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Forgiveness is a key element of the Christian faith for a number of reasons, and it’s something that I’m sure most of us understand. However, I also think it’s one of those things that is easier said than done. We’re instructed in multiple places in scripture to forgive one another (Matthew 6:15, Luke 6:37, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, to name a few) but when we feel someone has harmed, grieved or persecuted us, forgiveness doesn’t come naturally. I always find that it feels much easier and more natural to harbour a grudge against the person I feel has wronged me, at least for a while. That’s because I’m a fallen man, saved but still stained by sin. I’d like to make a few short points in this piece, to remind us of both the necessity and the beauty of forgiving one another.
The bitterness of holding on
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another” – Ephesians 4:31-32
From experience, in the past when I’ve felt someone has wronged me, and I’ve held a grudge against them or responded by wronging them, it has never made me feel better. It might give me some sort of twisted, momentary satisfaction, the sense that I’m giving this person what I feel they deserve, but in reality, I am just allowing bitterness to control my thoughts and actions. When that bitterness sits a while, it eats away at me, and has knock on effects on everything I do. Can you relate at all to what I’m describing?
Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, identifies this bitterness as a real problem to warn the church about. In the verse quoted above, he identifies kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness as the opposites, the antidotes to bitterness, wrath, anger and slander.
It depends on the offence against us, but we normally find it much easier to forgive someone if they have apologised for their words or actions and asked us to forgive them. But what about those who haven’t apologised or showed any remorse for their actions against us? Can we forgive them?
Forgiving the unrepentant
Speaking personally, it took me a long time to realise that you can forgive someone even if they have not asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some sort of mathematical transaction, as if you can only grant forgiveness once the request for forgiveness has been received, rather it is an attitude of the heart. Of course, this is easier said than done, but as Christians forgiveness should be our automatic response to any wrongdoing against us.
Let me show you the ultimate example of this sort of forgiveness. Here are words that Jesus prayed, as he was being crucified.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – Luke 23:24
Those who were beating, mocking, torturing and eventually murdering Jesus were showing no remorse or repentance whatsoever, yet remarkably he displayed an attitude of forgiveness towards them. This was so challenging to me when it first hit home. At the time I was harbouring a grudge against someone for words they had said to me months earlier and hadn’t apologised for, but seeing in this passage the contrast of Jesus’ attitude as he was being brutally murdered, compared to my attitude over something so comparatively insignificant, made me realise how arrogant and petty I was being. But there is a more important link to Christ here. Our necessity to forgive others stems from the fact that we have been forgiven for much greater offences.
Forgive, just as you have been forgiven
Earlier in this piece, I quoted Ephesians 4:32, as a scriptural example of a command to forgive. However, you may have noticed that I left out the end of the verse. Here is the full verse:
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32Ephesians 4:32
The foundation of our forgiveness is our state of being forgiven. We have committed far greater offences in our rebellion against God, than any other people on this earth could ever commit against us – yet we stand forgiven. That’s a mind-blowing, heart-stirring truth. When you let it sink in that because of Christ you are totally forgiven for your wrongdoing against God, the wrongdoings of others against you suddenly don’t feel as difficult to forgive. Alistair Begg put it this way in a sermon last year:
“When I fail to forgive you it’s because I’ve exaggerated the offense against me, and I have minimised my offense against God.”
Someone may have legitimately harmed you, and this piece is not intended to minimise that, but I hope that you’re able to consider afresh that if you’re in Christ you have been forgiven for far more serious offences.
Today, why not express your gratitude to God for his mercy in granting you that glorious forgiveness – and think about how you should respond to others in light of being a recipient of that forgiveness.
To find out more about the topic of forgiveness, have a listen to the latest episode of The #onthetable Podcast!