Few Jesus-followers would dispute the fact that we need to forgive those who offend or wrong us. However, just how and when to do this can be very problematic.
I am writing this article, not just as a pastoral teaching, but as a means of working through a practical issue that has affected me and many others. Unforgiveness destroys relationships and can cause mental and even physical health problems in the offended party, so it is something we cannot ignore or postpone for too long.
The Lord Jesus taught that we should forgive. He included it in the prayer format that he gave his disciples (Matthew 6:12-15) and ended with, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” This sentiment is repeated in Mark 11:26 and Luke 6:37.
Oh, OK, so I just need to pray, “Lord, I forgive so-and-so for this-and-that” and everything will be fine? No, that won’t do because Matthew 18 records a story Jesus told to illustrate the concept of forgiveness, which he concluded with: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (18:35). The key phrase here is ‘from your heart’, and that is where the rubber hits the road (or as we say in South Africa ‘the tackie hits the tar’). It is easy to forgive in the mind, but the ‘heart’? … not so much.
The problem is not in knowing that we need to forgive, but in knowing how and when to do this. Matthew 18:15-19 sets out the Lord’s instructions regarding sin that affect the church community or its Christian reputation. It starts with ‘If your brother sins against you…’, but the better translations all add the footnote that the words ‘against you’ are omitted from some manuscripts. This omission makes more sense of the passage because the process that Jesus sets out lands up under the purview of the local church and has a form of ex-communication as the ultimate negative outcome. It does not make a lot of sense to omit the words ‘against you’ if the ‘sin’ in question is a purely interpersonal matter. So, this passage does not give us much help when it comes to personal offence and forgiveness.
Another problematic aspect is when the persons who have ‘sinned’ against you might not be aware of the hurt they have caused.
Jesus’ instruction on this is in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him“. So, if you have reason to think that the offender does not realise that they have offended you, then bring it to their attention and perhaps they will ask for forgiveness. However, I have found from painful personal experiences that it is often very hard to accept that the person in question could be unaware of the impact of his/her words. It is seems so obvious to you that anybody could be unaware of the damage done to your self-worth or sense of identity. This then raises another obstacle to approaching the offender … rejection and counterattack from them. Sometimes you even have the evidence of experiences to lead you to conclude that your challenge, no matter how gently made, will be aggressively rejected. Of course, the only way to find out is to approach the person anyway … and this risks further pain and humiliation.
So, you see, forgiveness is not always as simple as it may seem.
A Solution to the Problem
Full forgiveness in any relational sense is impossible to grant if the one causing the offence does not ask for it. However, Mark records something Jesus said that is helpful here. He said: ”When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in Heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:35) It is hard to imagine, in this example that the man was supposed to stop praying, dash off to find the person he held a grudge against, forgive him although he may not have asked for forgiveness, and then resume praying. A more likely explanation is that Jesus requires an offended person to adopt an attitude of heart that is willing to forgive if so asked. In other words, prayerfully commit to forgiving if asked to do so.
This conforms to the pattern we have in God’s attitude towards us; we ask him to forgive us and he does so because his heart is disposed towards this. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). Luke 17:4 confirms this approach: “Even if he wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, forgive him.” NLT
There are some obvious exceptions to this principle of ‘transactional forgiveness’. For instance, the person may be dead or otherwise uncontactable, or mentally unable to process and respond. In these cases, ‘attitudinal forgiveness’ must simply have to suffice and the Holy Spirit will over time deal with any residual negative emotions.
Another aspect I have not dealt with is the idea of ‘self forgiveness’ epitomised by the phrase “I just can’t forgive myself for….”. As I see it, the simple truth is that we cannot forgive ourselves for anything, but we can confess and ask forgiveness for everything. The biblical assurance is clear that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) To continue to live in a state of self-condemnation is surely an affront to God and a lack of faith is the scriptures?
Process and Assumptions
Let me share with you two insights that I recently acquired.
The first is that forgiveness is a process. The sort of events or incidents that create serious mental anguish cause relationship failure. If we lose relationships that we have cherished then we mourn in some way. Mourning is a process that has no fixed expiry date. Often the process involves stages of denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. So, although we, and others, know that we need to confront the problem and approach the offender, it takes time to do. Our hearts need to be prepared, as does the heart of the offender. If we are open to the possibility of reconciliation then the Holy Spirit will work in all the lives concerned until the time comes when things can be positively resolved.
The second insight is that we often make assumptions about the state of the other person, which turn out to be untrue or one-sided. For instance, he/she may view the break in the relationship as our fault: we walked away, we didn’t care enough to try, and so on. This coupled with a lack of awareness of the damage they have done to you can result in them taking offence and feeling that you need to ask their forgiveness.
Forgiveness is required of us by God. It starts with an attitude of preparedness and commitment to forgive the person who has caused the offence.
However, it can only be effective in its fullness when forgiveness is sought and granted. When we release the offenders and give up the right to exact a penalty, then our conscience is clear before God and our relationship with him unsullied. When forgiveness is asked for and granted, the heart is then healed and a way open to restore the relationship.
Unforgiveness is a serious threat to our mental and spiritual health and negatively affects our relationship with Jesus and his people. Unforgiveness is a double-whammy problem because it impoverishes both the offended and the offender in some way irrespective of the merits of the case. Sometimes it even affects family and friends who grieve or take offence on behalf of one party or both. It is something we just cannot ignore.
‘Our Father in heaven:
May your holy name be honoured;
may your Kingdom come;
may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done,
as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.
Do not bring us to hard testing,
but keep us safe from the Evil One.’