It can be easy to equate “I forgive you” with “Oh, that’s OK” or “No problem, don’t worry about it.”. That may be appropriate if the offense is minor, like accidentally bumping into me while standing in line. The equivalence is not at all appropriate, however, when the offense is deliberate, malicious, or truly harmful. But the Bible explicitly says:
Do not say, “Thus I shall do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.”Proverbs 24:29
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.Leviticus 19:18
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles…Proverbs 24:17-20
Why would God ask us to do such a thing? How does He expect us to just let it go when someone has seriously harmed us? Well, first, let’s define what it really is that God is asking of us.
- Forgiveness does NOT mean pretending that the offense did not happen, or that it did not matter. That would be foolish: It’s often obvious that the offense was real, and that it matters immensely.
- Forgiveness DOES mean releasing the grudge, the bitterness, the chokehold that the harm continues to have on me. Dwelling on the offense, plotting revenge, or stewing about the issue does not affect my offender; it only affects me. It’s been likened to “taking poison, and expecting the other person to die”. Life doesn’t work like that.
- Forgiveness is NOT a feeling. It does not imply squeezing my eyes shut and trying to force warm-and-fuzzy when I’m really feeling mean-and-nasty.
- Forgiveness IS a conscious choice, sometimes a repetitive one. It means swatting down the need for revenge and deliberately turning away from the spiraling rabbit-hole of angry thoughts.
Now that we’re clear on the task, we can look at some of God’s reasons. Why does He want us to forgive when someone wrong us?
Because Forgiveness is Healthy (and un-forgiveness hurts me)
There is ample documentation of the physical and emotional/mental harm that we do to ourselves when we refuse to forgive. Effects include blood-pressure and heart-rate problems, depression, and other symptoms of long-term stress. You can learn more at these articles from Johns Hopkins, Kaiser Permanente, and the Mayo Clinic.
Extending forgiveness reverses those effects, making room for relief and relaxation. This is true even if the offender never apologizes, repents, or even is aware that they have been forgiven. The benefits that I give myself by forgiving far out-weigh any that might come from enacting the retribution that I think is warranted.
Because God is Handling It (so I don’t have to)
Nothing gets to me without going through His hands first. If He has allowed it, then He has a reason and a plan for it 1. Among those reasons and plans, consider the following:
God will bring good out of bad.
In Genesis chapters 37 through 50, we have the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, followed by being thrown into jail for refusing the seductions of his master’s wife. Through a series of miracles, he ended up in power second only to the Pharoah, helping the land survive a famine. Then he had opportunity to confront his scheming brothers, to their disadvantage. Rather than punishing them as they deserved, however, he told them:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.Genesis 50:20
That doesn’t make what the brothers did suddenly become any less evil. But it does leave room for forgiveness, because it gave God an avenue to show His power.
God will handle any retribution that is called for.
Whatever retribution, punishment, and vengeance is warranted is best delivered by God. He is ultimately the one offended by every sin or harm done in the world that He created. He has the best overall perspective, and the wisdom to choose exactly the right response. That is why we are told to:
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Romans 12:19-21
Jesus has paid the price, for them as well as for me.
One way that God has already dealt with all sin, including whatever wrong I am currently suffering, is by dumping all of it onto Jesus (Isaiah 53:5, Ephesians 1:7-8, Colossians 1:13-14).
…this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.Matthew 26:28
I was impressed by a great line in the fiction novel “Stealth Insurgence” by Vikki Kestell. When one character is bitterly describing all of her perceived wrongs, she says “Somebody has to pay!” She is answered “Someone did pay. His name is Jesus.” That shuts me up right away!
Because God Forgives (and I am to follow His example)
Before I am too quick to act as judge and jury, setting myself up as the standard for how others should behave, I need to take my cue from the real standard. Jesus says to love my enemies, because God does (Matthew 5:43-48) 2. I am to be His representative, showing the world what He is like and reflecting Him as much as I can (1 Peter 3:8-9, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12-13).
If I start thinking, “That’s ridiculous. That kind of weakness will just turn me into a door mat.”, I have to remember the most powerful person in the universe. Forgiveness was not weakness for Jesus!
When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”Luke 23:33-34
Because I Have Been Forgiven (and must pass it on to others)
There is a final compelling reason to forgive a wrong done to me: I have been forgiven of a lifetime of wrongs that I have done to God. What right do I have to enjoy forgiveness myself while withholding it from anyone else? Jesus taught this concept in His parable often called “the unforgiving servant” in Matthew 18:21-35. The idea of forgiveness being a two-way street is repeated regularly in Scripture (even included in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-15 and Luke 11:1-4). Here are a couple of other examples:
Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.Mark 11:25
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”Luke 6:37-38
Forgiveness in Practice
I have worked for over ten years to finish forgiving a pretty serious offense that involved betrayal and lies by someone I had considered to be a Christian friend. It really hurt, and it unfairly damaged my career. But I can see God’s good that has come from the incident, and I know that He commands me to forgive. When I remember what happened, I can’t change the fact that my friend treated me badly. However, I can choose to let go of the anger and not allow it to build into a wall separating me from God’s peace.
I could never express this as well as Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave her Nazi tormentor, did in this article. Please read it, and then join me in my efforts to obey God as well as she did.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- I explored some of these same points in the article “Why Bad Things Happen“.
- A friend told me she has found that taking Matthew 5:44‘s “Pray for those who persecute you” seriously makes it almost impossible to hold onto a grudge!