Q & A

How and why should we forgive?

There is a cruel reality about life: we all get hurt. Perhaps a relationship is betrayed by a husband, a wife, a parent, a friend and introduces a level of pain previously unknown. The pain can be ever-present. Jesus instructs us to forgive those who sin against us. Yet it’s not in our nature to forgive; we prefer to get even, remain indifferent, ignore the offender and in this way administer our own form of “justice”. We will do anything to keep forgiveness off the agenda. And yet God can enable us to rise above our situation, empowering us by his grace to do the seemingly impossible.

In November 1987 the people of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland gathered as they had done for years at a memorial to those who had died in two world wars. This peaceful religious service was turned into a nightmare when a bomb planted by the IRA exploded, killing eleven people and injuring dozens. As vicious and ungodly as that act of murder was, many will remember that event because of one victim, Gordon Wilson. Buried beneath a mountain of rubble, he held the hand of his daughter, a young nurse, until her life slipped away. When freed from the rubble he said he held no hatred towards those who had killed his daughter; furthermore, he would pray for them. He extended forgiveness to his enemies for the murder they had committed. A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, Queen Elizabeth II in her annual message to the Commonwealth (a message of about ten minutes in which every word is carefully weighed and only events of significance are mentioned), took time to commend the forgiving spirit displayed by Gordon Wilson. When forgiveness is practised, it does not go unnoticed. Royalty feel compelled to rise up and applaud. There is something about forgiving one’s enemies that commands admiration.

Forgiving those who sin against us is not natural, it’s supernatural.

Corrie Ten Boom and her family were sent to Auschwitz for sheltering Jews during the Second World War. She describes how a guard humiliated her repeatedly during her time in prison. He stripped her naked, mocked her and spat upon her. She hated him. When the war was over she left Germany vowing never to return. Years later she received an invitation to deliver a series of talks in Germany. With a certain reluctance she accepted. Her first talk was on forgiveness. While speaking, she saw in the audience the same prison guard who had humiliated her. There was no way he could have recognised her now, but she recognised him. His face was beaming, displaying the signs of a man forgiven by God. When she finished he came up to her and said, ‘Ah, dear sister Corrie, isn’t it wonderful how God forgives?’ He extended his hand in friendship. She said, ‘All I felt as I looked at him was hate. I said to the Lord silently, ‘There is nothing in me that could ever love that man. I hate him for what he did to me and my family. But you tell us that we are to love our enemies. That’s impossible for me, but nothing is impossible for you. So if you expect me to love this man it’s going to have to come from you, because all I feel is hate.’

‘Put out your hand, Corrie,’ the Lord seemed to say. It took all of the years I had quietly obeyed God in obscurity to do the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. I put out my hand.’ She then said, ‘It was only after my simple act of obedience that I felt something almost like warm oil being poured over me. And with it came the unmistakable message: ‘Well done, Corrie. That’s how my children behave.’ And the hate in my heart was absorbed and gone. And so one murderer embraced another murderer, but in the love of Christ.’ 1

Is it unreasonable to require people who have been fully pardoned of sins to forgive others their sins? (Granted, it is only by divine grace that we are able to forgive.) The Bible says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) It’s that little expression – just as – that requires our attention. How has God forgiven us? We need to know because that is how we are to forgive. God gives us a full and complete pardon. What does that mean? It means that God treats us as if we had never sinned. Before him we are sinless. We are never made to feel uncomfortable in his presence. We are his children, his family.

Our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us reflects the forgiveness God has so graciously extended to us. Just like Corrie Ten Boom, we can do it by God’s grace.

Godly forgiveness is the work of God in our heart. His Spirit enables and empowers us to forgive. He also provides motivation.

The graciousness of God towards us motivates us to be a forgiving people. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) It’s those two words “just as” that require our attention. How we have been forgiven is the model for our forgiveness of others.

How did God ensure our forgiveness? By providing His Son to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Nothing less than unconditional, sacrificial love is at the heart of God’s forgiveness.

Through forgiveness, we are brought into a new relationship with God and treated as sinless people. The blessing of the new covenant is this: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12) Because of the atoning death of Jesus, God’s Lamb, he does not remember our sins. He no longer holds our sins against us.

The extent of our forgiveness is captured in the words of the psalmist: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities… as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10-12)

Since God’s forgiveness results in our being treated in a loving, gracious and accepting manner by God, we in turn are to forgive those who have sinned against us in a similar manner. Nothing less that this is acceptable to God.

The church would be transformed beyond recognition if we took seriously God’s teaching on forgiveness. Too many conflicts in the church and in families have remained unresolved because of our unwillingness to forgive as we have been forgiven. The Christian landscape is littered with fragmented parts of the body of Christ because of the absence of forgiveness. And the wounds and scars will continue to fester and never be healed until the balm of forgiveness is applied.

If you truly comprehend the blessing of God’s forgiveness, you will find the forgiving of others easy and compelling.

1 Rebecca Manley Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons (Harper San Francisco, 1991), p 189