Well, you’re not alone! Most of us can think of one or more scarring life episodes that have grown into a Mount Everest of ongoing, nurtured resentment. It feels like forgiving that certain someone would be a denial of the hurt they’ve caused, an excusing of their sin.
Recognizing the near-impossibility of human forgiving, why does Jesus tell stories which demand it of us? In the Matthew 18 parable of the unmerciful servant, he warns that unless we forgive others, our heavenly Father won’t be able to forgive us. The Lord’s Prayer is explicit in having us ask God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matt. 6:12).
The biblical reality is that there are two kinds of forgiveness: cosmic (divine) and human. When Jesus forgives – and he repeatedly did so here on earth (Mark 2), to the consternation of his enemies – something happened in the heavenly courts. People were forgiven by God; their trespasses were wiped away in the judgment book of eternal destinies. Because of Calvary, Jesus was empowered to say to any man, any woman, any child: “I forgive you.” As the sacrificial Lamb, he had authority to say to people he didn’t even know and who hadn’t personally injured him – except as the wounded Son of God – that he had forgiven all of their sins.
Obviously we have no standing to do that! None of us could forgive the sins of strangers, or even friends on a “third party” basis. What business is it of ours? And yet there is a sense where God calls on us to forgive – forgiveness with a lower-case “f” – other people for the offenses they commit against us. What does this mean?
The reassuring news is that when we forgive others, it does not negate or turn a blind eye to the hard reality of what they did. Our forgiveness does not say:
“It didn’t happen.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll overlook it.”
“It’s not important.”
When a police officer pulls you over, and then mercifully decides to forgive you and not write a citation, does that mean you didn’t speed? No! The forgiveness says the opposite! You did speed . . . and the forgiveness is granted as an acknowledgment that you had done something wrong. When President Nixon was granted that controversial pardon in September of 1974 for his Watergate trespasses, accepting the Ford pardon was a tacit admission of guilt. And of course, the cross of Jesus is a stark statement to a watching universe about the awful seriousness and reality of sin. Forgiveness shines a spotlight on the fact of sin, not the denial of it.
When we as frail humans forgive, we are essentially doing one thing: releasing that person and that hurt into the mighty hands of Jesus. When we let loose of our anger and forgive an adversary, we are but acknowledging: “This is too much for me. This vengeance will destroy me if I cling to it. I surrender this pain and this memory and this miscreant to the will of God. Father, Jesus, do what you want to do. Please carry this cross for me.”
In the recent Christian bestseller, The Shack, a grieving father, Mack, is being swallowed up with rage over the killer who abducted, tortured, and murdered his daughter Missy. It is a horrible crime; the family is dysfunctional and slowly being destroyed. But in a weekend of slow healing, he comes to realize that he can simply give his grief and his anger to a loving Savior. Jesus is able to take this weight from him – and either redeem or punish the killer as he sees fit.
So to forgive another human is basically an exercise in trusting God. In Luke 17, Jesus tells his flabbergasted disciples that if someone commits a sin against them seven times in one day – the same sin seven times in one day – they should forgive him. Immediately the disciples chime in: “Lord, increase our faith!” Why? Again, because to forgive someone seven times is simply to trust God enough to let him handle the matter in his own perfect way.
With regard to the heavenly rule regarding “forgive . . . or you won’t get forgiven” (Matt. 6:14), this is not a petty requirement on God’s part, or a “tit for tat” type of theology. It is simply to recognize that we receive forgiveness by wading into the mighty ocean of God’s grace. It’s impossible to be in that ocean yourself unless you’re willing for others to be there too.