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“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:23-26).
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:21-22).
There are a number of ideas we have about forgiveness that are just plain wrong.
For one, forgiveness doesn’t mean saying nothing happened, or that the other person did nothing wrong. So often, I hear this! “I’m not willing to say he didn’t do anything wrong!” “I can’t forgive her; I’m not going to say nothing happened!”
But that doesn’t make sense! Forgiveness requires something to have happened. You don’t forgive someone for not doing wrong. In order for you to forgive someone, they have to have actually done something wrong. Otherwise, what are you forgiving?
Forgiveness is an action you choose to make, in reaction to a wrong someone has done. You aren’t saying, “It’s okay,” or “You’re fine; you did nothing wrong.” Not at all!
Forgiveness is saying to someone, “You did something wrong, and I am going to choose to restore our relationship rather than let this remain between us.” A misdeed brought separation between you, and you are choosing to push it out of the way so that the relationship can be restored.
Another common idea is that some things are unforgivable. This is something we see trumpeted many places.
We often see it used as, “There is no excuse for what you did.” But whether there is a good excuse for some misdeed or not is irrelevant.
Forgiveness is a sacrifice. It is choosing not to take vengeance, not to take what is owed to you. So often you see relationships as a system of debts and obligations; and when someone does something wrong, it tips the relationship and something needs to be done to restore the balance. And so you get strange situations like, “Man, I’m sorry I accidentally hit you! Here, punch me in the face! One free shot!”
This is symptomatic of viewing relationship as an account that needs to be balanced. Doing something wrong creates a debt which the other person cashes in, and the relationship is restored.
And under that system, it makes sense that some things could be unforgivable. Someone created a debt so severe in the relationship account that it cannot be rectified. The only solution is to dissolve the account and destroy the relationship.
But that’s wrong.
Like all such flawed models, there is some truth to this: it’s certainly what we feel. If someone wrongs you, it’s very common to feel like they owe you something to make up for it. But that’s not forgiveness, and it’s not what Jesus commands.
If God held us to that standard, we would all go to hell. The whole of the balance due on our fallen and corrupt condition would still be outstanding. We use phrases like, “Jesus paid it all,” but does that mean that the relationship account between God and humanity is balanced? Not at all!
If we go by this model, then all of humanity would have to die to pay off the debt. But instead, God paid it. If your friend steals $100 from you, do you consider the debt paid when you pay him $1,000 more? If your relationship is a system of debts and payments, all you did was increase his debt!
No, that model doesn’t work. Only forgiveness works. It is forgiveness that gives a stealing friend $1,000 after they stole $100 from you. It is forgiveness when God lays down His own life for humanity’s death.
As you may recall, I have a friend who recently got out of prison. He downloaded child pornography. I think that, to our society, that is a relationship debt that cannot be paid. That is wholly unforgivable.
But I forgave—and continue to forgive—him. Not because I am such an amazing guy. Believe me: as someone who knows me very well, I can attest I’m not an amazing guy.
I forgave him for many reasons. First because God tells me to. After all, as He outlines in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, if I don’t forgive, how can I be forgiven? And if I don’t forgive all, then how am I to be forgiven all? If I don’t forgive everything, I cannot be forgiven of everything.
More than that, I recognize that, as I said before, I am not an amazing guy. I recognize that I myself need forgiveness—not for the same things, but I have sinned and fall short of the glory of God in my own ways. I cannot understand what drove my friend to do what he did. But I don’t need to understand it, because I understand my own sin, and I know I need it to be forgiven.
Lastly, I forgive because he is my friend. There is nothing he can do to pay off any relationship debt for what he has done. The ball is entirely in my court on this one. And I realized that, whatever he has done, he is still my friend. And so, because I value my friend, I make the sacrifice and I forgive. I do not let my friend’s sin stand in the way because I value my friend.
Forgiveness is sacrifice. And it is a sacrifice we all must make if we truly love each other.