Can We Talk About Forgiveness For A Minute?

Can We Talk About Forgiveness For A Minute?

From the Botham Jean trial to the racial uprisings of 2020. From the Trump presidency to the fallout of COVID-19 — forgiveness is a topic of fierce and consistent debate these days.

So how does God feel about forgiveness and what does He have to say to us about it?

God’s Greatest Gift

Forgiveness is God’s greatest gift to mankind through His Son, Jesus (Colossians 1.13-14). It is the message of the cross and God’s perfect love (John 3.16).

Because all have sinned (Romans 3.24-25), forgiveness is available for everyone.

The act of forgiving itself is not just for offenders to offer or receive, but forgiving is also for the offended to release (Matthew 6.14-15). While being crucified on the cross, Jesus famously said of His persecutors, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23.34).

Jesus not only forgave His offenders, but He did so in the very moment of humanity’s worst persecution, offering us a model of what it looks like to follow Him with radical love.

What Is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness is releasing a debt, setting free, and sending away offense and hurt.

Forgiveness is the decision to release a debt [of offense and hurt] in spite of how you feel. It’s the willful releasing of the debt incurred by the other person; a decision of the will to no longer charge the bill (Tony Evans).

Until we release the debt [of offense and hurt], we are still carrying the charge and still relating to the offender based solely on what they did.

Forgiveness is ripping up the IOUs of the heart. — Dave Buehring

Forgiveness is NOT ignoring what happened or pretending like the offense didn’t hurt. Forgiving someone is NOT automatically absolving accountability or the consequences of someone’s actions (Colossians 3.25).

The act of forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation (restoring or rebuilding relations). You can forgive someone and choose not to reconcile immediately if at all.

Biblically speaking, however, God’s call for us to forgive is always expressed in the immediate sense — not in the future if and when we feel like it (Matthew 6.14-15).

Forgiving The Offender

Jesus directly instructs us that if we have anything (offense) against anyone — forgive them (Mark 11.25, Matthew 6.14-15). Forgiveness is not always easy to do, especially when pain, loss, and trauma are involved. But it is what the Lord instructs us as followers of Him to do (Colossians 3.13).

Because Jesus has already paid for and issued forgiveness to all of mankind, for all acts of sin, and throughout all of time — we have no right or God-given authority to withhold what He has already released and willed.

Yet still, for us to receive God’s forgiveness of sin, we must confess and repent (1 John 1.9) to Him.

Why Unforgiveness Is A Sin

If forgiveness is defined as releasing a debt, setting free, and sending away offense and hurt, unforgiveness by contrast is holding onto offense and hurt.

The amplified translation provides context to help clarify the consequences of doing this in Matthew 6.15, “But if you do not forgive others [nurturing your hurt and anger with the result that it interferes with your relationship with God], then your Father will not forgive your trespasses.”

God doesn’t just randomly ask us to forgive, He does so because unforgiveness results in sin. In fact, withholding forgiveness means that we will not be forgiven.

When we as the offended party are sinned against, we pick up a debt [of hurt and offense] — we’ve become offended. The word “offense” comes from the Greek word, skandalon (skan’-dal-on), and is from which we derive the word, “scandal.”

Skandalon is defined as a moveable stick or trigger of a trap, also known as a bait stick. It is an impediment (a block or obstacle) placed in the way causing one to stumble or fall [in their walk] (Matthew 16.21-23, Romans 16.17).

“In the New Testament, skandalon is often used metaphorically of things that arouse offenses, prejudice, or hindrances. These things cause an individual to be “baited” and “trapped” in their thinking.” (Dave Buehring)

When we pick up a debt of offense (take the bait), we become a carrier of offenses that ultimately leads to us “scandalizing” others through anger, bitterness, and passed-on hurt.

When we become offended, carry, and pass on offenses, we are the ones in sin — regardless of what someone did to offend us. As a carrier of offenses, we become a stumbling block to others and further Satan’s cause.

"Forgive people in your life, even those who are not sorry for their actions. Holding onto anger only hurts you, not them." A quote by Inkology Art

God implores us to forgive swiftly so that our hearts are pure before Him and we don’t become conduits of relational collateral damage.

Biblical forgiveness is given without our imposed conditions because forgiveness is for the health and purity of our own hearts before God (Matthew 5.8).

Isn’t interesting how most of the scriptures overwhelmingly address forgiveness from the first and second-person perspective rather than “what they did” or “what they deserve?” This underscores the significance that God places on how we personally respond to forgiveness.

The Dangers And Consequences Of Carrying Offense

We don’t ever have grace to carry offenses.
— Dave Buehring

Because a debt of offense is so dangerous to our walk in Christ [and those walking with us], God calls us to forgive (release the debt) and to do so regardless of whether or not the offender seeks forgiveness from us or from God.

When we choose to carry an offense (unforgiveness), knowingly or unknowingly, we will eventually hurt other people creating a never-ending cycle of hurt (2 Corinthians 2.10-11). Hence, why forgiveness is given with a sense of urgency.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to forgive with urgency. And if we’re really honest, some pains are so hurtful that we don’t want to forgive at all. Though God doesn’t authorize us to withhold forgiveness based on how we feel, He DOES understand how we feel.

God extends grace for us to forgive, and even the more when we ask for it, as we work through the mental and emotional trauma that often accompanies the process of forgiving.

In fact, we need God’s strength and heart to forgive because it's unlike our nature (Luke 11.13).

Unforgiveness in our hearts that results from an offense becomes a trap (skandalon) that hurts our own emotional health, spiritual growth, and relationship with God. To withhold forgiveness is to dwell in unforgiveness (a sin). Left unchecked, sin will corrupt our hearts.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.‭‭ – Hebrews‬ ‭12.15‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Should I Forgive Them When They Don’t Deserve It?

It’s easy to forgive someone when we feel like they deserve it, or we’re just as eager to make up with them. It’s another matter altogether when we want nothing more to do with them.

If we forgive only when someone repents to us and asks for forgiveness, we remain trapped (skandalon) under a debt and weight of offense. Our Father doesn’t want that and never intended it for our lives that are modeled after Him.

Conditional forgiveness also causes us to sin by going against God’s many commands to forgive unconditionally [regardless of circumstance or feeling].

Matthew 5.43-48 AMP: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor (fellow man) and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love [that is, unselfishly seek the best or higher good for] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may [show yourselves to] be the children of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on those who are evil and on those who are good, and makes the rain fall on the righteous [those who are morally upright] and the unrighteous [the unrepentant, those who oppose Him]. For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that? And if you greet only your brothers [wishing them God’s blessing and peace], what more [than others] are you doing? Do not even the Gentiles [who do not know the Lord] do that? You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Withholding forgiveness after God has forgiven us [repeatedly] for our sins (Romans 3.23-24) is attempting to assume a position that is higher than Him. It’s God’s right (not ours) to decide if someone “deserves” forgiveness because all sin is ultimately against Him. And He’s already ruled on His decision.

Unforgiveness is a posture of our heart that is unlike Him and operates on carnal rather than Kingdom principles.

God’s goal is to make us look more like Him. Forgiving makes us look more like Jesus. Withholding forgiveness makes us indistinguishable from the world (Matthew 5.43-48).

How Many Times Should We Forgive An Offense?

God calls us to forgive because He is forgiving (Matthew 18.21-35). We’re to model (and follow) Him — not the world.

Consistent forgiveness is not only a measure of how well we love God and love like God, but it also reminds us to be keepers of peace rather than bitterness. Freely as we’ve been forgiven, and are forgiven by God each day — freely we should forgive (Ephesians 4.31-32).

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that we ignore or stop working to correct the injustices that created the offense/sin in the first place. Forgiveness does not absolve responsibility from the social consequences of one’s actions.

Forgiveness also does not mean that we continually place ourselves in danger of harm happening again.

If They Don’t Repent, Do I Have To Forgive Them?

Luke 17.3-4 NIV: “So watch yourselves. 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.”

At first glance, this appears as an act of conditional forgiveness, that is, ‘if you repent, then I’ll forgive you.’ Or ‘I’ll forgive them if they deserve it.’

However, the verses before give us context about what Jesus is saying. In His instructions to the disciples, He is warning them about stumbling blocks (skandalon); things that will cause them to sin (Luke 17.1).

In doing so, He gives instruction on how to forgive (release the debt) but specifically forgiving in the context of maintaining the relationship (reconciliation).

Meaning, if someone offends you and repents, keep forgiving them in order to reconcile the relationship (Luke 17.4). In contrast, if they do not repent, we are not required to reconcile the relationship (Matthew 18.15-17).

In this specific scenario, Jesus is using forgiveness as a means of reconciliation [among the disciples] in addition to forgiveness as a means to keeping their hearts pure before Him.

Notice in verse 3 how Jesus instructs them, “so watch yourselves.” In other words, His command here regarding forgiveness is concerning guarding their own heart [against sin by unforgiveness].

Jesus affirms His call for us to unconditional forgiveness in Matthew 6.15 AMP, “For if you forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others [nurturing your hurt and anger with the result that it interferes with your relationship with God], then your Father will not forgive your trespasses.”

While hanging on the cross, Jesus in His humanity does not wait for the offenders to ask for forgiveness — He just forgives them and does so in the very moment of His pain and suffering (Luke 23.34).

Isn’t The Offender Responsible For Forgiveness?

Just as we are responsible for living out of forgiveness in the image of God, so does the one who offends.

When we offend and hurt someone, we are responsible for mending that and asking for their forgiveness (Matthew 5.23-24, Genesis 50.17).

As the offender, our mandate to seek the forgiveness of the one whom we’ve offended is not predicated on whether they accept our forgiveness or not. Asking for their forgiveness and making amends satisfies what God has asked of us concerning the offended.

In other words, just because the offended party wants nothing to do with us or will likely not accept our apology and plea for forgiveness, doesn’t mean that we should withhold our responsibility to seek their forgiveness. If they reject our plea for forgiveness, the offended must reconcile that with God (Romans 12.18).

Not only does the offender seek forgiveness from their fellow brother/sister, but we must also repent to God for His forgiveness (1 John 1.9). Why? Because all sin is ultimately against God. When we offend our neighbor, we are also offending their Creator in whose image they are made (Mark 12.30-31).

While every sinner (including us) must seek forgiveness, the offender carries the responsibility to reconcile their own heart before God for the sins they’ve committed against their fellow brother/sister.

But regardless of whether or not the offender seeks forgiveness or is even remorseful (or not), followers of Christ are called to forgive because He first forgave us (Ephesians 4.32).

We are not responsible for what they did, but we are always responsible for our hearts and the actions that flow from it.

Our just God is able to deal with an unremorseful and unrepentant heart more than we ever could. And it’s His job to do so (Romans 12.19).

God Forgives Every Offense And Sin

Remember that all sin is ultimately against God and He alone has the power to remove sin. Thus, we have no biblical authority or right to intentionally withhold forgiveness.

With exception only to the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12.31-32), God forgives all sin to continuously cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1.9).

God promises redemption and forgiveness to everyone who seeks Him (Ephesians 1.7, Romans 10.10).

Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation

While forgiveness has to do with carrying a debt of offense that exclusively dictates how we relate to someone (ex. I’m going to treat you like trash because you did this to me), reconciliation is the act of restoring or rebuilding relations.

Reconciliation is making the defrauded party whole again.

God wants us to practice reconciliation (Romans 12.14-16) but this is often conditional based on many factors unique to each situation. Sometimes because of the heinous or vile nature of the offense (ex. rape, murder, etc.), reconciliation is not safe and/or possible (Romans 12.18).

Responding In Forgiveness

Forgiveness isn’t always easy and doesn’t come naturally. If you or someone you know is struggling with unforgiveness, that’s a great moment to come alongside them in friendship and prayer to model God’s heart and point them to God.

While God unequivocally calls us to unconditionally forgive sins committed against us (regardless of what “they” did), like every other free will decision, He gives us the choice to or not to.

When people willingly choose unforgiveness, it can be a sign of deep pain and trauma or even emotional immaturity. It can also be a sign of a lack of understanding around God’s heart and Word toward forgiveness.

It’s important that we be an example and point them to what God says, but we should also be generous with our grace towards them and understand their feelings on the issue. We can be a support and voice of truth but it’s God who changes and heals the heart.

What We Should Remember About Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the greatest demonstration of God’s love (John 3.16).

Forgiveness is not just for the offender (Matthew 5.23-24). Withholding forgiveness entraps us, not the one that sinned against us.

Forgiveness from God is for the offender. Extending forgiveness from us is for our own heart (Matthew 5.8, 1 John 1.9).

Extending forgiveness unconditionally ensures that we also [who sin] can unconditionally receive forgiveness [from God] (Matthew 6.15). If we want our Heavenly Father to forgive us, we must ensure that we are giving to others with we need Him to give to us.

Unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die. — Marianne Williamson

While we may not have necessarily committed heinous acts of crime and offense, none of us are good and without sin (Ecclesiastes 7.20). One day we will need the forgiveness that we deny others (Matthew 18.33-35).

In the scriptures we see that forgiveness is always directed with and spoken of with immediacy (present tense); not when and if we feel like it (Matthew 6.14-15).

We begin the journey of forgiveness by inviting God into our hearts and asking Him to help us. He can do what we can’t and we need His help for what is like an impossible ask at times (John 14.14-16).

Forgiving people makes us more and more like Christ (Matthew 5.43-48).

Forgiveness helps prevent us from hurting other people (2 Corinthians 2.10-11, Hebrews 12.15).

Worldly people do not forgive and operate by their own standard of justice (Proverbs 24.29). Godly people do not repay evil for evil (personal retaliation) but leave room for the wrath of God (Romans 12.17-19). When we exercise our own judgment as the basis for responding to an offense, we dethrone God’s place.

If we seek our own revenge, we’ve canceled out room for the wrath of God. — Tony Evans

Forgiveness is radical, ridiculous, and contrary to the world’s standards. Forgiveness responds to evil with good. It’s not an attribute of the weak or vulnerable but one of the strong and rooted in Christ. Forgiving our offenders challenges the world’s system of justice and confuses them. (Romans 12.19-21)

We know that we’ve forgiven when we can bless those that persecute us, rejoice, and mourn with them (Romans 12.14-15). We’ve forgiven when the opportunity for revenge (personal retaliation) comes and we can pass, looking to God as our Avenger. Forgiveness is not overlooking what’s happened but appealing to the Higher Authority (Romans 12.19). Injustice doesn’t escape God’s purview (Isaiah 61.8).

Forgiveness is handed down by a just God. Justice and forgiveness belong to the same conversation (Micah 6.8). Forgiveness doesn’t mean standing down or moving on to bring about necessary change.

Forgiveness doesn’t absolve personal accountability or the social consequences of one’s actions (Matthew 18.15-17). Personal retaliation is not the same as pursuing legal means to resolve a conflict or achieve justice (Romans 13.1-7).

Forgiveness is not always easy or natural but is very necessary as Christ followers.

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