Perhaps it’s the most frequent moral contradiction in our lives. Maybe it’s the place where we all stumble the most.
How is it possible that we who have been blessed with eternal forgiveness can be so regularly unforgiving to those around us?
Here are a few reminders to help us close the gap between what we say we believe and how we treat others when it comes to forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness is a daily practice.
The Lord’s Prayer commands us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” right after it instructs us to pray for daily bread. Practicing forgiveness is something we must do daily, in the same way that we need a daily supply of nutrients. It’s a part of everyday life, not something reserved for the “big” sins and events.
2. Forgiveness knows no limits.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone, he thinks he is rather noble by suggesting seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). But Jesus rebukes Peter and says that forgiveness has no limits. If we have been forgiven at the price of the suffering and death of Jesus, our call to forgive applies to countless offenses and even the same endlessly repeated offense.
3. Forgiveness does not mean peace at all costs.
The Bible never commands, “Thou shalt make it easy for others to sin against you.” We are called to strive for peace, but there are limits involved. Paul writes in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” When you have reached those limits, there are other options available to you (Matthew 18:15—17, for example, or having authorities intervene).
4. Failing to forgive will change you.
Recall the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23—35). What happened when he failed to forgive? He seized his fellow servant, choked him, and put him in prison. While you may not physically assault someone, bitterness or a warped sense of justice may assault your heart and consume your mind. Canceling a debt and absorbing the cost is going to hurt, but this parable shows that not forgiving also has a price – at a higher rate than forgiveness demands.
To conclude, in his book Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, L. Gregory Jones shares a powerful real-life illustration. A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the aged parents and gave the daughters to the soldiers, keeping the eldest daughter for himself. Some time later, she escaped and trained as a nurse. As time passed, she found herself nursing in a ward of Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of this officer. He was so gravely ill that without exceptional nursing, he would die. The days passed, and he recovered. One day, the doctor stood by the bed with her and said to him, “But for her devotion to you, you would be dead.” He looked at her and said, “We have met before, haven’t we?” “Yes,” she said, “we have met before.” “Why didn’t you kill me?” he asked. She replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies.’”1
By God’s amazing grace, may we imitate this sister in Christ in our lives and relationships.
1. Do you get frustrated or surprised by how frequently you are sinned against? Do you ask for help with forgiveness daily?
2. What weaknesses do you bring to a current difficult relationship? Have you exhausted your options to live peaceably, so far as it depends on you?
3. Re-read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:23—35. What has your Heavenly Father forgiven you of this week? How will meditating on this reality impact the way you treat others?
4. Who is the equivalent of the Turkish officer in your life? What practical steps can you take to bridge the gap between your theology of forgiveness and your practice of it?