When Forgiveness Is Hard
You don’t know what she did to me. You can’t imagine how he treated me. She lied to me. He stole from me. She cheated on me. He abused me. She stole my promotion. He walked out on us. Her gossip cost me valuable friendships. His alcoholism destroyed my family.
The list continues as our lives are constantly interrupted by the devastating impact of sin, and the hurt induced by the sinners whose choices produce painful memories and stubborn wounds that cannot seem to heal. The Bible is clear on the response we, as believers, are supposed to have when we are sinned against: unconditional forgiveness. Passage after passage teaches us to forgive those who cause us pain, grief, and misery, freeing them from any debt we think they should pay, refusing to seek retribution. But there are times when the command to forgive seems impossible, when the hurt and pain cut too deeply to just let go.
It is in those moments that the typical church response ceases to be adequate. Armed with Scripture and canned responses, believers often overlook the real, emotional distress caused by sin and heartlessly demand that forgiveness be issued at once. The absurdity of the demand is often masked with pleasant rationales, assuring those sinned against that they will feel “so much better” once they forgive, as if a weight has been lifted off of their shoulders, or that they will help the sinner recognize the error of his or her ways, shocking them into repentance. While these rationales may be rooted in a kernel of truth, pairing them with memory verses and using them as motivation for radical forgiveness is unsympathetic and tone-deaf, communicating that a lack of desire to forgive one who caused immense pain stems from some fundamental character flaw—that forgiveness should not be hard, and that one should just “get over oneself” and forgive the other person.
That is not how the Bible treats radical forgiveness. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus instructs His disciples to forgive those who sin against them regardless of the number of times that individual transgressed. He follows this command with a story, in which a servant is forgiven an insurmountable debt by his master, but then attempts to extract a debt he is owed by another servant without mercy. The second servant reports the behavior to their master, who chides the first servant for failing to forgive, and throws him in prison to be tortured. Jesus finishes the story by saying, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
Many Christians pair the end of this story with verses such as Matthew 6:14-15 and Luke 6:37 to justify their insensitive response to a believer holding on to bitterness and struggling to forgive. They reprimand the believer, reminding them of God’s command to forgive, scolding them for failing to let go of the pain and suffering someone caused them. In these instances, the communicated motivation to forgive is God’s command to do so, perhaps coupled with some rote rationale as to why His command is just.
But God does not command us to forgive because it is the right thing to do. He does not demand that we release another from the debt we are owed simply because we will feel better if we do. He does not call us to radical forgiveness in light of some divine directive. He does not ask that we muster enough will power to forgive “because He said so.”
The Bible’s motivation to forgive is always the recognition of one’s own release from an incalculable debt. Like the first servant in Christ’s story, each of us has amassed a debt to God we could never repay. A life of rebellion against the perfect Creator, adamant refusal to accept His rightful rule over our lives, transgression after transgression against the One who gifts us with air for our lungs. No amount of good deeds for God could ever repay what we owed Him. Despite our rebellion, He chose to send His Son to die on a cross for our sins. Our insurmountable debt has been eternally rectified, the unbridgeable chasm separating us from God has been closed, as the beautiful blood of the sinless Savior has covered over the entirety of our sins, freeing us from the wrath of God forever. It is in light of that forgiveness that we forgive others unconditionally.
The master expected the servant to forgive the other servant’s debt, not because it was the right thing to do, but in recognition of the astounding forgiveness shown him. In Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13, we are taught to forgive one another “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” This forgiveness does not trivialize the pain and suffering one experiences at the hands of a sinner; rather, pain and suffering are washed away in the perfect, unending, fully-sufficient love of Christ, enabling a believer to truly forgive. Difficulty forgiving another does not stem from some fundamental character flaw that must be overcome, but from an incomplete understanding of the indescribable forgiveness with which Christ has forgiven you.
The cure for unforgiveness is not to memorize more verses, muster enough courage, and do the right thing. The cure for unforgiveness is looking to the cross to gain a greater appreciation for the forgiveness shown by the Savior to undeserving sinners at Calvary. A personal recognition of one’s own forgiven state, in light of one’s rebellion, will flow over into one’s relationships with others. The Church must continue to point people to the cross, understanding that there are times when forgiveness is hard, when pain is real, when the consequences of another’s sin linger, but realizing that the ultimate solution lies in the beautiful message of the gospel—free to all and never ceasing to amaze those who have been impacted by saving grace.