that we deserve, but also the punishment that the person who’s sinned against us deserves. When we’ll finally understand how much God has forgiven us, then we too will be able to forgive others.
We need to forgive – just as the Messiah forgave us.
How did he forgive us?
With all his heart, to the very end, for it all, all the time, and for all eternity!
And now, ask yourself honestly: Is there anyone in your life that you need to set free as well and forgive?