Must I Forgive?
Some time ago, an article appeared in Psychology Today entitled, “Must You Forgive?” The subtitle read: “Sometimes it’s Healthier Not to Forgive.” The article was preceded by a brief introduction that stated:
“From the political to the personal, Americans are caught in an orgy of forgiveness. Failure to pardon, we’re constantly admonished, will blight our lives. Now a psychotherapist counters that popular claim. You can refuse to absolve your lover, spouse, parent, sibling or friend, she declares, and still be emotionally healthy.”
Author of the article, Jeanne Safer, then proceeds to give rationale and support for her notion that forgiveness is not always the best course of action. She writes, “The capacity to forgive is an essential part of an examined life. However, enshrining universal forgiveness as a panacea, a requirement or the only moral choice, is rigid, simplistic and even pernicious. Yet that is exactly what we have done. Today we demonize not forgiving as much as we idealize forgiving. Failure to forgive, therapists caution, is to ‘doom yourself to be a victim for the rest of your life,’ while clergy warn that it inexorably leads to a ‘recycling of evil.’” She goes on to say, “Yet some of the most admirable, sane and emotionally healthy people that I know have not forgiven on occasion. Not forgiving needs to be reconceived. It is not an avoidance of forgiveness or a retreat into paranoia, but a legitimate action in itself, with its own progression, motivation and justification. There are many circumstances in which it is the proper and most emotionally authentic course of action” (Safer, Jeanne. “Must You Forgive?” Psychology Today. July 1, 1999. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199907/must-you-forgive).
If Psychology Today was the template for how we are to treat our neighbor, then we would be free to harbor ill-will and extreme hatred in our hearts without a second thought, which is what many of us choose to do anyway. But, sadly, Jeanne Safer and Psychology Today, in all their research, did not consult the one source that would have settled the matter once and for all.
Let’s trade in the psychobabble for the word of God. Here is what the scriptures have to say concerning forgiveness.
* “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your heavenly Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14 & 15).
* In Matthew 18:21 Peter asks the question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22).
* In Mark 11:25 & 26 it reads, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”
* Luke 6:37 states, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.”
* In Luke 11, verse 4, as part of The Model Prayer, Jesus tells His disciples they should pray, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.”
* In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, “…bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”
Must I forgive? Yes! However, forgiveness is a tricky concept. We all need it, but few of us want to freely give it. Forgiveness is not second nature to us. The idea that I must forgive someone who has done me wrong is a notion that is often met with great resistance. But if I am to be Christ-like, then I had better learn the art of forgiveness; regardless of whether I particularly like it or not.
Forgiveness has to do more with an attitude than a specific act. Forgiveness is a matter of the heart. Just prior to Jesus’ telling of The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Peter asks the question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times (Mt. 18:21)?” Peter thought he was being overly generous. He probably thought he would really impress Jesus by suggesting that he should forgive a brother seven times. The Pharisees only required a person to forgive three times. Jesus responds by telling Peter not to stop at seven. The number He uses is seventy times seven, which is not meant to be taken literally. Peter understood that when a person sins against another and repents, he must be forgiven. However, Peter must have been astonished when Jesus said that you must forgive your brother seventy times seven. In essence, Jesus is saying that as long as a man is sincere in repenting, one must continue to forgive him. There is no limit. One is to forgive as often as his brother repents because this is the that way God operates.
What about if the one who offends us never seeks forgiveness. Are we still required to forgive? Then answer is still, “Yes!” We must forgive in our hearts in order to let it go rather than have it rip us apart spiritually. An attitude of forgiveness is about what YOU need to do in order to be like Christ. It is true that you cannot control the actions of other human beings. You can only control yourself; therefore, in order to be Christ-like, you must do what it takes to rid your heart of bitterness, anger and hatred because such things can ruin one spiritually. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” How do you put away all bitterness and wrath and anger? One definite way to do so is through a heart of forgiveness. It should be noted that one’s willingness to let go of an offense through a heart of forgiveness does not absolve the guilty party. They should still seek forgiveness, but you cannot control what they do. All you can do is make certain that you are living Christ-like.
In simple terms, the forgiving heart is one that cultivates the sort of temperament that highlighted the life of Christ.
* A heart of forgiveness will not take revenge upon those who have wronged him (Rom. 12:17ff).
* A heart of forgiveness does not harbor hatred toward the offender. Instead, in spite of the person’s actions, he loves him (Mt. 5:43-48).
* The forgiving person is tenderhearted toward those who have hurt him (Eph. 4:32).
* The forgiving person can be approached. He leaves the door open for reconciliation and wants what is best for the offender (Col. 3:13).
* The forgiving person is not passive. He does not wait for the offender to come to him. He actively seeks the repentance of the one who wronged him because he is concerned about the offender’s soul (Mt. 18:15-17).
Upon examining the life of Christ and the attitude that He had toward sinners, we are confronted with how extremely difficult forgiveness can be. There are very few things more difficult for us than forgiveness. Someone may contend, “You mean I am supposed to be tenderhearted toward someone who has treated me like dirt? I’m supposed to be approachable to someone who had no regard for my feelings? I’m supposed to actively pursue peace with my adversary? I’m supposed to love someone who clearly doesn’t love me?” As difficult as it may be and as foreign to our nature as it may seem, the answer is, “Yes!” Why must I forgive? Because God forgives us, and He demands that we do the same. If we want to be like Jesus, then we must do as He did.