Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
As Christians, we are defined by forgiveness; both God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. The message of Christ is meaningless without forgiveness, but the actual practice of forgiveness often gets messy.
It is easier to forgive someone who acknowledges their sin, asks for forgiveness, and changes their ways, but this is rare! More often, a person will not ask for forgiveness or even acknowledge the harm they have caused, and even when they apologize, the proof of genuine change may be lacking. What is forgiveness in these situations?
If we only define forgiveness as wiping the slate clean and acting like nothing ever happened, then a lot of people will be put in harm’s way. You cannot tell the victim of domestic violence to “forgive and forget” just because the perpetrator asked for forgiveness. The man who beats his family will also be a liar.
In these messy times, remember that forgiveness is not a “one-size-fits-all” action. The practical wisdom of Romans 12:18 helps us: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The full transaction of forgiveness is a two-way street, so peace is not always possible.
Try understanding forgiveness by first considering the meaning of unforgiveness. Usually we refuse to forgive someone because we want a chance to even the score. If we have been wronged, unforgiveness compels us to be in on the justice that is served. This is where the problem begins.
Romans 12:19 says: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Justice is the responsibility of God and the authorities He has established. We create trouble for ourselves when we insist on interfering. Someone once said, “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping someone else will die.” Only Jesus is the antidote to the poison of unforgiveness.
Forgiveness, then, is the opposite of unforgiveness. In other words, forgiveness begins by choosing not to seek revenge or retribution. Forgiveness is declaring to the person who has offended you: “I want God’s best for your life,” and letting God take it from there. This simple resolution is powerful and effective because it moves the center of responsibility onto God.
Forgiveness means asking God to treat others as we want Him to treat us. If we know we need His forgiveness, then we will want to see others forgiven too. This is the beginning of the journey of forgiveness. From there, God will take you deeper.