Forgiveness exists as an essential and inescapable aspect of Christian life. Jesus Himself gave us the supreme example of forgiveness in the face of the most ignoble cruelty inflicted upon Him on the cross: “ ‘Father, forgive them,’ ” He prayed, “ ‘for they do not know what they do’ ” (Luke 23:34).1 The Scriptures challenge us to follow His example: “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Col. 3:13).
Indeed, Jesus placed forgiveness as central to the Christian way of life and put it in the center of the prayer that He taught His disciples to pray—a prayer that Christians have prayed for two millennia. That prayer links God’s forgiveness of our sins to our willingness to forgive others (Matt. 6:12), a crucial thought elaborated a little later: “ ‘And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’ ” (Mark 11:25, 26).
Called to forgive
Consider what Jesus taught us to pray, “ ‘And forgive us our debts, / As we forgive our debtors’ ” (Matt. 6:12). Consider also Christ’s parable in Matthew 18:23–35, where an unpayable debt is freely forgiven by the one to whom the debt is owed. The parable then likens the wrongs others have done to us as a small debt, which we should likewise forgive, pointing out that we ourselves have been forgiven a large debt. The failure to adopt forgiveness as an essential lifestyle brings forth its utter dilemma: we stand unforgiven before God and humans. The king in the parable retracted the forgiveness when the forgiven refused to forgive in turn. Jesus concludes, “ ‘So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses’ ” (v. 35).
In the parable, Matthew defines forgiveness as canceling the offender’s “debt” toward us. Not only do we cancel any indebtedness or obligation toward us, we also renounce any claim or liability against the forgiven person. Viewed thus, forgiveness becomes intensely personal, and relates more to the forgiver than to the forgiven. Forgiveness is no mere form but must spring from the heart. Even if one cannot forget the incident in an absolute sense, no room for any grudge or resentment should live in the forgiving person’s mind. Such an experience may be very difficult in human terms, indeed impossible for human strength; it calls upon us to claim that great promise, “ ‘with God all things are possible’ ” (Matt. 19:26).
One of the great tragedies of recent history comes out of the civil war and the resultant genocide in Rwanda. I had served in that country as a missionary nurse and health educator. When I left the country in 1989, it was not easy to leave so many friends behind—students, colleagues, church members. When the civil unrest broke out in 1994, I heard of the wrenching stories of what happened to so many of my friends. Maimed, slaughtered! Entire communities left homeless, hopeless, on the run. Even church compounds and mission centers became bloodletting centers. My best friend was killed horribly, and soon I learned that among my friends were both victims and hatchet bearers. I found it hard to believe and even harder to forgive. As the stories of atrocities flooded in, even though I was sitting in the comfort of distance of time and space, anger boiled within me. Three years and more elapsed before I could, by God’s grace, lay aside my anger, my desire to see the perpetrators punished, and my bitterness at the foot of the cross, and acknowledge that this was no longer my burden but Christ’s. He must have suffered infinitely more sorrow than I did, since He loved every one of them infinitely more than I ever could.
In the midst of all this pain, agony, and shame, I heard of one Rwandan woman, a faithful Christian, who watched in horror as a neighbor, considered a friend, hacked her husband to death. With blood on his hands, the murderer, with some two million others, fled to neighboring Zaire. Two years later, when civil war broke out in Zaire, he returned to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Starved and in rags, he sought survival in anonymity. One day, in the marketplace, he came face-to-face with the woman whose husband he brutally murdered. They recognized each other instantly. It is hard to say who was more shocked. He froze in terror for all she had to do was to cry out, denounce him, and he would be arrested at best; at worst, he might have been lynched on the spot. Even if arrested, her testimony would be enough to have him condemned forever. Instead, she invited him to her home. Fearing reprisals, but not having any other alternative, he followed her to her home. She made him sit. He thought to flee, but she brought him food and water. While he was eating, she brought him some of her late husband’s clothes. And she told him, “I want you to know that I forgive you for your sin against me. I can do this only because I love Jesus, who has forgiven me. Through His grace, I can follow His example. You may go in peace.”
I do not know if the man repented of his deeds and sought salvation in Christ. That is between him and God. But this simple woman taught me that forgiveness is not easy, but with God, forgiveness becomes possible.
Forgiveness and repentance
Who benefits from forgiveness? And why is this so important for the Christian? In any forgiveness situation, there are four possibilities:
1. The sinner repents, the victim forgives.
2. The sinner does not repent, but the victim forgives.
3. The sinner repents, but the victim does not forgive.
4. The sinner does not repent, and the victim does not forgive.
What happens in each of the cases?
1. The sinner repents, the victim forgives. This is the best case scenario. Both sinner and victim are at peace with each other and with God. The sinner has made their peace with God, and so far as possible, with the victim. The victim has allowed the love of God to heal their heart and to let go of the anger, hurt, sorrow, resentment, and bitterness—to turn it over to God and allow Him to deal with it. From being enemies, the two can move forward to becoming brothers/sisters in Christ.
2. The sinner does not repent, but the victim forgives. The sinner remains in sin, but the victim has made their peace with God. Note that the victim does not need to wait until the sinner repents before forgiving them. It is vital for Christians to forgive for their own spiritual health. This was the case with Jesus and those who crucified Him. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Thus, Jesus showed that to forgive remains our duty regardless of whether the other party accepts this offered forgiveness or not. Indeed, many of those involved in the crucifixion of Jesus did not repent or accept the forgiveness Jesus offered them, but chose to remain in their sins.
3. The sinner repents, but the victim does not forgive. The sinner remains at peace with God, and eternally speaking, may be forgiven. However, this does not mean all consequences are erased. But the person who has forgiven may trust God to deal with them. Sadly, the victim remains a victim: unable to surrender the pain and anger to the loving Jesus, unable to allow the barrier between them and God to be broken down.
Maria2 fell in love with Carl. Her friends all warned her that Carl was a womanizer, that he had broken other hearts; her answer to all this was that her love would last and this love would make all the difference to Carl. She became pregnant, and a rushed wedding followed. Six months later, Carlotta was born. Less than a year later, Carl abandoned them both, going off with another woman. Maria was heartbroken, and as months passed with not a word from Carl, not even to Carlotta, her pain and anger hardened into bitterness. Divorce followed, and over the years, she became armored against kindness and pity. A deep hatred of Carl became a part of her life. Years later, something changed in Carl’s life. He came to know Jesus as his Savior, and he accepted divine forgiveness for his sins. He could not undo the consequences, but he tried his best to make right what he could. He could not return to Maria, for he had remarried and had two more children. But he offered regular maintenance income—only to have it rejected. Maria’s response was, “You weren’t around when I needed you, and now I want nothing to do with you.” A common scenario, but a tragic one. Carl is in the Lord—and Maria is not, for she cannot let go and turn the pain and anger over to God.
4. The sinner does not repent, and the victim does not forgive. This is the worst case scenario, and sadly, the most common one. No repentance from the one and no forgiveness from the other can be identified as the root of all feuds, disputes, fights, wars, massacres, and other atrocities. Neither person will allow Christ into their hearts, and both risk eternal loss. The tragedy needlessly continues, often from generation to generation.
How often should we forgive? The Pharisees taught that one was obliged to forgive three times; after that, if the offender persisted in offending, one was freed of any obligation to forgive. So Peter thought he was being very magnanimous when he asked Jesus, “ ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ ” (Matt.18:21).
Christ’s response must have stunned Peter: “ ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’ ” (v. 22).
I remember, as a child, I once recounted to my mother my newly acquired mathematical ability and proudly announced that I should forgive my pesky little brother 490 times, and after that I could get even with him. My mother said just four words: “Wouldn’t you lose count?”
Indeed, this describes the essence of Christ’s reply: there can be no end to our Christian duty to forgive. In fact, if we try to keep a record of the times we have forgiven, we have not forgiven at all. When we continually keep a record of forgiving, we continually keep a record of the wrongs as well. This is contrary to the entire biblical concept of forgiveness: to let go, and to leave it in God’s hands.
Forgiveness, a blessing for our own benefit
Thus, for our own blessing and salvation, we are called to forgive. We must let go—let go of anger, resentment, hurt, hatred, bitterness, desire for revenge, and getting even. Instead, we must move on with God. Sin, as a two-edged sword, damages the victim and also damages the sinner. Likewise with forgiveness: refusal to forgive damages the victim as they cling to their pain, anger, and hurt, and fail to move on with a life of peace that comes from the experience of having forgiven, for a refusal to accept forgiveness leaves one in sin. Spiritually, the only real healing for a victim is to forgive.
A traveler forded a river. When he emerged on the other side, he found his body covered with small bloodsucking leeches. His first impulse was to pull them off, but his guide said, “No, don’t! Part of the leech in your body will remain and thus cause infection and swelling. Wait till we arrive at our lodging. There I will show you a better method.” On arrival, he prepared a warm bath for the traveler and added to the water certain herbs. As the traveler immersed himself in it, the leeches dropped off one by one. Unforgiven injuries are like leeches, draining our spiritual and emotional life. Keeping them drains our vitality. Our own efforts to remove them cause festering and emotional poison. Only bathing in Christ’s love can cause these injuries to drop away—and only thus can we truly forgive.
Forgiving, a condition of forgiveness
“‘Whenever you stand praying,’ ” said Jesus, “ ‘if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’ ” (Mark 11:25, 26). What does this mean? Simply this: when our hearts are filled with negative attitudes because of our anger, bitterness, resentment, or hatred of another, we are in no state to repent of our own sins and receive God’s forgiveness. We are unable to accept the Father’s love, for we refuse to allow Him to soften our hearts to receive His love. But when, through Christ’s own love, we turn it all over to the Lord, we choose to let go, to resign any interest in vengeance, any right or claim we may have on the one sinning against us. Thus we open the way for His love and peace to fill our hearts.
1 All Scripture passages in this article are from the New King
2 Fictitious names are used throughout.