[After a long hiatus due to significant life events, we are finally back to unpacking the beautiful example of prayer given by Jesus. Thanks for your patience!]
Forgiveness is a topic that can strike a raw nerve in many hearts. Several years ago I co-authored a chapter in a book on dealing with sexual abuse. Our chapter was about forgiveness, and we wrestled with the practicality and theology of asking someone to forgive after being deeply wounded on physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual levels. It may seem even more unreasonable when the perpetrator had never repented or asked for forgiveness.
At other times the need for forgiveness is much more subtle and easier to ignore. Little things annoy us and we hold on to them. Sharp words dig deep, yet get brushed off or buried. Does forgiveness matter there?
Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer
Jesus followed His prayer of faith for God’s provision with a confession, a request for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12):
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Two verses later (Matthew 6: 14-15), Jesus further unpacks the importance of forgiveness with words that may sound harsh:
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Is Jesus adding an ultimatum to the “gift” of forgiveness? It seems discussing forgiveness should be a place for healing, rather than condemnation. How does that fit with the picture of unconditional, Fatherly love?
The Arsenal of Unforgiveness
In reality, the lack of forgiveness on our part means harboring bitterness, which is both sin and bondage. Ever had an argument where you used past mistakes against someone? (Or had them used against you?)
“You never clean up!”
“That’s what you said last time!”
“You always pretend to be sorry!”
“Don’t think I’ll forget how much you hurt me!”
Purposefully withholding forgiveness of a debt or wrongdoing, suggests harboring what can be used as arsenal against someone by adding shame and guilt from previous mistakes. Imagine if God used our past wrongs against us, reminding us of the last time we repented for angry words, jealousy, degrading thoughts, or any plethora of selfish actions that we commit! What shame would follow!
“But God say’s He’ll hold it against us!”
We might ask, if God withholds forgiveness from me until I am broken and repentant, why should I forgive the person who hurt me before he/she asks for forgiveness?
Obviously, the fact that God is holy and we are not puts us in a very different position. But I think what is most important piece here is the reason why God seems to withhold forgiveness. The statement is not a threat as much as it is a promise. God wants to forgive us, but we can only receive that forgiveness when they are softened and repentant.
As long we hold on to the wrongs of another as arsenal, so we can return injury for injury, we are in the sin of bitterness, not repentance. It is God’s desire to bring healing, fullness, and forgiveness into every part of our lives, but He does not force it to be accepted.
Asking for forgiveness requires confessing sin, including hate and bitterness. God does not expect anyone to never fall into sin again, including the sin of “unforgiveness,” but wants to give freedom—more each time the burden is surrendered to Him. For us to receive that freedom, we must relinquish the condemnation we hold onto for use against the one who hurt us.
What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t
Some people say “Forgiven and forget,” but that is really not what forgiveness is about. There is more than one form of forgiveness. Steve Tracy identified three:
- Judicial: Here the forgiveness is given by a judge, which could be crimes in the legal system, or ultimately the Judge of all people, all sins.
- Relational: This is reconciliation, requiring both parties to participate, including repentance from the wrong-doer and restoration of the relationship.
- Psychological: This forgiveness takes place inside the mind and heart of the one who was hurt. It is not a simple statement, but a process of healing.
Those abused or deeply wounded may have layers of hurt and unforgiveness in need of healing. Even those who have made the decision to forgive may find emotional reactions of anger, fear, even disgust emerge at times. These should not be a place for guilt, but a chance to give the hurt back to God again. It is a place for that same prayer, asking for forgiveness and declaring the freedom found in forgiving others.
While you do so, remember Christ on the cross, in the midst of His pain, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then picture yourself nailing your own sins, your own anger and bitterness, and your own pain to the cross.
There we can find freedom from our own sins and healing from the sins of others.
How about your? Have you found forgiveness or lack thereof affecting your life? Feel free to share comments below!