What Does the Bible Really Say about Seeking and Offering Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a rather large topic covered in the Bible. You could read the Bible from cover to cover and come to the conclusion that it is all about forgiveness. There are layers to the conversation on forgiveness though. There is the forgiveness that we must receive from God because of our sin. This is what we often think about for this topic. However, the Bible also shows us that directly tied to the forgiveness of our sin is our willingness to forgive when our relationships with each other are harmed in some way. Forgiveness is essential if we are going to grow as children of God.
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What Does the Bible Say about Forgiveness?
There are a great many Bible verses about forgiveness. Let’s look at a few that speak about people forgiving people.
Proverbs 10:12 – “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
Proverbs 17:9 – “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
Genesis 50:19-21 – “But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus, he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Note: Joseph is forgiving his brothers that had sold him into slavery in Egypt where he had suffered for quite a few years.)
Mark 11:25 – “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Luke 17:3-4 – “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Colossians 3:12-13 – “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
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What Is Forgiveness?
Consider forgiveness through the idea of debt. When we take out a loan, the way it is forgiven is when we pay the money we borrowed back along with some extra money as interest. If we miss a payment, further debt is incurred and it becomes increasingly difficult to pay off the original amount. Somewhere along the way, the debt can be referred to a debt collector. These are people who use not so nice tactics to collect what is owed. Once we do find a way to pay off the debt of the loan, it is considered forgiven.
In our relationships with each other, we often see them in terms of debt transactions. Someone does something for me so I “owe” them one and vice-versa. When someone does something that hurts me (mentally, physically, socially, or spiritually) I consider that in the form of a debt, but now I am charging interest. We start to make decisions about our interactions with that person based on this debt and we treat them with different levels of hostile behavior depending upon the severity of the infraction. This is when we have become not just the person owed something, but also the debt-collector.
Oddly enough, the people we treat this way may not even know that what they did has caused offense. So, the reality here is that we increase the stress and anxiety within ourselves while the other person may not be experiencing it at all. There is a quote that has been attributed to many, many wise people that says “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” This speaks to the toxic effect that stress, anger, and anxiety has on us when we refuse to forgive.
Forgiveness is the route that allows us to let go of that toxicity. Lack of forgiveness is about trying to maintain some semblance of power within our identity. It has the opposite effect; it changes us into something bitter, twisted, and enslaved. God has designed us to be something better – something glorious, beautiful, and free. We created the debt in our mind; we can write off the debt and let go of the shackles that tie us to our resentment. Additionally, God would like us to move into a state of being that is beyond understanding our relationships in terms of debt transactions. God wants us to see each other in terms of grace (a gift).
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What Does Jesus Say about Forgiveness?
Jesus himself stressed the importance of forgiveness, but he was doing so in a culture that stressed very legalistic ideas. The problem with legalism is that it forgets or bypasses the spirit in which the (Mosaic) law was given. Forgiveness from a legalistic perspective is a matter of balancing the books and making sure that a debt is paid or cancelled. From a spiritual perspective, forgiveness is about restoring the pathways of communication and love.
Look at Matthew 18:15-22 as an example. In verses 15-20, Jesus lays out a conflict resolution process that seeks a state of forgiveness between the parties involved. The ideal result of this solution is the meeting of two (or more) people seeking a state of forgiveness, and Jesus says that he is there also. What a beautiful moment that people can share not only with each other, but with God. Where else can we specifically do something and know that God joins us in that moment? Seen in this light, forgiveness is sacramental.
Peter hears Jesus give this instruction, but his legalistic side kicks in and he asks in verse 21 how many times he has to forgive someone before he can write them off. Seven times?
Seven represented completion in the Bible. Peter wanted to know at what point he could be completely done with someone that constantly seemed to need forgiveness. If we are honest, we all have been here. There is someone that you know who always seems to have a knack for doing something that wrongs you. It is very likely that you have already written them off and avoid them as a matter of trying to preserve your own inner peace.
Jesus knows that these issues arise, but his instructions don’t let us off the hook so easily. He tells Peter in verse 22 that he must forgive the offender 70 times 7. That sounds like a high number (490), but it is still a number, right? We can go to 490 and then forever bar a person from our life because Jesus said this, correct? Sorry. What Jesus meant is tied to the numbers he gave. Seven represents the idea of completion. 70 as 10 times 7 is an expression of magnitude, not a specific number. This means that our responsibility to forgive goes far beyond what a legalistic world would consider complete. Forgiveness, like God’s love, has no end.
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Why Does the Bible Command Us to Forgive?
As mentioned before, forgiveness allows us to become unentangled from toxic anxiety and stress so that we can become more of what God created us to be. Forgiveness is a non-negotiable practice for true followers of Jesus Christ and there is another reason besides the previous one. The forgiveness that we receive from God is tied to our forgiving others. Not our capability to forgive or our capacity to forgive, but our actual practice of forgiving others is something that God reciprocates by forgiving us.
The Bible mentions this is Mark 11:25 as well as the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). In fact, Jesus further explains after the Lord’s Prayer that forgiveness on our part brings about forgiveness from God. Perhaps this is because as we forgive and release our desires for vengeance or control, we are releasing ourselves from deep-seated self-centeredness which allows God to have more influence and power in our lives. You can’t receive the blessings of God if you are full of the relics of your old self.
Are there exceptions? The Bible shows that Jesus commands us to continually forgive those who repent and seek our forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22 ; Luke 17:3-4). There is a verse where there is a different recourse, but it needs to be understood correctly.
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus outlines a conflict resolution process where forgiveness is the preferred outcome. However, there is recognition that it may not be possible. Verse 17 states “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is not a license to hold a grudge. The Jews were not allowed to interact with the unclean in any way. What Jesus is saying here is that on the strict condition that someone does not repent of what they have done, then and only then, you should cut off any contact with them.
This means that you will need to release any ideas of debt or connection to them as well as the dictate to have no contact with them. It is a severance without malice for the protection of your own soul as well as the unity of the body of the church. Again, this is not an allowance for malice or expectation of vengeance. It is for protection until such time as a person will repent and seek forgiveness.
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How Do We Forgive Someone?
There is no magic formula that allows us to forgive. We must set it as a goal and continue to strive for it. A good place to start is how the Bible tells us to remember that the other person is just as guilty of sin as we are (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12-13). Our sin separates us all from God and knowing that can give us a better perspective.
Perhaps a good way to start on the path toward forgiving someone is to pray that God would allow you to see them like HE sees them. Remind yourself that Jesus cherished them enough to die for them as well as you. Let God break your heart for them and thereby heal you of your hurt from their hand. I am not suggesting that you should do this in a way that allows yourself to be in an abusive relationship or create an unsafe situation for your children (as can happen). If that type of thing continues, the offender has not repented and the rule regarding severance should be applied. God did not create you or anyone else to suffer abuse from another.
If you are the one in the wrong, how do you seek and accept forgiveness? Matthew 5:23-24 says this: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” God wants you to have clear and honest relationships here on earth. To seek forgiveness, you must as gently as possible confess your offense to the person you offended and share with them that you are not going to do that anymore. When they understand that, apologize and then ask if they would forgive you.
I am not promising that this will happen instantly, healing can take time depending on what the offense was and how badly someone was hurt by it. Our friends from Alcoholics Anonymous recommend as part of seeking forgiveness, that we make sure that in seeking forgiveness we do not cause further damage to someone. It may take time before it is wise for you to seek forgiveness from someone or you could make the issue worse. During your wait, pray to God for the opportunity of healing and restoration.
Forgiveness, though not easy, is necessary. Without being able to forgive, we cut off our ability to be forgiven. God himself even cuts off the avenue of forgiveness if we cut it off from someone else. If you want to be everything that God has created you to be, then you need to be willing to enter into the dialog that bring forgiveness.
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Larry White is the Pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Marathon, FL and is also an Adjunct Professor at Florida Keys Community College teaching courses in World Religions and New Testament.