Forgiveness isn’t something offered to the deserving or repentant; in fact, it’s not really about the wrongdoer at all. This may seem strange to hear, but it’s honestly the first step in understanding how you can forgive people who have hurt you emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Forgiveness is painful because it involves real people and a real past. The need to forgive implies something has happened, and if you are lingering in the bitterness, pain, and resentment failing to forgive produces, then you need to recognize that forgiveness isn’t trivial.
In the two previous articles (Forgiveness: Confronting My Bitterness, Resentment & Anger and The High-Stakes Gamble of Withholding Forgiveness), we looked at the destructive nature of withholding forgiveness and Jesus’ warnings about not forgiving others. Christians must forgive people who have wronged us. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It certainly isn’t fun. But it is necessary. In this article, we explore the process of how we actually go about it.
Paul instructs the church in Ephesus, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Notice the emphasis of “as God in Christ forgave you.” This short statement is the key for how we forgive others. The forgiveness we offer to those who’ve hurt us begins vertically with how God has forgiven us. This is how Christians can forgive others differently than the world.
The world’s approach to forgiveness either begins with 1. the one in need of forgiveness or 2. the one offering the forgiveness. If the starting point is the one in need of forgiveness, then the ability to forgive depends on that person’s worthiness or remorsefulness. Are they sorry for what they’ve done? Have they changed or promised to do better? Are they a good person who is generally likable? This starting point is insufficient for the Christian because there are many people who are not remorseful, likable, or worthy of forgiveness. Yet Jesus still commands us to forgive. So, the impetus for forgiving cannot rest with the one who needs forgiveness.
Likewise, the starting point cannot be ourselves either. Our willingness to forgive cannot be because we are nice people who don’t hold grudges or because we didn’t deem the transgression as “that bad.” Making ourselves the starting point can lead us to exalt ourselves into the position of God to determine someone’s worthiness or unworthiness to be forgiven. It also positions us to be glorified as merciful and gracious people, or as judge to say someone must pay for their sins and bear our wrath. This is not the position the Christian is called to be in.
God’s Word says we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. This means the starting point in forgiving others begins with our own relationship with God and our own forgiveness. At a fundamental level, it means we must be Christians who have been forgiven before we can even dream of forgiving others as Christ commands. If we have been forgiven of our own sins, then we are in position to forgive others. Forgiveness begins vertically before it can go horizontally.
Why is this the pathway for forgiveness?
Because if we can be forgiven for sins against God, who is infinitely holy, righteous, and just, then we should forgive others who have sinned against us, who are infinitely less than God. We do not hold a candle to His greatness and glory. So, if God is able to forgive others when He does not owe it to them, what excuse do we have in not forgiving people who have sinned against us to an infinitely lesser degree? This is the whole point of the Matthew 18 parable we discussed in the last article. If the king can forgive the servant a greater debt than the debt owed to the servant by another, then that servant should forgive others their debts as the king forgave his. This is the parable Jesus uses to teach us about forgiveness.
We begin with the theological foundation that God commands us to forgive. Then we add another layer and remember that God forgave us when we sinned against Him more than anyone has ever sinned against us. In other words, we have no grounds for withholding forgiveness.
God has forgiven undeserving sinners. He doesn’t forgive those who have less sin than others. Nobody earns forgiveness. And His forgiveness is thorough. He cancels all of our sins, not just a few. He removes them as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). They are not thrown into our face the next day, or when we struggle. They are gone. This is how we must learn to forgive as well. We don’t wait for people to earn it; in fact, the people we forgive will not deserve it. And we forgive it all, nothing withheld. Why? Because we forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
This raises some important questions that coming articles will address. What about the really awful things people have done that seem unforgivable? Does this mean we have to be friends with people after they’ve done terrible things to us?What if we continue to struggle with what they’ve done? I’ll address these questions in the coming weeks. The challenge I want readers to embrace from this article is that forgiveness begins with God. The true starting point in forgiving others is how much we’ve been forgiven. We don’t focus in on how badly we’ve been sinned against and how much forgiveness will cost us. We look at how much we’ve sinned against God, and how much forgiveness cost Him. It’s only as we stare at that reality that our hearts will be in position to forgive others.
The Scottish pastor, Robert Murray McCheyne is famous for saying, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” His point is that we shouldn’t look to our sin or our righteousness to have the last word. Look to Jesus. I agree with him. But I want to use his formulation a little differently for our subject and say it like this, “For every look at your offenders’ sin against you, take ten looks at your sins against God.” Only as we do this and consider the amazing grace we receive through Christ for those sins, can we look to those who have sinned against us with eyes of grace intent on forgiving.
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.