If there's one single thing that hinders relationships, keeps them from growing, from being healthy, it's probably lack of forgiveness. In fact, forgiving is probably one of the hardest things that any of us are called on to do. It's hard to humble ourselves enough to ask for forgiveness when we've offended someone else. It's also often difficult to grant forgiveness to someone who has offended us.
There is a phrase which helps us understand forgiveness: "to forgive a debt." I have been on both sides of this one. I have owed money and had the debt forgiven and I have been in a position where someone else has owed me money and I've forgiven that debt. The bottom line in forgiving a debt is simply that the person who owes the money doesn't have to pay it back. The lender says, "Keep the money. Don’t repay it. We'll consider the matter closed." That's forgiving a debt.
This is a remarkably simple concept, but when we transfer it to relationships, it gets a little tougher because so often when forgiveness is called for, it's really hard to let something go and not to require payment of some kind, to balance the score, to even things up.
I think it is probably easier to forgive a financial debt than a social one, especially when the debtor can't repay or otherwise make it up and there can be lots of reasons why restitution is impossible. Some offences, by their nature, are impossible to make up for. Think of a situation where a reputation has been ruined. Even if what was said wasn't true, a cloud of suspicion hangs over the victim's head for the rest of his or her life.
Take a situation where a man (let's call him Gary) is a substance abuser and because of this, he harms his wife and children. He hurts them emotionally. Neglects them. Doesn't provide for their basic needs. Even if Gary gets his life straightened out, there's no way for him to fully make things up to his family. He can never give them back what he took away from them. For example, if his habit meant that they went hungry at times, he cannot go back in time and give his children the good food they most needed when their young bodies were growing. He can feed them the best foods later on, but that will never make up for the damage that was done.
So, while it's possible for forgiveness to happen without restitution, I want to immediately say now that restitution does play a part in forgiveness. If you've harmed someone in some way and there's a way for you to restore what you've taken, you need to do that as part of the process.
If you're wondering, how the idea of forgiving a debt plays into this, remember that "forgiving a debt" lets go of the right to repayment or restitution. So while I’m encouraging people who need forgiveness to make restitution as part of the process of getting it, I’m also speaking to those who need to forgive. Even if restitution from the other is not possible, forgiveness from you is possible.
Jesus talked about this issue of forgiveness on several occasions in His earthly ministry. Sometimes he addressed the issue head on, sometimes He used parables. I'm thinking particularly of a couple of stories.
In one situation, recorded in Matthew 18, a servant owed his king a great deal of money - an amount that would come to several years wages for the average person. One day, as the king was taking accounts, this man was brought to him and the king realized his servant was truly unable to repay the amount and would never be able to pay his debts. So the king, simply wrote off the loan and told the man he was forgiving the debt.
This individual then went out and he saw another man who owed him a small amount of money - something in the order of about three months wages. And he, who had just been forgiven, confronted his friend and demanded payment. (Remember that he had just been forgiven a large debt.) He grabbed his friend by the throat and insisted on payment of this small amount. He was so insistent and so harsh that some of the king's men who observed this, reported it back to the king. On hearing about this the king called the man he forgave back for a second visit. This time, the King condemned him soundly because he was forgiven a large amount and was unwilling to forgive a small amount.
His fate is recorded in the Bible. He was turned over to the torturers and held in prison until such time as he could repay the debt. And we know that would be a very long time because even if he were free, he would be unable to pay the debt. (That's why the king forgave him in the first place.) And if he were incarcerated, there would be even less chance of him being able to repay the debt, so this man was going to suffer for the rest of his natural days.
All this to say that it is important that we forgive. There are ramifications. There are consequences to our forgiving and consequences to our not forgiving. Framing it positively, if we forgive, we will be forgiven. That idea actually comes up several times in the Bible. It's not an isolated thought. There are different ways of looking at it, but think of it as a proverb just for a few minutes.
Jesus said, "Forgive and you will be forgiven." And we take it as a command, but when we think of it as a proverb Jesus is really just stating the obvious. First He says, "judge and you will we judged, condemn and you will be condemned." In that statement he is describing a cycle of aggression, a cycle of destruction. It's the old "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" mentality, which, of course, followed to its logical conclusion leaves everyone blind and toothless.
But then Jesus gives us the solution, the way to break the cycle. He says, forgive. If you forgive, you'll be forgiven. And that starts a new cycle, because it also implies that if you have been forgiven, then you will be more likely to forgive. Just like it was under the old system, where if you were judged, you then would be more likely pass judgment and condemn others. But forgiveness starts a new cycle, a new pattern of compassion instead of aggression. That's the kind of behaviour that smoothes the way of relationships, that allows our relationships to grow stronger and it builds deep friendships and loyalties in the best sense.
And this leads us directly to the next parable gave that Jesus gave. It is a parable of one lender who had two debtors. The one owed him 10 times the amount the other did. But the lender decided that he would forgive both the debts. Then Jesus turned to his listeners with a question, "So, which one of the two men whose debts were forgiven, would love the lender the most - would be most grateful?" The answer, of course, is that the one who was forgiven most would be most thankful and would love him most.
This is so true today. If you are forgiven for something small, you may not appreciate that forgiveness very much, but if you have been forgiven for a very deep hurt that you have caused, if you have been forgiven by a spouse you have betrayed, or if you have been forgiven by a child whom you've neglected or abused, or if you have been forgiven by a parent after you have been rebellious and caused deep pain, then you will have a deep sense of appreciation. You will love that person in a way that you might never have imagined possible before.
Now, in these situations, where restitution is impossible and the debt is freely forgiven, the forgiveness involved is usually based on the recognition on the part of the forgiver that he has his own flaws and weaknesses and may well be in need of forgiveness himself one of these days and so is ready to forgive because he recognizes his own shortcomings, miscalculations and sinfulness.
It's this understanding that makes it easy for us to forgive, especially when it comes to little things. If someone steps on your toe, you quickly forgive him because ... if you're in a crowd, you know that person probably didn't mean it and you know that you yourself have stepped on other people's toes and your likely to step on more, so to hold a grudge over something like that, it just wouldn't make sense, because you know your going to need that same kind of forgiveness.
But it gets a little more difficult for us with the bigger issues, though the principal is just the same. A man may forgive his wife for having an affair, because he knows deep in his heart the possibility exists that he could need that forgiveness. He is certainly as capable of betrayal as she was and while his wife's betrayal of him does not give him grounds for conducting an illicit affair of his own, he is aware that his own heart is dark enough that it's possible that it could happen. So when he forgives her, he does so in part because of recognition of his own weakness. He hopes that he would never need her forgiveness because of the pain that this has caused him and the emotional cost involved, but this may well be part of his being able to forgive her.
That's a good reason to forgive. But we don't always forgive for the right reasons. Sometimes we do it out of... pride. Let's face it, when we forgive someone, it may make us look good. Sometimes we forgive so that we can gain power over a person. We say, "Hey, I forgave you for what you did to me, now you owe me." We forgive, but only because of what we think we can get.
These things are true of our human level forgiveness, but when God forgives us, neither of these scenarios comes into the picture at all. When God forgives us, He does so on a very specific basis. He doesn't do it just because He's a "nice guy" and likes to forgive people. He doesn't do it because of what He gets out of it. And He certainly doesn't forgive us on the basis that He may need forgiveness Himself one of these days. No.
When God forgives us for the offences we have committed against Him, He does so because the debt has already been paid by someone else. You see God is just, but forgiveness is not justice, for justice to be satisfied the debt has to be paid. God is able to forgive us our debt because His son, the Lord Jesus Christ, has already paid it. And then because God is just, He cannot demand payment twice for the same debt. In fact, it would be absolutely wrong, it would be immoral, be unjust, unholy for God to accept the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ when He died on the cross for our sin and then demand payment from us as well. So you can be absolutely sure that you really are forgiven if you have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as the substitute who died for you. God must forgive you, because the debt has been paid.
Some people have a very clear sense that they have offended God and they carry around with them a big black cloud of fear and discouragement because they're afraid of meeting God. It is always a pleasure to tell these people that it doesn't matter how grievous their sin has been. Forgiveness is available because the Lord Jesus Christ already died for that offence and God will not charge you for it if you accept what Jesus did on the cross as payment for your sin, as God does.
If you are one of those struggling with a guilty conscience and you're worried about dying and meeting God, there's real hope for you. There's hope for you by putting your faith in what Jesus did on the cross and accepting His death as your own. You need not fear, forgiveness can be yours today.
Also, there may be people you need to forgive, but remember that you also need forgiveness and you should start by asking for forgiveness from God. Start by settling accounts with Him and you'll find that the human relationships become much easier to settle once you're right with God. Whether you're one who needs forgiveness or needs to grant forgiveness, once you've been forgiven, you can look at the world from a whole different perspective
© May 2007