The Character of Forgiveness

Scripture is filled with accounts of believers who have done remarkable things. Noah built an ark, preserving life on earth. Moses confronted Pharaoh and led the children of Israel out of Egypt. David slew the Philistine giant Goliath, delivering Israel from certain slavery. Elijah called down fire from heaven, demonstrating the power and majesty of the true God, and exposing the prophets of Baal to be frauds. All of these individuals, along with numerous others, are commended in the book of Hebrews for their faith.

Their faith, however, is not the most remarkable thing about them. What is noteworthy is that God chose to use them at all. Noah got drunk, Moses had a problem with anger, David committed too many sins to list in his notorious affair with Bathsheba, and Elijah wallowed shamelessly in self-pity shortly after winning the battle with the prophets of Baal. Yet God used these dishonorable men – because they were forgiven.

William Arthur Ward, in his book, Thoughts of a Christian Optimist, wrote: “We are most like beasts when we kill. We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive.” It was Alexander Pope who said “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” Indeed, forgiveness, like love, is a cornerstone of God’s character, a trait that we, as believers, are commanded to emulate.

Forgiveness is a conscious choice made by an individual who has been wronged, hurt or offended, to release the anger, resentment and bitterness that they feel toward the one who caused their pain. It does not (and cannot) remove the responsibility for, eliminate the consequences of, or reverse the pain that was caused by the offense, nor can it guarantee the restoration of broken relationships, although that should always be the goal.

Forgiveness is rooted in God’s love

“Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” Numbers 14:19

That prayer was offered by Moses, the man God had chosen to lead the children of Israel from Egypt into the Promised Land. But the Israelites were not exactly model followers. They repeatedly exasperated Moses and provoked God. So severe were their offenses that the Lord was ready to annihilate them and begin again with an entirely new nation (Num. 14:12). When Moses begged the Lord to pardon them, he did so by appealing to His “mercy,” (or loving-kindness) noting that God had forgiven them many times already, and in verse 20 the Lord said, “I have pardoned according to thy word.”

You will notice that there were no conditions attached to the promise of forgiveness. The Lord did not demand that they repent, nor did he insist upon a waiting period to determine if their contrition was sincere. Moses didn’t even offer a sacrifice on their behalf. God, because it is His nature to love and forgive His creation, simply forgave His people. God’s forgiveness always takes on the characteristics of His love. As such it is: undeserved, unconditional, and unlimited.

When Jesus was dying on the cross, He offered a prayer on behalf of those who were crucifying Him, asking His Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The second part of that verse says “and they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” In essence, they ignored what He said.  No one would insist that those men had received forgiveness, even though it had been given. It may seem like a very fine distinction, but scripture clearly indicates that God’s forgiveness is offered without conditions, while gaining forgiveness requires repentance and faith. To state it simply: God’s forgiveness is motivated by His character and has already been provided for every man. The question is, and always has been: “Who is willing to receive it?”

Forgiveness is secured by God’s sacrifice

“And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.” Hebrews 9:22

Though we paid nothing for our forgiveness it was far from free. In fact, without the sacrifice of our Redeemer, forgiveness wouldn’t exist and we would all be doomed. Our Savior sacrificed his purity to take upon Himself our sins, He sacrificed His power to set us free, and He gave his life to purchase our salvation. Sacrifice is always a necessary component of the process of forgiveness. God sacrificed the most valuable possession He had – His only begotten Son. We live because He died!

Our forgiveness must be accompanied by sacrifice as well. We must yield our pride, our desire for vengeance, and our need to approve what constitutes justice for our offender. Otherwise, our forgiveness is not complete.

Forgiveness is measured by God’s grace

“In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace;” Ephesians 1:7

How rich is God’s grace? Many believers fail to understand the magnitude of God’s forgiveness because they don’t fully comprehend His grace. Two things are essential to that understanding – realizing the bitterness of God’s hatred for sin and grasping the depth of His love for fallen man.

Romans 1:18 tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” The word translated “wrath” has a connotation of “punitive justice.” Because God is both righteous and just He must judge sin – there is no alternative. God’s hatred for sin is driven by His righteous character.

There is, however, another issue; sin also established a barrier between God and the man He created for fellowship. The path of communication was interrupted, and the man God loved had become lost to Him. Because of His love for man, God’s eternal desire has always been to restore him to a place of fellowship. Man’s sin, however, stood squarely in the way.

The richness of God’s grace was demonstrated by God’s willingness to provide a sacrifice, making forgiveness available. The death of Christ on the cross made it possible for man to regain the righteousness necessary to satisfy God’s holiness. God’s willingness to sacrifice His only son was driven by His love for man.

How rich is God’s grace? It is rich enough for God to sacrifice His only son to pay for the sin He so bitterly hates to provide redemption for the fallen man He so deeply loves.

Forgiveness is demonstrated by God’s children

“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:32

It is astounding to learn how many believers actually think that they are somehow exempt from the biblical obligation to forgive others. They justify their position by citing the magnitude of their suffering, suggesting that some things are just “too painful” to forgive. “Besides, are there not some who simply do not ‘deserve’ forgiveness?” For these believers, forgiveness is impossible because they are driven by a longing for revenge, which they often insist is simply a desire for justice. If they do find it in their hearts to forgive it usually includes a condition – “I’ll forgive you if…,” or a caveat – “I’ll forgive you, but I will never forget.”

No one has ever suggested that forgiveness is easy. It requires surrendering our rights, acknowledging that life isn’t always fair, and agreeing to let those who are genuinely guilty go free. As a consequence, innocent people suffer. It is the essence of injustice, exactly the opposite of what our flesh desires. Yet that is precisely how God has forgiven us.

Each of the questions below represent a specific challenge that must be overcome if a believer intends to obey the biblical command to forgive one another, “even as God for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven” them.

1.   Must I (how can I) forgive someone who is unwilling to repent?

Granting forgiveness and receiving forgiveness are two separate issues. Forgiveness can be granted without the guilty party receiving it. The opposite scenario (receiving forgiveness without it being granted), however, is not possible. There are two additional questions that will help to clarify the issue:

  • Can I forgive an individual who refuses to repent? (Granting forgiveness) — Yes, because forgiveness, like love, is granted without conditions. Genuine forgiveness is offered solely at the discretion of the offended party, requiring nothing from the offender.
  • Can an individual who refuses to repent be forgiven? (Receiving forgiveness) — No. Receiving forgiveness requires repentance, and faith (Luke 3:5).

2.   Must I forget what the offender has done?

In most cases, forgetting is impossible. The Bible does not say that God has “forgotten” our sins. It does say that He will “remember them no more” (Hebrews 10:17). We must choose to “forsake the memory” of those offenses that were committed against us. As long as we are keeping records, our forgiveness is incomplete.

3.   Must I surrender my right to be avenged?

There is no “right to vengeance” to surrender. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”  (Romans 12:19). This has nothing to do with our legal system, nor does it affect God’s principle of “sowing and reaping.” It is simply not our place to determine the severity of judgment or carry out its sentence on those who have hurt us.

4.   Must I reconcile with my offender?

Reconciliation is not an essential part of forgiveness. It is an additional step that often occurs as a result of the healing process. While the ultimate goal of forgiveness is always reconciliation, there are certain times when it cannot, and should not happen.

  • We cannot reconcile with someone who is not available. There are occasions where the person we need to forgive is either dead, or impossible to contact.
  • We cannot reconcile with someone who is unwilling to repent. They may be sincerely unaware of their offense, or convinced that they have done nothing wrong. In some circumstances an offense may be so insignificant that it is unnecessary to confront the offender, especially if we know that their offense was unintentional.
  • There are also times when it is unwise or impractical to reconcile, in spite of the fact that repentance may have occurred. In some cases, damage or pain from the offense is so severe that reconciliation is impossible, even when forgiveness has been sought, and granted. The existence of new marriages that occurred after a relationship was destroyed through immorality is a good example of such a situation. Forgiveness should be given and received, but attempting to reconcile would usually be unwise.

 5.   Must I seek my offender’s good?

Jesus addressed this concern with explicit clarity in Matthew 5. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). We are to “love,” “bless,” “do good to,” and “pray for” those who are seeking to do us harm.

The consequences of unforgiveness

Someone once said: “Seeking vengeance is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” When we choose (that is what we are doing) not to forgive we are sentencing ourselves to a slow, ugly death. Ephesians 4:31 identifies 6 spiteful character traits: bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking, and malice, that are indicative of an unforgiving heart.

We all know people who are like that and we would emphatically agree that they are no fun to be around. They usually don’t even like themselves. Obsessive in their pursuit of revenge, their lives are one dimensional, and every circumstance is viewed through the filter of their ruthless mission. The sad truth is that achieving their goal will not bring satisfaction or relief. The pain and damage will remain, as will the ugly attitude. The only thing that can provide the freedom they are seeking is a willingness to forgive their offender.

The other, more significant consequence of choosing not to forgive is the loss of the blessing and guidance of the Spirit of God. Ephesians 4:30 says that the Holy Spirit is grieved when forgiveness is rejected. Matthew 6:14-15 says that an individual with an unforgiving spirit will not receive forgiveness from his Heavenly Father. Unforgiveness damages our relationship with God.

The stipulation of scripture is that we are to forgive “even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven” us. That includes rooting our forgiveness in love, securing our forgiveness by personal sacrifice, and offering that forgiveness with the same measure of grace that we have received from our God. Though not easy, it is commanded, and those who obey are rewarded with a sense of peace, a spirit of freedom, and an enduement of power that allows them to do remarkable things in their service for the Lord.

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