“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Matthew 6:15 (NIV)
The verse preceding this rather frightening pronouncement from Jesus is, conversely, wonderfully liberating to hear: “…if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.”. We must not, however, stop our reading there, for Jesus is very clear that such forgiveness from Almighty God is contingent on our choice to forgive others; not if they sin against us, but when they do, for this situation will occur without fail in this broken, fallen world we live in.
Forgiveness is not saying that what happened to us through the sin of another person is okay or “no big deal”, for if that were true, there would simply be nothing to forgive. It is also not “stuffing” our reactions of disappointment at the other person’s failure, or our anger at the injustice of their actions. The command to forgive is not “just get over it”.
But we must nonetheless be willing to meet the offender on the level ground that lies before the Cross of Jesus Christ, that place where all sin (including our own) was dealt with once and for all. We must remember that we also are recipients of His gratuitous mercy. We have not been dealt with as we deserve (Psalm 103:10, Titus 3:5). Jesus gave the parable of “the unmerciful servant” to drive home this very point (see Matthew 18:23-35).
So what does it mean to forgive? It means to step out of the place of holding on to some imaginary “right” to hurt back someone who has hurt me. It means to choose, by an act of my will, to “cancel the debt”, for that’s what I feel when I have been hurt: “you owe me” (an apology, or at least an understanding of how badly you’ve hurt me).
We must not claim for ourselves the right to be judge and jury (and, often, executioner) of another. That place rightfully belongs only to God Himself (Romans 12:19), who alone can judge rightly. And His judgement of sin looks very much like merciful love poured out on Calvary (see James 2:13).
So what is required of us? Hearts that are willing to be softened – not hardened – toward those who have hurt us (Colossians 3:12-14). A readiness to try to repair broken relationships as best we can instead of quickly cutting someone out of our lives, mistakenly thinking that that maneuver will protect us from hurt (Romans 12:18). And obedience to Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:45); that was precisely what our Savior did when He spoke from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24).
Also, we must stop ourselves from nurturing resentment. We must stop rehearsing over and over in our minds the offense that has occurred, cementing it more firmly in our hearts. We often do this in a vain attempt to gain control over something which has already happened and which we are actually helpless to change. Our only real choice is what we will do with us.
So what should I do if I am aware that, despite my efforts to get rid of deep unforgiveness in my heart, it’s still lingering there, repeating itself over and over in my memory?
Well, if you discovered some horrible pollutant in the basement of your house – deadly mold or asbestos – you’d certainly not try to clean it up yourself. You’d call in an expert and let him deal with it, right? Well, Jesus is that very Expert; He is the best at rooting out the hidden poison of unforgiveness and remediating it. His light and truth will expose the deadly problem and offer His solution. Just keep calling on Him in prayer; He will hear and He will surely answer the humble, sincere cry of your helpless heart.