Forgiveness is a major biblical theme of course.
Today we’re talking about people forgiving other people.
What is our responsibility?
Are we expected to automatically forgive everyone who wrongs us?
Or are we only expected to forgive those who ask for forgiveness?
It’s a big discussion and people often have strong feelings about it.
This post will certainly not be exhaustive, in terms of all the practical outworking in our lives or every thing the Bible has to say about it.
I’m going to focus on Jesus’ teaching – although not surprisingly I find the rest of the New Testament to be well aligned.
There are teachings of Jesus that indicate the willingness and readiness we ought to have to forgive others – perhaps independently of the other persons’s attitude about it?
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25
Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
“Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Luke 11:4 (See Matthew 6:12)
Often when I hear someone asked what it means to forgive someone else, people say they are letting go of their desire for vengeance against against the person or bitterness in their own hearts.
We realize that unforgiveness often takes a bigger personal toll on the one who was wronged than the one who caused the hurt.
I think it has value for us to think about forgiveness as a choice that we can make.
We can choose to let go of those things. We can desire to forgive.
We can say that we forgive others independently of what they do or don’t do.
But I don’t think this does full justice to two of Jesus’ clear teachings in the gospels. Both involve specific instruction on dealing with people who have wronged you.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Luke 17:3-4
One thing to take note of here is the ‘IF.’ If they repent, forgive them. No matter how many times. But unless my reasoning is off, since Jesus says ‘if they repent, forgive them,’ I assume that means if they refuse to repent, we are not obligated to forgive. Maybe we shouldn’t forgive?
Interesting to think about, huh?
Matthew’s gospel gives more specific instructions.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17
What I surmise from this passage is that it’s the responsibility of the person who has sinned to own up to their sin. If they don’t (repent) to just you, you bring in a couple others and then the whole church if needed.
And if that person refuses to listen…treat them as if they aren’t a believer.
But nowhere in these two teachings does Jesus say that we should automatically forgive without the need for a reconciliation between the two parties involved.
These two passages feel very conditional to me. Unless I’m missing something.
There are so many other fascinating aspects here that we might not expect. Like the idea that it’s a responsibility of the person who’s been wronged to point out the sin to the other person. Perhaps especially if that person is unaware of it?
Often we’ll say or think things like, “I’m here. If he wants to come and ask for forgiveness, he knows where to find me.”
Nope. That’s not the way Jesus instructs.
That’s really tough stuff, isn’t it?
Here’s my idea of how this fits together. Try it out and see what you think. I’ve shared it with others in the past and it’s often been met with resistance, but it still feels so ‘biblical’ to me that I can’t seem to let it go.
The first thing that’s crystal clear throughout the New Testament is that the forgiveness that we’ve experienced from God is connected to the forgiveness that we’re to offer to others. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant drives this home in a profound way as does the line in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and the teaching that follows.
On the attitude of desiring to forgive: Like God desires to forgive all of us who have sinned against him, we should desire to forgive everyone who’s sinned against us.
Next, because God (the one who has been sinned against) wonderfully pursues reconciliation with us (the sinners), we, as followers of God, should pursue reconciliation with others as well.
Who actually experiences the forgiveness of God and reconciliation to relationship with him?
Those of us who confess and repent of our sin – and trust in Christ as savior and lord.
Since these teachings of Jesus were written to communities of believers, I think it’s expected that each person will already know what it’s like to have acknowledged their sins and ask for forgiveness. That isn’t a one time thing, but a way of life, both in our relationship with God and with one another.
What do you think about these scriptures?
Is there another way you think about the dynamics of forgiveness?
Footnote: I’d think differently in applying the recommend actions in these ‘reconciliation’ passages to someone who is or has been a victim of abuse. In the first place, abuse – physical, sexual or otherwise is so overtly sinful that it wouldn’t make much sense to ‘point out their fault’ above. Additionally it would be unsafe to do so – quite possibly putting you in physical danger. If you think you might be in an abusive situation, please put your safety first and seek help and support. You can wrestle with these ideas of forgiveness later – from a safe place.