I woke up early this morning thinking about forgiveness. As I rolled over onto my back and stared at the dark ceiling, I marveled at the forgiveness of God toward me. I truly do not deserve to be forgiven. It is not as if my sins were so minuscule and insignificant that they did not matter. It is not as if I have somehow managed to accumulate enough good deeds that the scales have tipped in my favor. This forgiveness of God is an amazing thing!
Ephesians 2:8-9 summarize this beautifully – “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast.” You and I are not saved by any effort of our own. Did you see it? It is the GIFT of God. A gift is not earned and often not deserved. A gift is received from the hand of the giver.
When I stand before the Lord, the only boast I can have is that Jesus died for me. His death paid the price for my sin. I will not be there because I was a good man or a faithful pastor. I will not be there because of my record of church attendance or how much money I have put in the offering plate. The titles “pastor” or “reverend” or “doctor” won’t mean anything. My only hope, my only plea is that God loved me enough to send His Son to die on a cross to cleanse me of my sin! Again I will say – This forgiveness of God is an amazing thing!
To have been forgiven so much, it would make sense that Christians would quickly extend forgiveness to others. I have certainly seen great examples of this through the years, but, sadly, I have seen the opposite – grudges held – relationships in shambles – pent up anger – division and dissension. Why is forgiving so hard?
When we are injured by another or feel that we have been slighted, cheated, or abused in some way, forgiving can be incredibly challenging. Part of our withholding forgiveness from another person is a protective measure. Like an armadillo rolling itself into a ball, we try to protect our tender side and only leave a hard-shell exterior. We also refrain from forgiving because of a desire for retaliation. When hurt, we tend to want to hurt back. Like a porcupine, we turn our backs and expose our quills daring the offender to get close.
Honestly, we know that refusing to forgive is unproductive. We realize that holding onto bitterness hurts us as much if not more than it hurts the other person. We also know God has spoken clearly about forgiving – “Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” (Colossians 3:12-13)
And let us not forget the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples included this – “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He sums it up with these challenging words – “For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing” (Matthew 6:14-15). Wow! Let those words sink in.
When we know that we are forgiven and know that we are called to forgive, why is it still so blasted hard to do? Everything within us wants to hold onto the grudge, even when we know it is poisoning our souls.
To forgive others, we must understand how much we have been forgiven. If we only see our sins as slight smudges on an otherwise pristine life, then we cannot truly understand forgiveness. If we cannot see that apart from Jesus we were blind and dead, enemies of God, and deserving of eternal punishment, then we cannot grasp the extreme measure that God went to in order that we might be redeemed. “God so loved the world (that’s you and me and every other sinner) that He gave His one and only Son…” (John 3:16).
We often feel justified in holding onto our bitterness against another. We say to ourselves, “They don’t deserve to be forgiven. They aren’t remorseful enough. If I forgive, I’m letting them off the hook.” But wait… forgiveness is not deserved or earned. Forgiveness involves letting go of bitterness, refusing retaliation, and offering free pardon to one who has offended you.
Forgiveness does not mean you place yourself in the position to be hurt over and over again. It does not mean you’ll be able to forget the pain or betrayal. Forgiveness does not mean you pretend as if nothing bad has happened. Forgiveness is a choice you make, and often have to make time and time again. It is rarely easy, and always costly.
Perhaps forgiveness would flow more freely from our hearts if we spent more time lying in bed in the early hours of the morning thinking about how amazing God’s forgiveness is. Maybe our minds would change if we made time consider our sinful attitudes, words, and actions, and then imagine each of them being covered over by the blood of Jesus. When I consider that a holy God loved me enough to send His Son to die for my sin, how can I stubbornly withhold forgiveness from a fellow sinner? Is he or she less deserving than I? Am I somehow more justified to hold a grudge than God?
If you’d like to contemplate this further, spend some time in Matthew 18:21-35. Read it slowly and more than once. Ask God to speak to you through these words. Ask Him to enable you to do what every fiber of your flesh does not want you to do – to forgive.