If you do a search for “forgiveness” on Amazon, you’ll get a list of over 4700 books, so apparently it’s a hot topic. Everyone gets hurt, offended or betrayed in life, and we all have to deal with forgiving others. Often the lack of forgiveness is like a big, black cloud that hangs over the heads of people, keeping them tied up and held in a prison of anger and bitterness. Countless people ask me how they can forgive someone—usually their spouse—for some transgression that has been committed against them. It is not at all unusual to hear people say that the specific thing they are struggling to forgive happened 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago, yet they are still dealing with the memory, the pain and the inability to work through it. Many relive the event in excruciating detail as if it just happened yesterday, saying they can’t, won’t, or don’t know how to forgive the person.
While non-Christians may have their own steps and formulas on how to forgive, from a Christian world-view I can explain it very quickly and to the point. Quite simply, the Bible teaches that if we won’t forgive other people, then God will not forgive us. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches His disciples “The Lord’s Prayer” that says, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Debt means sin or offense.) Then in verses 14-15 Jesus continues and says, “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.”(NIV) Seems like a very straight-forward concept, yet many Christians don’t get this and even when they hear it, they don’t believe it. There may be things in Christianity that are debatable—such as finer points of theology, speaking in tongues, what is the proper form of baptism, how to interpret the end-times scriptures—but not this. Forgiveness is pretty black and white, fundamental Christianity 101; if you don’t understand forgiveness you don’t understand Christianity.
You would think that once you put into people’s minds they are running the risk of eternal damnation for their souls, they would start to wake up and get a clue. (Which is exactly the case if your sins are not forgiven by God, by the way.) Sadly, many Christians believe that as long as they have “said the prayer”, they can live anyway they want, do anything they want and it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Further on in Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus talks about forgiveness by relating a parable about a servant who owed his master a lot of money—let’s say the equivalent of a million dollars. The master comes to collect and the servant begs to be let off the hook because he can’t repay it. So the master reconsiders, shows mercy and lets him off; erasing the considerable debt that the man owed. But then that very same servant turns around and finds another guy who owes him some small amount— let’s say $100. He starts choking the guy, demanding his money, then throws the guy in jail till he pays him what he owes. When the master hears what the servant did, he calls him back in and says, “You wicked servant. I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” After that the master turned the guy over to the jailers to be tortured, until he could pay back what he owed. Then check out what Jesus says, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
You are fooling yourself if you think you can remain bitter and unforgiving toward someone else and have that be okay with God. The Bible warns not to “deceive yourself” and I truly think this is one of the areas that people are full of self-deception. As Christians one thing that is totally non-negotiable for us is forgiveness. There are lots of things that are for us to decide that won’t affect whether God forgives us or not. How much you pray and how much money you give is up to you—the standard is 10%, but it’s still your call. Whether or not you go to church—God’s not going to send you to hell if you don’t go every Sunday, even though you know you should go. How much you read the bible—once a month, 8 chapters a day—is up to you. There are all kinds of things we get to play with and have wiggle room on. But the one thing that is absolutely not up to you, not negotiable in any way shape or form, is forgiveness. You cannot live in unforgiveness and think you are okay.
I was talking to this one woman who was attending our church and she was there every Sunday on the front row loving and worshipping Jesus—but she had just divorced her husband. I asked why, and she said, “Because he called me fat! I hate him! I want him to die and go to hell!” Seriously!? I think people are delusional. You can clap, sing, praise God and think you are a Christian all you want, but the truth is you will have to answer to God for your lack of forgiveness. Sadly, you don’t hear this taught by pastors. I know because when I say these things, people look at me like I just dropped in from Mars! They become indignant and can’t believe that I’m saying such a thing. One lady was talking to me in my office and she got so mad that she slammed out the door yelling at me, “How dare you imply I’m in trouble with God because of what my husband did!” She wanted no part of dealing with her own sin of unforgiveness. Many people have a problem with this teaching and I understand that it is extremely strong, but I don’t see how they get around these scriptures.
People often say “I am growing in forgiveness”, or “I’m learning to forgive”—I don’t buy it. Either you have forgiven or you haven’t, there’s no growing! Hear me on this…and if this freaks you out and scares you, it should! Jesus said, “Many will say to me on judgment day ‘Lord, Lord’”. Then He’s going to say “I never knew you” and you’re not getting in. (Matthew 7:21-23) Make no mistake, one of the fundamental reasons is because people absolutely refuse to forgive those who have hurt them. You may know people who say they have been a Christian for 20 years or more but can’t or won’t forgive someone. I say those people need to really reconsider whether or not they are Christians. I think there will be surprises on judgment day as to who is and who isn’t a real Christian.
I am not being condemning here, only showing the gravity of this situation. The Church has suffered, because pastors have not taught the great importance of forgiving and the dire consequences if we don’t. Christians tend to be very compassionate in trying to help people forgive, but the thing that should really motivate us is when we truly understand the seriousness of choosing not to forgive another person. Honestly, that teaching has been withheld in Christian circles and I am certain that if we really understood it, we would be less inclined to walk in unforgiveness.
Here is an analogy to help clarify this. Let’s say you have a problem with eating chocolate cake. You are really tempted to eat it any time you see a delicious slice. Now, it’s a pretty easy temptation to work around and deal with because most of the time it’s not going to kill you if you slip up. After all, you have been doing so well avoiding the cake and sticking to your diet. You rationalize that you can work it off later, walk farther to burn the calories, or reason that you will only indulge a little by having one small piece. Now, if you knew that the cake was laced with cyanide, would it still be a temptation? No, not at all! It breaks the temptation entirely and no way would you yield to that because you totally get it— you understand the gravity of the situation and the consequences.
That’s what pastors teach about forgiveness: We know it’s difficult, just do your best, try harder to avoid it, but if you can’t, it’s really not that bad, you’re still ok. I believe that people struggle with not forgiving others because pastors have failed to teach the perilousness of it. They aren’t telling believers that the cake is saturated with cyanide. If we fully comprehended what the Bible says about the sin of unforgiveness, if we really understood the huge price we will pay on Judgment Day, I think we would be much quicker to let others off the hook, release our grudges, and forgive. Jesus was not ambiguous in any way—if you refuse to forgive people, God will not forgive you. My question to you is: Can you afford that?
**Check back next week for Part 2 “What is Forgiveness?”