Forgiveness doesn’t come easy for me. Even as I write, I know that it won’t be long before I need to cross off another offense and I know where I fall short. I imagine it isn’t easy for many of us.
Yet Christ didn’t mess around when He said, “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15).
Later in the New Testament, Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Take these two scriptures together, and it’s a tall order. Are we supposed to “forgive” because we have to? What if we don’t mean it? What good is to forgive if it isn’t sincere? According to this passage, our words and/or deeds are nothing without love.
So it’s a catch 22 – I need to obey Christ, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite. If I don’t want to be a hypocrite, I’ll wait to “feel” like it…but if I never feel like it, I’ll never forgive….
The struggle between what we should do and what we desire is nothing new, even to a strong Christian leader. Paul describes this struggle in Romans 7:18 – “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
The answer to this dilemma is that we cannot win this battle alone. As Christians, we have the Holy Spirit within us. Listen to Paul’s words to the Ephesians:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness.”
In the end, God is the one that energizes and empowers us to have His mind and heart on any matter, and forgiveness is not an exception. We initially obey, and in obeying, we not only comply with God’s command, but we also agree to have our hearts changed in the process.
John MacArthur said it well:
“Forgiveness is first of all an act of the will. It is not hypocrisy to will forgiveness when the emotions are screaming for vengeance. Be obedient to the Lord regardless of how you feel. If you refuse to harbor spite or dwell on the offense, evil emotions will be starved. Moreover, the Lord Himself will set your heart right. Right emotions will eventually come if you surrender to Him.”*
In closing, I want to share an account I read by Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian woman who was arrested and sent to a concentration camp for hiding and protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation in Holland, as she describes a very honest struggle to forgive one of her captors. It’s lengthy, but worth the read:
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands…
One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“… I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”**
It explores other questions about the subject such as:
- What is the character of someone who forgives?
- On what basis should we forgive someone who has offended us?
- What are the dynamics of forgiveness?
- What are the purposes of God in forgiveness?
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