Forgiving as We Are Forgiven
James R. Aist
“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
What does it mean to “forgive” someone, and how can we know that we have truly forgiven them? In Ephesians 4:32, we are instructed to forgive as God has forgiven us. So, answers to these questions can surely be found in an understanding of how God forgives us. Let’s go to the Scriptures to find out how God’s forgiveness of our sins is portrayed there.
First, let’s check out what Hebrews 10:16-18 has to say in this regard: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.” Here, we see clearly that “remember no more” is indeed referring to forgiven sins that no longer need a blood sacrifice (because Jesus paid the price for them with His own blood). But, it does not say that God cannot remember them (i.e., that He has amnesia); it says that He will not remember them (i.e., by choice). And Romans 4:8 says, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” Once again, we see that it is God’s will at work here, not amnesia. And it clarifies the matter for us by explaining that the Lord will never “count our sins against us.” So, we see that when God says that He will “remember our forgiven sins no more”, He is not saying that He will forget them in the sense of amnesia, but that, by an overt act of His sovereign will, He will, intentionally, never again bring them to His mind and count them against us. That, in effect, blots them out from our “record” in heaven. That is what God requires of us: by an overt act of our will, we must resolve to stop bringing their sins to our mind and to stop holding them against him/her. And, when we do this, we are bringing ourselves into obedience with the “golden rule”, which commands us to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31).
But, let’s not leave it at that. Let’s flesh this out a bit with more detail, so that we can get a better overall picture of what true forgiveness does and does not “look like” on the level of human experience. To do this, consider first what true forgiveness is not. It is not pretending that we cannot remember what was done to us. It is not pretending that the wrong done against us was not really wrong. It is not pretending that we were not offended. And it is not pretending that, when reminded of the offense, we don’t feel the same feelings as we did before. True forgiveness is honest and real. When we have forgiven someone, we no longer allow our minds to obsess with what they did. We no longer allow our minds to dwell on how we feel about it. We no longer allow ourselves to rehearse their sins in our mind, or to anyone else, to get sympathy or to avenge the wrongdoings. We do not allow ourselves to hope for anything bad to happen to them. We treat them with the respect, courtesy and honor that is due to everyone made in the image of God (i.e., everybody), even if we don’t feel like it. And we pray that God will bless them with all good things. In short, we follow the “golden rule” with respect to them, despite what they did and how we feel about it.
Having said that, let me insert a few caveats to try and balance out this brief treatment of forgiveness. First, forgiveness is often very difficult to accomplish, and it may take a long time to get there, so don’t give up when you fail in one aspect or another. Just ask God to forgive you, re-double your efforts and try to do better next time. Second, you may experience doubts that you have really forgiven. When that happens, consider whether or not you are doing what forgiveness looks like. If you are not, then you have more work to do. If, however, you are doing what forgiveness looks like, then it is probably just Satan trying to discourage and condemn you because you can still feel the hurt. Remember that Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). Do not believe him, and continue to walk in forgiveness. Your feelings will, eventually, catch up with your (continuing) acts of forgiveness. Third, forgiveness does not always mean that you have to renew a broken relationship. For example, a marriage that is “on the rocks” because of adultery does not have to be resumed, and a spouse who was physically abused does not have to return to the relationship, just because they have forgiven the wrongs that were done. Forgiveness is required (“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” – Matthew 6:15), but continuing with the relationship is not; that is a separate, albeit related, issue. And fourth, forgiving someone does not necessarily mean that you do not want to see justice done. If the law has been broken by the person who sinned, the law will require justice through punishment of the guilty party, and you can stand for justice. But, you are required by the law of God (e.g., Matthew 6:15) to forgive them for what they did.
Let’s keep in mind what Jesus said about this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45). Because all have sinned (Romans 3:23), not one of us has a right to hold back forgiveness from anyone for anything done against us. The only one who ever had that right was the only righteous One, Jesus Christ, and He said, instead, “Father forgive them…” (Luke 23:34).
Finally, let’s consider whether or not we must forgive sins committed against us that were not repented of. Now, this may sound a bit foreign to you, but please hear me out. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus said, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. And if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Here, we are commanded to forgive anyone who sins against us only if they repent of their sins first. God does not forgive unrepented sin (Luke 13:3), and neither should we, if we are to truly forgive as we are forgiven. But, you may ask, what do we do with Matthew 6:14-15, where Jesus said, “For if you forgive men for their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men for their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins.” The answer to this seeming contradiction is quite simple: follow Luke 17:3-4 and forgive only the one who has repented. Then you will not be guilty of unforgiveness in God’s eyes, because God only requires us to forgive sins that were repented of.
(To read more of my biblical teachings, click HERE)