"If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses" - Matthew 6:15. Real forgiveness is the goal toward which we strive. Our constant need for forgiveness should motivate us to develop the fine art of truly forgiving others. This article will attempt to help us to do that.
There is a type of non-forgiveness that parades as merciful forgiveness. While it appears as wise and reasonable, too often it is offered as a gift, the implication being the superiority of the giver. When so offered, it is not genuine forgiveness. It becomes a kind of bargain which brings with it a loss of dignity, ongoing guilt and humiliation. The one doing the forgiving is posing as the generous benefactor to the inferior sinner. This emotional blackmail may be described as implying, in the words of David Augsburger:
"I have examined, weighed, judged you and your behavior and found you sorely lacking in qualities that are worthy of my respect. I have these qualities at this point in time, but you do not. I humbly recognize my superior moral strength and your weakness, my consistent moral behavior and your inconsistency of immorality. I forgive you your trespasses. We will henceforth have a relationship based on the recognition of my benevolence in the hour of your neediness, my generosity in the face of your guilt. You will find some suitable way to be dutifully grateful from this day forward."
Is this forgiveness? When Jesus is presented with the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11), He immediately knew the hearts of the Scribes and Pharisees. They hoped to find something in the response Jesus would make that would give them grounds to accuse and discredit Jesus. The Master finally answered their challenge by saying, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first" - John 8:7. You will remember that the accusers began to leave, from the oldest to the youngest. Only Jesus and the sinful woman were left. Jesus, knowing her penitent heart, told her He did not condemn her and that she should "go, and sin no more" - Verse 11. Forgiveness involves the heart of the sinner, but also involves a heart right with God in order for that forgiveness to take place.
How much forgiveness are we expected to extend? Great emotional expenditure is required for the sinner to seek forgiveness. An equally great emotional expenditure is required in order to genuinely forgive. Evidently the disciple Peter was wrestling with this in the account given in Matthew 18:21 when he asked Jesus, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Such an extension of repeated forgiveness (especially if it was the same sin each time) seemed extreme to Peter. Jesus answered, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven" - Verse 22. Jesus then proceeded to tell the parable of the servant who had been forgiven of an enormous debt, but who then was unwilling to forgive a very small debt owed to him by a fellow servant. The conclusion of our Lord's parable was that the servant who had received great compassion and forgiveness from his Lord was now under condemnation because of his unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant. Where are you and I in this story? Forgiveness was offered freely by the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost to those Jews who urged the Romans to crucify Jesus. They were told that "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" - Act 2:36. Thousands on that day accepted God's forgiveness when they repented of their heinous sin and were baptized. Peter had learned some things about God's forgiveness and, hopefully, about how he should forgive others.
What does genuine compassion, real forgiveness, look like? How do we know when we are forgiving others? The Jewish word for compassion is rechem, meaning womb, implying a new birth, a fresh start, in our relationship with the forgiven person. True forgiveness affords us the opportunity to learn to empathize and apologize, to admit that we are human too, that we are capable of wrongdoing. Such forgiveness will help us to make allowances for circumstances we may not understand. It helps us to affirm our belief in the basic good of other people. It indicates a willingness to start all over again with compassion and without grudges. As we forgive we come to see the futility of grudges and unrealistic expectations of others. It enables us to better deal with our inclinations toward hate and anger that are so corrosive to our spirit. The extension of forgiveness will renew a genuine hope in the great power of love.
A final aspect of forgiveness is the reality of forgetting. As long as we try to forgive, but retain and relive in memory the hurt, the resentment, the feeling of betrayal, we will not experience the blessing God wants to bestow on us. His promise, as you recall, is in the verse previous to the one quoted at the beginning of this article: Matthew 6:14 - "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." We are beginning to approach a magnificent part of the character of our heavenly Father when we learn to truly forgive, and are securing the most advantageous position for our Father's care for us.