The Role of Forgiveness in Christian Spirituality
Article 5-A of the Forgiveness Section of the Positive Psychology Series
Forgiveness in a Christian’s life is crucial in so many ways, yet forgiving someone who has hurt you is a difficult task that can also be painful. So why do it? Why forgive? In my previous articles, I discussed the psychological benefits and in-depth definitions of forgiveness, and in this article I explain why forgiveness is morally right. Forgiveness may not immediately appear to be listed as an essential aspect of humanity, but as we study it as an act and as an attitude we find that it is the very essence of God’s character. God has bound Himself in love to humans. And we are called to be loving and good, just as He has been – even when this means acting on someone else’s behalf and not our own.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
Forgive as I Have Forgiven You
If you look for what God has to say about forgiveness, a simple search in your Bible will reveal scripture after scripture saying that human beings should forgive other human beings simply because God first forgave us. The Bible’s primary emphasis on forgiveness is not on our forgiving one another, but is rather on our being forgiven.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. (Ephesians 1:7)
God simply says: “Treat each other as I have treated you.” God loves the world, and He wants us to love His children as we love ourselves. This is an intensified form of the golden rule in which Christians are called beyond goodness to godliness. This not only necessitates forgiveness, but demands a radical forgiveness that gives greatly and requires us to rely on God.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
Forgiving as Christ did involves sacrifice. It means being prepared to lay down your life for your friends. Or it may even involve loving your enemy.
If You Don’t Forgive, You Won’t Be Forgiven
In the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus tells us in verse 12 to ask the Lord to “forgive us as we forgive others.” In the passage immediately after the Lord’s Prayer, we are given a specific reflection on this line about forgiveness. Jesus explains this in verses 14 and 15 where He tells us that if you forgive, God will forgive you, and if you don’t, He won’t forgive you. This is certainly a dramatic emphasis with overwhelming consequences.
To Forgive is to Align Ourselves with God
However, the Bible also discusses faith as a gift. It tells us that God gives us what we need when we are doing what He asks; He will help us do what seems impossible. We also know that God cares about us very much: He knows the hairs on our head and knows every little sparrow – and we are worth more than many sparrows. He is concerned that forgiveness is hard, and He hurts that it hurts you. No one has suffered more than He has or paid a greater price for forgiveness. It is not so much that He joins us on our journey of forgiveness, but rather that we are to join Him. He has not called us to hardship for the sake of hardship, but for the sake of life and glory, and He will take care of us as we lay down our lives. If we come under His yoke, He pulls the lion’s share. The Kingdom expands as we choose to live as God lives – this is what is meant by godliness.
Forgiving Seventy Times Seven
In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus the question we all want to ask once we’ve started to practice the discipline of forgiveness: How many times do I have to forgive someone close, someone who continues to wrong me? When forgiveness goes well, it is freeing and life-giving, but when it goes poorly your transgressor can treat you with contempt and continue to transgress. This happens particularly when people are very close to each other, such as in a marriage or a family. And it certainly does happen. Peter asks how many times he should forgive a brother who continually sins against him. “Up to seven times?” It is clear that he knew Jesus and His teachings, for Peter anticipated the Lord’s reply, and he may have been making a good effort to extend his heart to partake in the Kingdom and forgive many times.
Jesus replied by saying, “I tell you, not seven times – but seventy times seven.” At that moment, Jesus was the same as He was at creation and the same as He is today – His paradigm of thought was beyond what the apostles were ready to hear. He tells us that we are called to forgive our brother as many times as we are given opportunity – we are to never refuse to forgive. And when this seems impossible, we should thank God that this is how He forgives us.
Forgiveness is a Stance We Take
However, I do not think Jesus meant to imply that we should just forgive someone once for each discreet transgression. I only recently realized that this implies a process of forgiveness, that we must often forgive the same transgression again and again in our hearts. We are called to forgive until we are resolved and free from resentment, until there is a healing of the heart. In other words, as often as our hearts breach a stance of love toward someone else. Forgiveness is more about the stance we take than a self-contained ritual. This may sound like a life-long drudgery. “Must I forgive every time I don’t love someone, even if I have already forgiven them?” Yet I have found it to be incredibly liberating and refreshing to practice forgiveness as a habit or discipline, rather than as something I need to “get right the first time.” My heart softens as I practice forgiveness “from the heart (Matt 18:35, Mark 11:26),” and I live a life of blessing others over and over. This process helps me to have grace for others, knowing that I have also been forgiven. For me, it is a necessary practice in the discipline of loving others.
Christian Counseling to Tap into the Power of Forgiveness
It is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways in which they have already overcome in life, and how God has uniquely shaped them both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.
“Forgive,” courtesy of Tony Webster, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “The Gospel of John,” courtesy of Sang Valte, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Bible,” courtesy of One Day Closer, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)
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