What defines us as Christians? What should be a characteristic we exhibit that the world simply doesn’t see in other people? Certainly it is love, but as the people of God we should also be forgiving.
“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
People are different and come from various homes, but the one thing I have noticed is that traits such as forgiveness or unforgiveness tend to run in families. Usually there is at least one person, typically a father or mother, who holds a grudge and will not forgive, setting the standard for everyone else to implicitly follow.
I grew up with forgiving parents. My father used to say, “Being angry and holding grudges doesn’t hurt the person you are angry with; it hurts you.” My mother forgave freely, both me and others. Certainly she got angry, and she was not timid about letting the other person know, but once it was over, it really was over. It wasn’t something that was stashed in the recesses of her mind only to be brought up the next time she remembered. Thus it surprised me—caused me to grow up a bit, actually, and realize that not everybody forgives freely—when I inadvertently offended a member of my extended family as a very young adult and was not forgiven for years, probably not really until this person eventually came to Christ.
Holding a grudge, furthermore, tends to accompany an attitude which looks for offense and is easily hurt. This is another truism—if you look for someone to offend you, you will find it. Life is not perfect and people are not perfect, but usually, they are not sitting around planning how to offend you. They simply live, usually selfishly, and in the process occasionally end up doing things that can cause others offense. It isn’t intentional. Yet if you live with the expectation of being offended, you will certainly find it. Yet these are character qualities God does not want His people to have. We are to be kind to each other and tenderhearted. And, we are to forgive just as God through Christ forgave us.
But why should we forgive? This is, perhaps, a question of which came first—the chicken or the egg. Do we forgive because we’ve been forgiven or do we forgive because otherwise God will not forgive us? Today’s verse tells us that we are to forgive in the same way God forgives us in Christ, but there are many other verses about forgiveness in Scripture.
Matthew 6:9b-13 gives us the prayer in which Christ taught His people how to pray:
“Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
Jesus teaches us to ask God to forgive us our debts in the same way that we forgive those who owe us, a frightening proposition if we have not fully forgiven others.
But does God forgive us if we refuse to forgive others? Jesus taught this parable regarding forgiveness:
”Peter came up to the Lord and asked, ‘How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough [within the Jewish culture of that day, seven was considered generous]?’
Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times [in other words, we are to not keep a record of how many times]! This story will show you what the kingdom of heaven is like:
One day a king decided to call in his officials and ask them to give an account of what they owed him. As he was doing this, one official was brought in who owed him fifty million silver coins. But he didn’t have any money to pay what he owed. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all he owned, in order to pay the debt.
The official got down on his knees and began begging, ‘Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!’ The king felt sorry for him and let him go free. He even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money.
As the official was leaving, he happened to meet another official, who owed him a hundred silver coins. So he grabbed the man by the throat. He started choking him and said, ‘Pay me what you owe!’
The man got down on his knees and began begging, ‘Have pity on me, and I will pay you back.’ But the first official refused to have pity. Instead, he went and had the other official put in jail until he could pay what he owed.
When some other officials found out what had happened, they felt sorry for the man who had been put in jail. Then they told the king what had happened. The king called the first official back in and said, ‘You’re an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent. Don’t you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?’ The king was so angry that he ordered the official to be tortured until he could pay back everything he owed. That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, CEV)
Forgiveness is commanded by God, because it is what we have received from Him. Having been forgiven an enormous debt of the sin which we had no hope of pulling ourselves out of apart from God’s mercy through Christ, we are now also able to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God in Christ forgave…[us].”
Thank You for the enormous debt that You have forgiven me through Christ—a debt I could never pull myself out of on my own, a debt I could never pay. Help me to also be kind to others in my life and tenderhearted, forgiving them even as in Christ You have forgiven me. Amen.