Forgiveness – the Bible model
In accordance with the principles of Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone is the primary and absolute source for all doctrine and practice with respect to faith and morals. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17) So we must apply to God’s Word to every area of our lives, including how we deal with forgiveness.
As Christians, we’re required to forgive others just as God has forgiven us and, indeed, we have a divine example for how to do this. What’s interesting is that the Biblical model has just as many implications for offenders as for those who have been offended. So let’s turn to Scripture and consider some well-known Bible verses about this subject.
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
• For God… God is the supreme authority in all things and our forgiveness and subsequent salvation starts and ends with Him. (See Daniel 9:9)
• so loved… God doesn’t just love; He loves so very much. His love is nothing like ours. It’s unfathomable and it’s only because of such great love that He offers forgiveness. (See Psalm 86:15) The lesson here is that forgiveness is based on love. As Christians, we’re required to love one another and this love forms the basis of our forgiveness one to another.
• the world… God doesn’t just love those who love Him; special ‘righteous’ people who somehow merit His love. The reality is that no-one merits God’s love. (See Romans 3:10) God’s love is open to all who turn to Him. We too are required to practice Christian love to all, even to those who we may find difficult.
• that He gave… God’s forgiveness is a gift; He wasn’t required to offer it and we certainly don’t deserve it. When we forgive others, we are, in fact, passing on God’s forgiveness which He accorded to us and this too is a gift on our part.
• His one and only Son… The price that God paid is truly immeasurable. He gave His only Son; the most precious thing to Him. Our forgiveness came at a great price and we may find that, in one way or another, forgiving others is frequently costly.
• that whoever… The phrase could be rendered as “those who” because the implication is that not everyone will be forgiven. And, of course, we know this is true. There are many people who reject even the notion of God let alone feel any need for His forgiveness.
• believes in Him… When we believe in Christ, we believe in Him as our Lord and Saviour which in turn leads to repentance. If we don’t repent we are not forgiven. (See Acts 3:19) This is a very important detail. Forgiveness only ever reaches its full purpose when the offender repents and accepts it.
• shall not perish… This is a wonderful example of God’s mercy. Mercy is not getting what we really deserve. This is how we must deal with those who sin against us.
• but have eternal life. The sister of mercy is grace and God’s grace is incalculable. Grace is receiving what we don’t deserve.
But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
• But God… There’s that source again! Forgiveness, salvation and reconciliation always start and end with God.
• shows His love for us… There’s that reason again – love.
• in that while we were still sinners…
Here’s another aspect of forgiveness. God put in place the means for forgiveness and reconciliation when we were still immersed in sin and rebellion and long before we had any thoughts about repentance. This is the Bible model so we’re required to do likewise to those who sin against us.
• Christ died for us… There’s that cost again – the death of God’s only Son for people who didn’t deserve it. And, once again, there’s that unmerited mercy.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:11-12)
• For as high as the heavens are above the earth… The Psalmist compares God’s love with the distance between heaven and earth. In other words, God’s love is limitless and immeasurable and it’s that great love that forms the reason for His forgiveness.
• so great is His love for those who fear Him… God’s great love is for those who fear Him. In scriptural terms, fearing God involves respect, awe, worship, and adoration. It also implies that we recognise His sovereignty over us and so repent of our sin and seek His forgiveness.
• as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us… Once again, the Psalmist expresses the notion that God’s love is vast and boundless. God doesn’t simply forget our sin; rather He puts it away completely, effaces it and no longer holds it against us. When we repent and seek His forgiveness, our sin is entirely and permanently blotted out. I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more. (Isaiah 43:25)
So, in summary, we can see that:
• Forgiveness comes from God and is based on His extraordinary love.
• It’s costly and fully undeserved.
• The provision for forgiveness is put in place before repentance.
• It requires true repentance in order to access it.
• It shows no favouritism but is available for everyone who repents.
• It’s complete and permanent and doesn’t look back on the offence.
• It involves both mercy and grace.
This, then, is our model for forgiveness but, unfortunately, forgiveness rarely comes easily to us.
Why is it sometimes so difficult to forgive?
I can think of seven reasons although I’m sure there are more:
1. An injured heart:
Loving someone renders our hearts tender and vulnerable. If someone we love hurts us, the wound goes deep because, in one way or another, the injury is barbed with a sense of disappointment, betrayal, and a loss of trust. It’s a very human thing to want to protect ourselves and so we may recoil in hurt which, in turn, makes it difficult to forgive.
This kind of reaction is most commonly seen within a couple, the family and among close friends and is often evidenced by expressions such as, “I don’t understand how could they hurt/betray me like that?”
2. Broken trust:
This usually occurs when we feel let down or disappointed by people who are in a position of trust and responsibility; parents, teachers, leaders, pastors, mentors and the like. If they fall short, our feelings are often marked by a sense of disappointment, betrayal and even outrage.
In this case, you may hear things like, “I believed/trusted that person. I feel so disappointed in them. They should know better.” This is a very human and understandable response and, indeed, it’s worth noting that God, Himself, holds people in teaching and leading roles more accountable to Him and subject to greater judgement. Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)
3. Injured pride:
This is an altogether less noble but, sadly, not uncommon reason for withholding forgiveness. Just like our heart, our ego can also be also vulnerable in the sense that it’s often super-inflated and so we suffer a sense of anger, affront, and indignation. Depending on the offence, we may also experience a feeling of superiority and self-righteousness. Injured pride is demonstrated by the need to justify ourself and it’s the most frequent cause for publicising a perceived insult or offence.
A common reaction is, “How dare they do this or say that!” Once again, it’s a very human response but pride is ugly, a sin in itself, and absolutely never a reason to withhold forgiveness.
4. Lack of love:
God’s forgiveness is based on His great love and so, therefore, should our forgiveness of others be based on love for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible teaches that unselfish love is the basis for true forgiveness since love isn’t proud or easily angered neither does it keep records of wrongdoing. ‘Love… is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.’ (1 Corinthians 13:5)
If you’re holding to bitterness, constantly re-living the offence and perhaps talking about it to others or if you hang on to ‘proof’ such as letters, emails or texts, this is clear evidence that you haven’t forgiven and that you lack love for the offender. We are required to forgive others in the same way (or manner) that God, in Christ, has forgiven us.
If You, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve You. (Psalm 130:3)
5. Magnitude of the offence and its consequences:
Keeping God’s law is fully unattainable for us as sinners and, if we transgress even one element, we’re guilty of transgressing all of it. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10) This is because God, who is pure and holy, simply can’t look on sin however small and insignificant that sin may appear.
We have reason to be grateful that human law usually allows for the punishment to fit the crime. So, for example, you would expect a far lighter penalty for petty theft than for grand larceny. And, of course, this is reasonable and fair. Our reactions are always far stronger for serious and heinous crimes such as abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), murder, terrorism and the like. These offences generally entail far greater, more damaging and longer lasting consequences and are, therefore, usually more difficult for us to forgive.
Thoughtlessness and carelessness in our relations with family and friends can and do cause hurt and even distress but deliberate and targeted unkindness is an altogether different matter. This is particularly true when such an offence is habitual. It’s so much easier to forgive a small and infrequent misdemeanour than it is to forgive intentional and persistent insult in word or deed, or sustained indifference and neglect.
7. No repentance:
This is, perhaps, the biggest stumbling block when it comes to forgiveness. When someone sins against us, we frequently feel a whole range of emotions; anger, pain, distress, hurt, indignation, betrayal, loss of trust. And these emotions don’t even begin to address the possible physical, emotional, financial or material damage incurred. But these reactions are almost always exacerbated by affront and outrage when the guilty party neither acknowledges the offence nor shows any remorse.
So we know that forgiveness is required of us and that it’s rarely, if ever, an easy thing to do. The next post in this series looks at the Bible process or methodology for conflict resolution.