When our kids fight one another or when I lose my cool with them or my wife, it is more than a temporary upheaval and pain in the neck. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the process of forgiveness. This is related to my last post about the word "sorry."
It has become popular to think we should just "forgive each other in our hearts." Forgiveness is highly misunderstood and debated among Christians. What is forgiveness?
Unconditional Forgiveness View
Often, people use the expression, "Forgive them in your heart" to mean we should forgive unconditionally and see Jesus as the ultimate example of this, as in Luke 23:34. Jesus was being crucified and prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."1 But it could be argued Jesus is praying for people's forgiveness, not forgiving them. It reflects the actions of a high priest praying on behalf of the people for whom he is offering the sacrifice. In the Old Testament law, the people were supposed to place their hands on the lamb to transfer their sin to it, a sign of repentance. The lamb was then slaughtered for their sins. The high priest did not do the forgiving, but interceded. This text is not a proof text for unconditional forgiveness, but of Christ interceding simultaneously as both the high priest and the sacrifice.
Another verse sighted is the "Lord's Prayer" in Matthew 6:9-15. We ask for God's forgiveness "as we have forgiven our debtors." It seems to indicate we have forgiven others already. Is it possible the prayer does not explain what forgiveness is or how it works, but assumes we know what forgiveness is and its process? In other words, if we pray for something, shouldn't we know for what we are praying?
This view is often geared toward satisfying the victim's emotional needs. It is especially appealing as it means we can maintain a certain level of avoidance and not have to confront the other person in the situation. Yet, forgiveness in the Bible is about healing broken relationships and requires this confrontation. Our feelings are secondary to truth, relationships, and character.
Conditional Forgiveness View
The other side of this is the idea that there is no forgiveness without repentance. Admittedly, there are more texts which support this view, among which are Matthew 18:15-35 and Luke 16:19-17:4. In both of these, Jesus teaches and shares a parable to make his point. It is also interesting and a bit ironic that Matthew 18:35 uses the phrase "forgive your brother from your heart." However, the context in both Matthew and Luke involves repentance! In other words, if we do not forgive when someone repents, we are sinning and it must be "from our heart," not fake.
What is the downfall in this view? Mainly in how it is applied. It is often used as a justification for holding a grudge because if someone doesn't repent, can we not just go on being mad at them? We use this truth of conditional forgiveness to justify bitterness and anger toward someone. We must also remember that we are sinners and almost always contributed to the conflict in our own sinful way (exceptions to this would be abuse or random acts of violence). Ephesians 4:29-32 is clear we are to forgive as Christ forgave us. So, how did He forgive?
Jesus came to us in our sin and offered forgiveness. There is no condemnation for those in Christ, so He doesn't hold grudges. He promises to put our sin "as far as the east is from the west" away from us. He is faithful to this promise. He made this possible by His life, death, and resurrection so that anyone who believes in Him and repents of their sins, they can be forgiven and receive eternal life.
We are to go to the person who sinned against us and offer forgiveness. If the person repents, we are to give that forgiveness. This means we promise to release them and not hold a grudge. We are to remember that Christ forgave us of heinous and grievous sins, and we can do the same by His grace. We like to put sins on a scale, thinking some sins are worse than others, but the size of a sin is determined by whom it was against. All sin is against an infinite God and therefore all sin is infinitely huge. Unlike Christ, we all have sinned, therefore, when we go to the person who sinned against us, we must go with the realization we are usually contributing to the problem in some way (again, a few exceptions noted below).
If it is true forgiveness should be unconditional, then it renders a majority of the Bible pointless. It even renders the life, death, and resurrection of Christ pointless! However, there is no example or teaching that says we should hang on to anger, bitterness, or grudges. The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation of relationships. This will not happen if we treat forgiveness as something I just grant in my heart without condition just so I can feel better.
Special Situations of Release
There are situations where the forgiveness as defined here will not be possible, or at least doesn't appear possible. A child may have been abused and it is not safe for them to have contact with the abuser. A person who sinned against us is dead or they refuse to repent. In these situations, the Bible teaches us to deal with it by "releasing" these people to God. We may call this "forgiveness" and it appears to be akin to the unconditional idea of forgiveness, but it is different from forgiveness as the relationship is not restored.
Romans 12:19-21 helps. We are to never avenge ourselves but turn this person over to the Lord for Him to handle. As for us, we are to pray and seek God's wisdom and reach a point we are honestly ready and willing to forgive if it were possible, though we may never get a chance to carry it out. In fact, when we reach that point, we can even serve the needs of the person who wronged us! Thus, we have forgiveness in our heart for them, they just may not be able to experience it for various reasons, but we do.
If we can always look back to Christ, we see Him extending grace to everyone, though not everyone experiences it. The only unpardonable sin before God is the sin of rejecting His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is not automatic or unconditional. Until we repent, we cannot experience the blessing of forgiveness in our lives. But when we do, our relationships with God or others can be reconciled.
1. Luke 23:34 is considered a "textual variant" in the New Testament. This means not all of the early manuscripts include it. These are relatively rare, but can be found. However, some of the best manuscripts include it, so it is preserved with a note. Many of these textual variants come from later manuscripts, not the earliest ones closer to the originals.