The High-Stakes Gamble of Withholding Forgiveness

Note: This is the second of a series of articles on Forgiveness. Click here to read "Forgiveness: Confronting My Bitterness, Resentment & Anger"


It is easy to counsel people to forgive others until you are the one doing the forgiving. “Forgive those who hurt you” is a Christian principle that is painless to grasp, but tragically painful to obey. If we are struggling to forgive someone, it isn’t likely because we are being petty. It is usually because we’ve been hurt. In the course of our lives, getting hurt is inevitable. 


Some people withhold forgiveness because they feel it gives them power. Others struggle to forgive because they’re prideful. But most people who battle with forgiving do so out of deep-seated hurt. Someone broke their heart. Possibly, they were physically or sexually abused. Maybe a person they trusted lied to them and they feel betrayed. In my family’s case, a surgical mistake altered my son’s life forever, and eventually led to his death fifteen years later. How do you forgive someone who does that? 


The first battle I struggled with was letting Jesus’ words on forgiveness convict me and do their work in my heart. I knew forgiving people was a good thing, but I didn’t recognize it as necessary to Christianity. As I read Jesus’ words on forgiveness, and the standard He holds His followers to, it convicted me to the core. 


The first passage that struck me, that lay in plain sight, was Matthew 6:14-15. Jesus says, “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.” This statement comes after His words on how to pray, and His explicit instruction that we are to pray for forgiveness of our own sins, as we have forgiven others (vs 12). The implication is that we receive forgiveness in the same way we give it. Then He goes on to say that we receive forgiveness in the same measure we give it out. But if we fail to forgive others, we will not be forgiven. I’ll be completely transparent; I didn’t know exactly what to do with that theologically. When I was withholding forgiveness to the surgeon and stewing in my bitterness, I felt the piercing glare of the Holy Spirit staring at me as I read those words. There was an acute awareness that I was the one not forgiving, and I didn’t want to look at the implication of Jesus’ words concerning my own sins. 

Then I stumbled across Matthew 18. Peter asks Jesus how many times someone should forgive the brother that sins against us. Should it be as many as seven times? Peter thinks he’s been overly generous with that number. Then Jesus says not seven, but seventy-seven times. That’s not a literal number. He’s essentially telling Peter not to count. Then Jesus goes into a terrifying parable (vs 23-35). In the story, a servant owes a king a large sum of money. The king forgives the man after he pleads for mercy. But the same man turns around and finds someone who owes him a far lesser amount of money, physically assaults him, and urges him to pay unless he wants to get thrown into prison. When the king hears that the servant did this to another man, after he himself had been forgiven a greater debt, he reinstitutes the debt back to the man, and has him thrown into jail until all the debt is paid. Jesus finishes this parable by summarizing his main point for us: So also, my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (vs 35). 


It slayed me to read those words. Matthew 6 and Matthew 18 could not be ignored or explained away. As a Christian, I had to reconcile my lack of forgiveness with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. My unwillingness to forgive could be demonstrated as a fruit of not obeying Jesus. At worst, it could be evidence that I’m not really a disciple at all. Is that too harsh? Not at all. Jesus doesn’t go soft on the subject. He expects his followers to forgive. He doesn’t add disclaimers to His teaching with any loopholes or excuses that would let us delay our obedience. 


Jesus modeled it himself. While hanging on the cross at the hands of betrayers and sinful men, Jesus prayed aloud that His Father would forgive those who put Him there. Why? He believed they were ignorant about what they were doing, and who they were doing it to. They didn’t deserve forgiveness. But Jesus is asking the Father to forgive them, which I assume implies that He had forgiven them. I can’t imagine He would ask the Father to forgive them if He hadn’t. These men had dressed Jesus in a purple rob to mock Him. They jeered that if He was the Messiah, He should show it by coming down from the cross. They nailed a sign above His head to ridicule His claim to be Israel’s king. All of these things were done by people who had no remorse, nor asked for forgiveness. Yet Jesus forgave them. 


As we ponder our own challenge to obey Jesus’ teaching, we must reckon with the fact that He did it Himself. He modeled it. We can’t claim that Jesus doesn’t understand our hurt. We can’t give ourselves an exception from following his teaching, because He Himself did what He tells us to do. 


There is a lot on the line in this issue. Jesus doesn’t mince words about the repercussions of withholding forgiveness. As a professing Christian, there are issues to work through in order to forgive. There are intentional actions and habits to deploy in order to forgive (those will be explored in coming articles). But the starting point in forgiveness is not the conviction that you should, but that you must


This has to be our motto: Jesus forgave those who hurt Him, and so must I.


I already hear your objections. I had them all too. But Jesus doesn’t give exceptions, not even in the most unthinkable of circumstances. He calls His people to another way of living. To follow Him is to start with the realization that forgiving others is one of the things that marks you as a Christian. And when you survey Jesus’ teachings you discover that the stakes are high when it comes to our obedience. The question of our own forgiveness is under the microscope and displayed in how we forgive others. If we really belong to Christ, we obey his command and forgive those who’ve hurt us. The greatest evidence that we are forgiven people is our willingness to forgive others.

Erik is the Lead Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.

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