There are a lot of lies about forgiveness that people, even Christians, spread.
When He was being nailed to the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Later, St. Paul would write to the Christians, “Forgive, just as God in Christ forgave you.”
Forgiveness starts with God. It is a free gift of grace. Jesus bore our sin. He was nailed to the cross to provide for our forgiveness. He felt our sin in all its magnitude, horror, and depth of evil so that He could forgive – really forgive – us. He suffered all the hurt and evil of our sin, and so forgave us.
That is why we forgive: because God has forgiven us so much more. It does not matter what anyone does to us; it will never compare to our sin against Jesus. There will NEVER be ANY comparison between any evil, however horrific, done to us and what it meant for the Eternal Son of God, the Righteous Man who alone deserved heaven by virtue of His own merits, to hang nailed to a cross and cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” If God has forgiven us so much, if God loves all these others and died for them too, how can we not forgive them, too? If we love Jesus, will we not love all those for whom He died?
Paul also wrote, “until you, being rooted and established in love, grow up in all things into the stature of Christ, who is our head.” We forgive because Christ is being formed in us. We forgive because we are made to be like Christ, to be conformed to Him. The Epistle to the Romans tells us that this is the good for which God is working all things out to His children. “We know that God works all things together for good to those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose, for those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” So, we forgive because we have seen that Jesus is All-Goodness and love Him, and so we desire to be like Him, to walk in His footsteps. He forgave even those who crucified Him, and so we forgive, too.
We love those whom He loves, and so we forgive. His love is in us, and so we forgive. We do not hate them; we do not want them to go to hell. We want them to know Christ’s forgiveness and love. We want them to rejoice with us before the throne of God.
Jesus forgave the men who crucified Him, though they did not think to ask for His forgiveness. He has forgiven us in the same way. So, we will forgive without being asked. Because He forgave, we want to forgive.
Forgiveness does not mean that we think or pretend to think that no wrong was done. I said earlier that Jesus felt our sin in all its magnitude and horror so that He could forgive us. There is a sense in which only God can truly forgive, because only God truly knows what sin is. Only God knows how terrible, how evil, how disgusting sin is. Only Jesus Christ has felt, has taken into His own soul, all the pain and horror and evil of sin, so only He has the knowledge and the right to completely forgive it. Only He can truly love despite sin, because only He knows just how horrible sin is and hates sin completely. The more we share in that knowledge of sin and in that utter hatred or detestation of sin, the more sin hurts us, the more we share in His forgiveness.
Jesus tells us what forgiveness looks like, in the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who mistreat you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you. If you love those who also love you, what credit have you? Even sinners do that… For your Father in heaven causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
People say, “Forgiveness sets you free.” This is a half-lie.
The forgiveness of God sets you free. The only way to be free is if the Son sets you free – forgives you. It is true that bitterness eats at you and destroys your soul, not that of him whom you fail to forgive, and that forgiveness involves not being bitter, but forgiveness for the sake of being free from a bitterness that destroys you more than the one you hate is not forgiveness – certainly not the forgiveness of Jesus. You will never forgive by thinking, “I’m hurting myself more than the one who hurt me by not forgiving him.” You will only ever truly forgive by looking at the cross, where your Lord was crucified so that He could forgive you – and whoever has hurt you or someone you love – and forgiving because He first forgave you. “We love because He first loved us,” it says in 1st John.
If you “forgive” in order not to be eaten away by bitterness, apart from the grace of God, you will someday find that you have only dug yourself into a deeper, uglier pit.
Sin, whatever it is, will eat away at your own soul and not at whomever you commit it against, whether it be bitterness, or lying, or stealing, or whatever. Forgiveness may well hurt cruelly. To forgive – to have no insulation between yourself and the hurt, no bitter anger to protect you either from fear or the pain of compassion and pity, no fear standing between you and the pain of pitying, of loving, your enemy (not necessarily no fear – this is a whole topic of itself – though I do believe that forgiveness is opposed to fear). Bitterness, any sin, will dull the spiritual senses, will make you insensitive to the horror and pain of sin. Forgiveness – love – holiness will sharpen the spiritual senses. To forgive – “the fellowship of participation in His sufferings.”
Speaking of those verses in Philippians, did you ever notice how first it says, “to know Christ, in the power of His resurrection,” second it says, “and the fellowship of participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death,” and lastly it says, “so that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” It starts and ends with the life of His resurrection!
“Christ is risen! – He’s risen indeed!”
“If we died with Him, we will also live with Him. If we endure, we will also reign with Him.”
In Christ, all is life, all is peace, all is joy. “Because I live, you also will live.” “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, do I give.” “I have told you these things so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”
Note: I do not want to be taken as suggesting either that Christians do not struggle against sin or that it is normal for Christians to live in unforgiveness. A lot of modern American churches spread the idea that it is normal for Christians to struggle with forgiveness. It is true that, on occasion, a Christian may temporarily live in unforgiveness, but it is the exception, not the rule, and it will not be for long, though it may be lengthened and worsened by having a community that claims to be Christian encouraging one to wallow in self-pity and bitterness. However, if you generally struggle with forgiveness there are really only two possibilities: 1) you have been taught to say and pretend that you struggle with forgiveness, even though you don’t, and have even come to believe that you struggle with forgiveness or 2) you have never actually known the forgiveness of God in Christ. I address related issues in (Part I) The Promises of God: Introduction and Psalm 23 and (Part II) The Promises of God: Prayer – Whatever You Ask.
Copyright 2018 Raina Nightingale