This Sabbath morning, as I was acknowledging my Saviour and Creator, I asked how I should spend these set-apart hours. Almost immediately the thought entered my mind that I should write a column about forgiveness. Sometimes this can be the hardest thing in a Christian’s life, in my opinion.
I suspect the reason that the Holy Spirit prompted me in this fashion is that I had someone on my mind, a worship leader who has treated me in a decidedly unChristlike manner more than once recently, and who I may possibly see in the near future. I was wondering how I would act if she approached me (because approaching her was definitely not on my list of things to do.) For the record, I did approach her in accordance with the instructions of Matthew 18:15-17, but she chose to walk out on the conversation. That was nearly two months ago, and we haven’t been in fellowship since.
We are told repeatedly that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15, Mark 11:26-25, Luke 6:37) so the stakes are high. Jesus even tells us in Matthew 18:22 that we are to forgive seventy times seven. My carnal heart has always preferred Luke’s version of this instruction, in Luke 17:3-4, because at least Luke records that Jesus conditions our requirement of forgiveness on the offending brother asking forgiveness. In Luke’s scenario, that is actually much easier. If a brother or sister in Christ has offended us, and is truly sorrowful over their actions, and comes with heartfelt sincerity imploring us to please accept their apology, and they make any possible amends and promise not to do it again, that is easy to forgive. Contrast that with one who offends us, feels justified in having done so, and refuses to hear us when we try to discuss the matter in a Biblical fashion. How do we move forward with forgiveness in that situation?
In comparing the texts from Matthew 18:22 and Luke 17:3-4, I considered what we have been told about how our sins against God are forgiven by Him. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, we are forgiven and cleansed. Verses like Acts 8:22 also make repentance the first step in the forgiveness process. Repeatedly throughout Scripture we are told to confess and repent. After all, it would be quite presumptuous of us to believe that we can sin against God all we want, never confess, never repent, and yet expect to be forgiven. This led me to wonder if God expects us to forgive those who don’t apologize or make any amends to us.
If we do not forgive in our hearts, there is a danger that it could lead to bitterness and anger, which are characteristics that have no place in the life of the redeemed of Christ. If by forgiveness, you mean through the help of God we should remove any bitterness and anger in our hearts toward that person, then yes, without a doubt, we should all do that. We should also pray for them, in accordance with Matthew 6:44. But if by forgiveness, you think that God expects you to continue to fellowship with an unrepentant offender, you have less Biblical ground to stand on. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, we are told that righteousness and unrighteousness should have no fellowship, nor should light have communion with darkness.
This circumstance has reminded me of two lessons. First of all, be sure not to allow bitterness to take root in our hearts, and if it has, to repent of it and ask God to cleanse us from it. Secondly, be extra careful that we do not offend our brethren, especially without apology or remorse, possibly leading them to sin by giving them a potential opportunity to harbor bitterness or anger themselves. If you haven’t done so lately, perhaps now is a good time to pray Psalm 139:23-24: Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.