On Forgiveness

Barb Wire

Admittedly this article is based on some unfortunate personal experiences I have too often been through. Simply put, my beef is this: I will never fathom why someone who once was a friend or colleague, and presumably a brother in Christ, will all of sudden turn on you and want nothing to do with you – and do not even bother to explain why.

It seems to happen on a regular basis! I expect pagans to behave this way, but Christians? Regrettably, there seem to be some good haters out there who will hang on to their bitterness and refuse to forgive. And half the time I do not even know what they are so mad at me about. It is as mind-boggling as it is sad.

I suppose what I am really writing about here then is unforgiveness. And a lack of love. If Christians will not love and forgive – two Christian essentials – then there is every reason to believe they are not at all Christians. Scripture is actually quite plain on this.

Consider just a few verses. In 1 John 4:19-21 we have this point made crystal clear: “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

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Now love of course is not some emotional gooey feeling. We have to love others, even though we may not actually like them! I am speaking here about letting go of bitterness, of being willing to forgive and move on, and of not holding resentment and hate in your heart.

The one unwilling to forgive is the one who cannot receive the forgiveness of God. This too is spelled out quite clearly in Scripture. Consider the words of Jesus:

“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

“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 6:14-15

The parable of the unforgiving servant as found in Matthew 18:21-35 also makes this point quite vividly. And the connection is also made in places like Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And you get a more indirect statement about all this in Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

I of course expect that some people will disagree with me, dislike me, and even detest me and my views. But if this other person is a Christian, he does not have an option of remaining in hate, bitterness, and unforgiveness. They can dislike me all they like.

But my main worry is the state of their soul – those who refuse to forgive of course cannot know the forgiveness of God. Yet so many people who call themselves Christians seem to live in a continual state of hate, bitterness, and unforgiveness. How they reconcile this with the clear words of Scripture is quite baffling to me.

Now I am not claiming to be a paragon of love and forgiveness here. And I get hurt, attacked, abused, mistreated and dumped on all the time – by both believers and non-believers. It hurts big time. But by God’s grace I am usually able to say, “God I forgive this person”. That I must do.

That does not mean the hurt instantly disappears, or that I condone or approve of what the other person has done, but I have to do my part. It is up to the other person if they seek reconciliation or do their own forgiving. But I have to be willing to do my part.

Now a word may be needed about a potentially confusing matter which can arise here. To say that we must forgive is not to say that this is how we earn God’s forgiveness in the first place. Nothing that we do can earn or merit that which God can only give to us as a free gift, solely by his grace.

Speaking on the Matt. 6:14-15 text, James Montgomery Boice says this: “Why is this so? Well, it is not because God waits for us to earn his forgiveness by forgiving others; we can never earn any of God’s favors. It is simply because we cannot truly ask for forgiveness unless our heart is right regarding other people. God does not work by halves. He will not allow us to come to him confessing half a sin while hanging onto the other half. It must be all or nothing. Thus if we confess our sin, that confession must of necessity involve a forgiving attitude toward others.”

John Stott offers similar commentary: “This certainly does not mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. It is rather that God forgives only the penitent and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Once our eyes are opened to see the enormity of our offence against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offences of others, it proves that we have minimized our own.”

Or as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it: “The man who knows he has been forgiven, only in and through the shed blood of Christ, is a man who must forgive others. He cannot help himself. If we really know Christ as our Savior our hearts are broken and cannot be hard, and we cannot refuse forgiveness. If you are refusing forgiveness to anybody I suggest that you have never been forgiven.”

In this life we will be hurt, abused, offended, mistreated, betrayed, and attacked time and time again. What will be our response? Jesus knew more about this than anyone else. And how did he respond? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We are called to do likewise, as difficult as that may be.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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