Few things commanded by God confound us as much as the issue of forgiveness. Jesus specifically taught on the subject many times, highlighting it in His instruction to His disciples on how to pray; what we call The Lord’s Prayer. With a paralytic, He elevated the act of forgiving above physical healing when friends lowered the man through a roof. Over and over He addressed this controversial topic, leaving people like deer caught in headlights. Why is forgiveness so hard to grasp?
I believe it has to do with our own sense of justice. Certainly when we’re on the wounded end of a wrong, it seems unfair that the offender could just get by with it. While we tend to judge offenses comparatively, the fact is that lies spoken about us can come in as painfully as the stealing of inheritances or spouses. We want others to know the truth and rally to our support! Moreover, an offense against our children or other loved ones usually trumps personal offense, begging a response in kind. Letting these things go seems like endorsing them.
Jesus’s 12 disciples were equally perplexed, so Jesus gave them private instruction recorded in Luke 17:1-10. He says in verses 3-4, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” This is an amazing template for us. Jesus’ first point covers the fact that many times when we are offended, the perpetrator is not even aware an offense has taken place. For instance, if our feelings have been hurt, we need to kindly let the offender know. If the individual is good-willed, he/she will try to avoid repeating the mistake, additionally apologizing and asking for forgiveness. That kind of contrition should not be met with a refusal to forgive because we’re still nursing our pain.
Jesus is also not saying we are off the hook to forgive if the perpetrator doesn’t ask. His second point backs that up. Anyone who continues to provoke injury after being made aware of the offense, does so because he is callous, a liar, self-absorbed/self-righteous, has a seared conscious (is ill-willed), or is completely unable to control his behavior. Even if he asks for forgiveness, he will likely do it again, as true repentance is absent. This kind of person holds his victims captive to his abuse, and (significantly) represents all of us when Jesus chose to forgive us from the cross of what was truly unforgivable. Jesus forgave when we didn’t ask for it, when we didn’t deserve it, and even though we would repeat the offense. He wants us to do likewise for others. So, whether the individual neglects to ask for forgiveness or whether he asks, but continues the injurious behavior, Jesus is commanding forgiveness.
This was such a hard lesson, “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!” (v.5) Whereupon, Jesus gave them the illustration of what they could do if they only had faith as small as a mustard seed. We need the same faith to know that forgiving others is our act of obedience to the Lord. It is not letting offenders off the hook, nor endorsing their actions, nor mitigating recurrences of the same offense. Our simple obedience to align ourselves with Jesus in forgiving the unforgivable frees God (His nature as Just prohibits Him from blessing disobedience) to do the work of removing the pain, anger, and all the negative emotions that hold us captive to the offense. The faith to do this requires taking Jesus at His word, embracing the cost of His sacrifice for us, and loving Him enough to choose alignment with Him over stubbornly adhering to self-righteous justice. The payoff is sooo good – freedom…but it’s not experienced apart from obedience. Do you have mustard seed faith?