Forgiveness. Books, blogs and songs - all seek to address the issue. They all try to tell us why, for our own good, we must forgive. Because, face it, forgiveness is hard. It might well be the hardest thing we will ever have to do. Alexander Pope is right: to forgive is divine. It takes God to forgive.
Because forgiveness is not just hard; it is costly. Consider what it costs God to bring forgiveness to His people. To be clear, not all offences are sins; not all offences call for forgiveness. As the book of Proverbs points out, it is to a man’s glory to overlook an offence. Those times when someone disses us, doesn’t give us the respect we think we deserve or the credit that is our due. A wise person does not get all worked up over such things; he is patient; he overlooks the offence (Prov 19:11).
But what if a person sins against you? A colleague who slanders you; a spouse who cheats on you; a parent who abuses you or abuses someone you love? What then? Do you really have to forgive? More importantly, what would forgiveness look like? Well, if the person is a believer, there are steps to follow.
First, the Bible is clear; if a brother sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault. Why? Because you seek repentance in your brother. This is not an I-am-better-than-you attitude. Rather it is the recognition that all sin is ultimately against God. King David recognised that in his confession in Psalms 51:4.
Second, if the brother refuses to repent, you are to bring witnesses. This is to make sure you are really in the right and handling this rightly. And then, if there is no repentance, bring it to the church.
This is not the touchy-feely thing we expect when we talk about forgiveness. There is a call on the whole church to judge the sin. Not so much to shame the person or to get your vengeance but ultimately, again, to turn the brother back to God.
Notice how quickly Jesus moves the situation from the personal, “sins against you” to the communal, “tell it to the church.”
Finally, if there is no repentance, we are to treat the person like a Gentile and a tax collector. What in the world does that mean?
A Gentile (to the Jew) meant one who is not of God’s people. A tax collector is a collaborator with the enemy, the Romans, to oppress God’s people. So here the call is to treat the person like one who is not a believer and a collaborator with the Enemy of God.
Here is the tricky part. How is a Christian to treat someone outside the faith? He is to love him. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him to drink.” In this, the Christian is to reflect his heavenly Father who makes the sun to shine on both the just and the unjust and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
And of course, we pray for conversion. That God, in His accounting, will not count that sin against the person.
But what if the person repents? Then we are to forgive.
Did I say forgiveness is hard? And costly? That is why the motivation to forgive cannot be simply because we think it’s better for our mental health. True forgiveness is possible only when we know how much we have been forgiven. Jesus came to pay a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay. (Thanks Anon. for that quote) So that in Christ, God could both be just and the justifier.
God pronounced the enormity of our sin and the anger it deserved and then took on that penalty for sin. So every time we confess our sins and we repent, God forgives because it is the just thing to do (1 Jn 1:9)
Of course we are not God. But every time we wrestle with the enormity of sin, recognise the cost to us personally and then forgive that debt, we are like God. We reflect God, both His light (in confronting sin for what it is) and His mercy. We reflect the divine nature.
Finally Jesus calls the person who refuses to forgive ‘wicked’. Wicked because he forgets the grace that forgives him a far greater debt.
But that does not mean that true forgiveness is easy. Or that it is instantaneous. We must be willing to forgive, but sometimes the actual forgiveness takes time. This is the struggle as CS Lewis sees it: “. . . you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart — every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.”
So we crucify every resentment as it arises; we confess every bitterness in our own hearts; we fight our own flesh and look for deliverance.
Because from our perspective, it is not just. But where would we be if there were justice but no justifier? Only condemnation. Eternally. Is this the justice you want?
As a young believer, Mary Yeo was captured by the words of Jesus, “For he who is forgiven little, loves little.” She hopes that she will come to understand ever more how much she has been forgiven. And, by comparison, how little she has been called upon to forgive.