Jesus taught His followers to include forgiveness in daily prayer. Along with a request for daily bread, he taught us to pray:
“Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us” (Matthew 6:12 N.E.B.).
Recognizing the brokenness of our world, Jesus taught his followers to anticipate two daily needs:
- The need to receive forgiveness
- The need to offer forgiveness.
Jesus knew there would be occasions (daily) when they would sin against God (and need to receive His forgiveness) and occasions when they would be sinned against (and need to offer forgiveness).
If we ignore either one of these needs, the results are personally and relationally destructive. A failure to receive forgiveness results in unresolved guilt. A failure to offer forgiveness results in unresolved anger. Unresolved guilt and unresolved anger are physically, emotionally, and spiritually debilitating. They also easily multiply into other sins because they alienate us from God and other people (Hebrews 12:15).
Forgiving others and God’s forgiveness
After presenting His guide for daily prayer, Jesus had more to say about forgiveness. Perhaps he sensed a need for additional clarity about just how important forgiveness is to God. Jesus warned, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Forgive, or else!
Does this strike you as a “Forgive, or else…” kind of warning? It certainly qualifies as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. “How can this be?” we ask. Is Jesus teaching that there is a conditional relationship between the forgiveness that we offer to others and the forgiveness we receive from God? Is he saying that God will withhold forgiveness from us if we refuse to forgive others? Yes. This much is clear. In another place, Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).
Quid pro quo
What do you find confusing about a conditional relationship between your act of forgiving and God’s forgiveness of your sins? Does it appear to teach that we earn or merit God’s forgiveness by forgiving others? Does it contradict a gospel of grace? Is there a quid pro qo arrangement (a favor for a favor) in the gospel? I thought our salvation was based on God’s unmerited favor in Jesus Christ. What Jesus teaches appears to be a works based approach to God.
Order of the gospel
The key to resolving what feels like a tension to us is to understand what we receive in the gospel of God’s grace and to keep first things first. In the order of the gospel, forgiveness of our sins is so great that God expects forgiven people to forgive others (See: Matthew 18:23-32; Ephesians 4:31-32; Colossians 3:13). God’s forgiveness of our sins then is the basis for our forgiveness of others. So it would look like this: Since God has so graciously forgiven your sins by lovingly bearing the just penalty of them at the cross (II Corinthians 5:18-21), He expects you to forgive as He forgave you. If, in daily experience, as a forgiven disciple of Christ, you refuse to forgive those who sin against you, don’t come talking to God about your need for His forgiveness. This is the order of the gospel.
The Apostle Paul had this order in mind when he wrote: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32, NLT).
We must not gloss over the urgent warning from our Lord in Matthew 6:14-15. The spiritual consequences of withholding forgiveness are significant. In fact, this may be one of the primary reasons why many followers of Christ are not experiencing the joy and fulness of life in Christ. A little root of bitterness is personally troubling and poisonously infectious. When we’ve been hurt we become vulnerable to anger and angry people are vulnerable to bitterness.
Anger gains full hold when it turns into bitterness and bitter people are difficult to help. God pictured anger as a vicious animal looking to pounce its’ prey (Genesis 4:6-7). We must deal with our anger before it becomes bitterness (see: Hebrews 12:15; Ephesians 4:26-27).
When bitterness is a fully entrenched condition of the heart, it’s more difficult to dislodge it. Bitterness for many people has become a form of idolatry that rules their hearts in place of God. To gain freedom, we must see bitterness as a protective mechanism used to guard our cherished resentments and we must confess it as idolatry.
A bad attitude toward God?
Sometimes the resentments we hold have a subtle line directed at God. After all, God could have changed things but evidently chose not to! But those who stay connected to the Christian community typically conceal their attitude toward God behind a veneer of expected Christian gregariousness. I encounter this often when I travel and teach on forgiveness themes. I am usually approached with general questions about “why God would allow…?” Then, as I probe, I find out that the issue is more personal. We must not take lightly the dangers of allowing our hearts to become resentful toward God.
The father in the book of Proverbs warned his son about the danger of a bad attitude toward God. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12). The father wisely offered advanced notice to his son that life will not always turn out the way you think it should. The father had already told his son to trust God with all of his heart and acknowledge God in all of his ways (proverbs 3:5-6).
But when trials and hardships come, and one feels helpless to change his circumstances, God becomes an easy target of a resentful heart. Many centuries later the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews treated this father’s advice as God’s enduring word to first century believers (see Hebrews 12:1-15). They too stood in danger of misunderstanding their hardships (i. e. hostile treatment from sinful men) and becoming resentful and bitter toward God.
The teaching of Jesus is a firm reminder that an unforgiving heart contradicts the gospel and disrupts spiritual progress (Philippians 2:12-13). The way out of unforgiveness, resentment and anger is to meditate continuously on the greatness of God’s forgiveness of your sins— on the gospel of grace).
Reflect on these great words
- “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” “…if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 1:9;2:1-2)
- “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2).
- “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 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. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:8-14).
Don’t confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. Some people struggle to forgive because they think forgiveness always means immediate restoration to an offender. It does not.