–An excerpt from The Promise of a Sound Mind: God’s Plan for Emotional and Mental Health–
When the topic of forgiveness comes up, people often ask, “What if the other person refuses to apologize? Do I still have to forgive them?” Sometimes people wrong us but are not sorry. The Bible says if someone asks for forgiveness we must forgive, but what if they are not repentant?
This is a good question and is something every person will have to deal with throughout their life. I’ve touched on this a bit from my life’s experience, but since letting go of wrongs can be difficult, we need to look at this question from a biblical perspective as well. When we stop and look at it from a wider perspective, I’m confident you’ll see why it’s necessary to forgive – period. We can’t hold those who wrong us to a higher standard than we want to be held to. Jesus addressed this concept in Matthew 7:1-2
1 “Judge not, that you be not judged.
2 “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.
This is not saying we shouldn’t use good judgment or evaluate right from wrong, but that we must judge based on the standard we are willing to stand upon. How many unconfessed sins have I committed in my life? Wrong thoughts, selfish motives, words of offense to others, or any number of other things. We are all guilty. Do we want to be judged for our unconfessed transgressions? I know I certainly don’t. Yet if I determine to only forgive those willing to confess, I put myself in a position where I can only be forgiven for what I confess. Can I expect God to forgive my unconfessed sins if I’m unwilling to do so for others? Is this not what God is addressing in Romans 2:1-8
1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
2 But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things.
3 And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?
4 Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?
5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
6 who “will render to each one according to his deeds”:
7 eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality;
8 but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness — indignation and wrath,
Think about the weight of this passage. Those who judge are condemning themselves, for they are doing the same things. When we judge someone else unworthy of forgiveness, we are also judging ourselves unworthy, for we do the same things. When I refuse to forgive, I am despising the goodness of God. Though I may think I am holding my neighbor accountable, in truth I’m casting God’s mercies out of my own life. I then will stand in judgment against my own behaviors.
My judgment is not because God was unwilling to forgive, but because I was unwilling to forgive. Instead of storing up for myself the treasures of heaven, I am storing up for myself judgment by which I will stand before God to answer for my guilt. And I will be my own condemner as God allows me to judge myself by the standard I have demanded.
Anyone who doesn’t recognize their own sin is blind, prideful, and still in their sins. If I think I’m guiltless, I’m a fool. How many times have I said thoughtless things to my wife, kids, or those around me? Sometimes I don’t even realize I have done this. Other times I have realized it, but just didn’t think it was a big enough deal to address it. If they didn’t say anything, I assume it didn’t bother them. But often they are wounded in silence. Can I now declare my neighbor guilty because he or she failed to apologize to me? If I do, then I am now held by that same standard before God.
What about our hidden sins? As we have seen, Jesus said, any who have ever looked upon someone to lust after them has committed adultery in their heart. Any who are greedy are thieves. Those who are covetous are idolaters. Those who hate are murderers. My life consistently fails to stand up to God’s requirement of perfection. But, when my life turns back to God, I am forgiven and I walk in newness of life. Yet, I have not combed through my past and confessed every sin. That’s impossible. It is my life that has repented and everything is taken out of the way when I look to the cross.
Yet Jesus warned His disciples that if they hold their neighbor accountable and demand judgment, all those sins will not be forgiven of them. God warns that when we don’t forgive from the heart, God returns our guilt upon our own heads.
So the argument of some is that the story of Jesus and the wicked servant is how the man asked for forgiveness and was denied. While this is true, it isn’t the point of the parable. The point is explained by Jesus, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
No exceptions are given. He didn’t say the onus is on our brother to ask. The onus is on us to forgive from our heart – not based on our brother’s worthiness, but based on God’s abundant mercies shown to us. God is not required to honor any loophole we think we can find in His word. The issue is we must forgive from the heart, not out of obligation once a set of rules has satisfied us.
The servant held his neighbor to a higher standard than God held him to. So if someone wants to hold their neighbor accountable for unconfessed wrongs, fine. They should be aware that they are placing themselves under the same standard. Now they are guilty for every sin in thought, word, or deed that they have committed against every person and against God. They must go through every minute of their lives and identify every sin they have ever committed. They must then confess them to God and find the person wronged or they thought evil toward, and confess to them. This isn’t only actions, but thoughts, sins of omissions, words, and even wicked emotions such as lust, jealousy, covetousness, envy, hatred, and unjustified anger.
To demand this method of religion is utterly foolish. A person under this system will never have forgiveness, never have peace, never have unity, and will never experience intimacy with God. God is ready to forgive and show mercy, but not to the one who refuses to do the same. As God stated, “To him who shows no mercy, I will judge without mercy.” (James 2:13)
Hopefully you can see the value of forgiveness. Not only does God show you mercy, but God empowers you to rise above your harmful emotions and strengthens you to forgive. When you forgive, anger will attempt to rise up again, but you must cast it out. Look to the Lord for strength and refuse to allow anger, hatred, and bitterness to rule over you. Forgive, bless, pray for, and do good to those who have wronged you, and the Lord will reward you.
This is God’s desire – to reward you. One of the greatest rewards is the peace of God which will reign in your heart, but this isn’t where the reward ends. Forgiveness releases you from the harmful emotions which rule you, so forgiveness is just as much an act of God’s mercy toward you as it is of your mercy toward another – and more so.
When you forgive, you are putting yourself in a right relationship with God and stepping onto the path of God’s purpose for your life. Forgiveness is a giant leap toward peace and joy. Forgiveness is not only a commandment, but it is necessary for your own emotional and physical health.
We’ve looked at the reasons why forgiveness is necessary, but it’s also important to examine ourselves and see if there is anyone we need to forgive. Begin now and search your past. When you think of someone, does your stomach tighten or your heart ache?
Ideally, we want reconciliation; however, this is not always possible. It takes two to reconcile, but only takes your willing heart to step into a life of forgiveness. Do you need to forgive a parent, relative, betrayal of a friend, or the harm caused by a stranger? Remember, God has promised healing and blessings to those who forgive. It won’t be easy, but the rewards are great.
When we refuse to forgive, we give our enemies or those who have wronged us power over our emotions, and ultimately our lives. Forgiveness takes the burden off our hearts and places it on God’s shoulders, where it belongs.
Don’t lose sight of the example of Christ. Though He was betrayed by a close friend, rejected by His own people, tried for a crime He didn’t commit, and executed by a Roman governor who testified, “I find no wrong in this man,” He forgave.
On the cross Christ declared, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.” They knew what they were doing to Him, but they were blinded by human nature. Foolishly, they allowed their own misguided ideas to drive their emotions into hatred. Then all they could see was that Jesus was a threat to their desires and personal beliefs. Their understanding did not go beyond the quest for self-fulfillment.
Some of the very people who demanded Jesus’ death later came to faith in Christ and found God’s mercies. Though Christ was persecuted and reviled, He didn’t lash back in return. He committed Himself to the Father, who judges righteously. And what does our Heavenly Father desire most? Reconciliation and forgiveness.
When we commit the wrongs against us to our Heavenly Father, it is an act of faith. We are acknowledging our own need and are recognizing God has the right to show mercy to those who have wronged us – just as He reconciled us, who have wronged Him.
Don’t forget that a single sin separates us from our God, for all sin is a challenge to His right to require His creation to live according to His character and nature. We are created in God’s image, but we fall short of this standard when we turn from God and choose our own ways. Since one sin causes us to fall away from God’s image and perfection, reconciliation must go through the cross. On the cross, Jesus was credited with our sins so we could be credited with His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This means any sin you or I commit is responsible for putting Christ on the cross. We are responsible for His suffering and death; therefore, what wrong can we endure that is greater than condemning Jesus and putting Him to death on the cross?
Forgiveness is an act of faith because we are putting our trust in God to handle the situation according to His own wisdom. It’s saying, “God I trust you to make this situation right. I can only see this from my limited perspective, but you see the good you’re going to bring through this.”
In the Old Testament, Joseph’s brothers hated him with such passion that they could not say a peaceable word to him. They wanted to murder him, but when they saw a band of traders passing by, they decided it would be better to make a little money off him, so they sold him as a slave. They coldly ignored his anguished cries and rejoiced that the brother they hated was gone. Heartlessly, they conjured up a story to make their father believe Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Grief almost destroyed their father, but they held to their story.
In the end, God blessed Joseph and exalted him to become the governor of Egypt. In hindsight, we see God was preparing the way for Joseph’s family to be delivered from a coming famine. When all things were concluded, Joseph was in a position of authority and could have brought vengeance down on his brothers. Instead he looked at the plan of God and said, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”
The Lord used the hate of Joseph’s brothers as a tool to test Joseph, shape his character, and then bless his life in ways that would not have been possible if he stayed in the safety of his home. But one important thing to note is Joseph’s forgiveness. He acknowledged the wrong, but then credited it to God. It was something God not only allowed, but He orchestrated these events so Joseph could ultimately find the goodness of the Lord, and be in a spiritual condition to receive it. He forgave his brothers and became a blessing to them.
Joseph forgave because he took his eyes off the wrong and looked to God’s plan. By looking at the bigger picture of God’s plan, Joseph could see the hand of God through the hardships, pain, and then through his exaltation. If his anger had bound him to the wrongs done, Joseph would have been blind to the work of God. He would have then fought against God’s plan instead of being an instrument of blessing.
Could God have used Joseph if he hadn’t trusted the Lord enough to forgive?
Knowing Joseph was in a position where he could now retaliate, his brothers were living in fear, but Joseph spoke kindly to them. “Fear not,” he said. “Though you meant it for evil, God meant it for good. It was necessary to save the lives of many. I will take care of you and nourish you and your families.”
At no time in Joseph’s life do you see bitterness. In fact, his positive attitude caused him to find favor in each situation – including several years when he was wrongfully in prison.
Forgiveness is also an acknowledgement of our need. I need forgiveness. I need God’s mercies. I recognize I’m not upright in all my ways. I want to be, but I fall short. Because I recognize my need, I also recognize the importance of not holding others to a standard I don’t want applied to my own life. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement of God’s mercy over me. I forgive because I have been forgiven.
Unforgiveness reveals the opposite. When I refuse to forgive, I am declaring that I don’t recognize my own need, and therefore do not acknowledge the greatness of God’s mercies toward me.
Unforgiveness is my declaration that God doesn’t have the right to put me through hardships in order to use me to be an instrument of blessing in His miraculous plan. It is to say my temporary comfort is more valuable than God’s eternal plan. It is to say, I’d rather have short-term comfort than be patient enough to see the salvation of the Lord – and have the blessing of being part of that salvation.
I cannot plead for mercy in my own life and then demand justice in the life of others. Consider James 2:13
For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
What a beautiful passage! Mercy triumphs over judgment. When you and I forgive, we are showing mercy. The other person has committed a wrong and is indebted to me – whether they realize it or not. But because I have been shown mercy and God forgave me all that debt, I recognize the necessity to show God’s mercy to others.
This is what Jesus was saying in the parable about the two servants. The one with so great a debt couldn’t see his own need.
Instead of holding our grudge as a demand for payment for a wrong, we release it to the Lord, trusting in His mercies – both to us, and to the one we are forgiving. Not only are you setting that person free, but you are setting yourself free as well. The cage of bitterness opens and you walk out. Then you are free from the chains of bitterness and free from the judgment against your debt that has now been overcome by mercy.
Let me reiterate what was stated in the last chapter. Forgiveness is essential for emotional, spiritual, and often for physical health.
· Memorize Matthew 7:1-2
· Think about something in your life God forgave you of. Thank God for showing mercy.
· Read Isaiah 14:12-15.
· Read Proverbs 16:18
· Read James 4:6-8
· What was the cause of Satan’s (Lucifer’s) fall?
· How does pride blind us to our own destructive behaviors?
· Think upon the ways that pride interferes with your obedience to God.
· Think about how pride prevents us from forgiving.
· Repent – or turn from – your own pride, confess this sin to God, and pray for a willing heart to forgive others.
· Submit to God that He may give you the power to resist temptation – including pride.