At the heart of the Easter story, we find forgiveness. With Jesus’ death on the cross, all our sin and shame was washed away and we were, ultimately, forgiven, cleansed and made right with our Creator.
Indeed, one fundamental mark of the Christian is the acceptance of God’s forgiveness. In equal measure, however, followers of Jesus should be willing and able to forgive those who have sinned against them.
But, we are human, and forgiveness is not easy. We have all been hurt and, I imagine, most of us have at some stage found it difficult to unhook someone from the talons of our resentment and unforgiveness. Indeed, a recent Barna Group study discovered that as many as one in four Christians have struggled to forgive someone who has transgressed against them.
Why is forgiveness so important?
Simply put, forgiveness is at the very heart of the Christian faith.
We have been forgiven of our sins and cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Therefore, we have no legitimate right to hold back forgiveness from others.
In fact, Scripture goes further than this — as believers, we are called to be proactive in forgiving those who have wronged us, knowing that even in our worst state, Christ forgave us of all our iniquities.
“Forgiveness is central to Christianity,” said Brooke Hempell, Barna’s senior vice president of research. “It’s what distinguishes it from any other religious faith. We are reconciled to God through Jesus’ sacrifice, and in response, we should be agents of reconciliation in every aspect of our lives.”
Colossians 3:13 instructs: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
We have been forgiven much, so we must forgive much. But how much?
Seventy times seven
One of the most challenging Scriptures of all is found in Matthew 18, when Peter approaches Jesus with a question that I’m sure most of us can relate to: “Just how many times do I have to forgive the person who keeps wronging me?”
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter asks, likely hoping that Jesus would say “once is enough.”
Instead, Christ gives an almost inconceivable answer: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Seventy times seven! While this appears scandalous, Jesus, through his direct response, is probing at human heart once again. The lesson? Learn how to forgive others like Christ forgave you, and never withhold grace from those who have wronged you.
Why is it so difficult to forgive others?
One crucial element that often prevents Christians from forgiving others is the fact that they believe themselves to be unforgivable. Entangled in sin, and racked with the guilt and shame that tags along with it, forgiveness can feel impossible to bestow upon anyone else.
That’s when we must declare the promises of God, demonstrated to us through Christ’s death on the cross, that we are clean, renewed and totally forgiven — that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us,” (Psalm 103:12).
Forgiveness is costly
When people hurt us, it does just that — it hurts. However, despite the tendency to engage in knee-jerk reactions, we are presented with a number of options when we’ve been wronged by others: we can choose to retaliate, we can become embittered, or we can sink into a pit of hopelessness about the whole state of affairs.
However, God, through Jesus Christ, can offer us a new way — a way that cost Him everything on the cross. Let’s remember that, as Christians, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to reject each of these reactions, enabled instead to seek the Lord’s grace in actively forgiving those who have hurt us.
We must let the offender off the hook so that we might be freed from the detrimental effects of unforgiveness.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” Nelson Mandela famously said. He’s right — the only person that unforgiveness hurts is you.
Of course, there is often ample reason for us to feel angry at those who have wounded us, and some of that may well be right and righteous. Buried deep within the human soul is a deep longing that calls out for justice, both personally and for the wrongdoings perpetrated against others.
For us to administer retaliation, or to refuse to forgive, however, would be an attempt to replace God himself.
Remember that justice is the Lord’s
While it can be tempting to take matters into our own hands when we have been sinned against by another person, we must remember that this is not our place. The teachings of Christ show that we are to “turn the other cheek,” and bless those who persecute or wrong us.
The book of Proverbs even advises that the good treatment of those who have wronged us is equivalent to “heaping burning coals on their heads.” What the writer is getting at here is that these strange acts of grace and kindness will be seen by the Lord himself, who not only “rewards us” for these right attitudes, but also reminds us that He is king over all.
It is a counter-cultural message that offends our human reasoning — but it is the way of the Kingdom.
In the same breath, however, we must know that God will issue justice in its perfect form upon those who are unrepentant of the hurt and pain they have caused others.
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,” writes the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:19. “For it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
So, with all that in mind, and with Easter just around the corner, do some soul searching today and ask God whom it is you need to forgive.