Forgiveness is Hard
September 7, 2023 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
Forgiveness is hard. Just this week I have interacted with two different people who are dealing with broken family relationships. The other party refuses to be reconciled. What does forgiveness look like in these scenarios?
And then there are the heinous sins like murder, abuse, and racism. Wouldn’t forgiveness just empower the perpetrator to cause more harm? Must we forgive when reconciliation of the relationship is unlikely or even impossible? Does not forgiveness undercut the pursuit of justice?
These are the sort of questions and scenarios I am wrestling with as I prepare to preach on Ephesians 4:31-5:2 this Sunday. In particular, Ephesians 4:32 states, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” We are commanded to forgive one another, just as God has forgiven us in Christ. How do we obey this command in the most difficult situations?
I do not claim to have all the answers. If you want to go deeper in these matters, I recommend Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker and Tim Keller’s Forgive. Both of these books have helped shape my thinking on the topic of forgiveness and how it interrelates with the pursuit of justice and reconciliation. Let me make a few observations, however, from Ephesians 4:32 to help us move along in our understanding of biblical forgiveness.
I’ll focus on the word “as” today. It communicates two things. First, it communicates a comparison. Our forgiveness of one another is compared with God’s forgiveness of us in Christ. We are to forgive just like God forgives. God forgives us not by ignoring or excusing the injustice of our sin, but by pouring out his full wrath due our sin onto his only begotten Son. At the cross, both the mercy and justice of God are fully upheld. Therefore, God is able to release us from the guilt of our sin because his just wrath has been fully satisfied in Christ. This forgiveness is freely offered to us through the gospel. We receive this forgiveness by uniting ourselves to Christ by faith.
This comparison with God’s forgiveness has two implications for our forgiveness. First, we are called to release the offender completely from his or her guilt. To forgive means that we release our desire to stand as judge over the sin and seek to execute the offender’s punishment. Because of God’s forgiveness, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). So with our forgiveness, there is to be no more condemnation. Second, when we forgive we are not ignoring or dismissing the justice due sin. We remove ourselves from the judge’s bench and leave justice in the hands of God. This is what Paul teaches in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” In this lifetime, God uses the governing authorities to bring about justice for sin. Romans 13:4 says the governing authority is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” For eternal justice, God will fully punish every sin. When we forgive, we do not excuse the injustice of sin, but we also don’t hold onto a desire for revenge.
The second thing the word “as” communicates is the source for forgiveness. We are empowered to forgive as we receive the gift of God’s forgiveness of us. This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The key phrase comes in verse 33 where the king, representing God, says to the unforgiving servant, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” God’s mercy and grace, extended through the forgiveness of sins, is transformative. As we receive God’s forgiveness, we become more forgiving. As we receive God’s mercy, we become merciful. As we receive God’s grace, we become gracious. As Tim Keller says, “God’s forgiveness of us provides the basis – the motivation and the power – for our forgiveness of others. The sign that you have been forgiven is a heightened capacity for love, for gift giving, and for forgiving others” (Forgive, p. 66).
In the gospel we have a deep well to draw from in order to obey the command to forgive one another. We must not hold onto excuses for unforgiveness. For our part we ought to “live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). The calling is hard, forgiveness is hard, but God’s grace is sufficient.