Some parts of Scripture leave me feeling fenced in, unable to maneuver, incapable of escape. Passages concerning forgiveness are among these “cause me to hyperventilate” Scriptures. Forgiveness is hard stuff. The idea that receiving forgiveness from God is connected to extending forgiveness to others, well, that fence seems too high to scale most of the time.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15
Why did Jesus say our forgiveness by God is predicated on our willingness to forgive others? Did He really mean that God will not forgive us if we don’t forgive those who wrong us? Or maybe He was pointing to a deeper, heart truth: We fail to grasp the depth of forgiveness received until we extend great forgiveness to others.
Jackie Kendall speaks to the reality of our identity as both forgiven and forgiver:
(W)e have the grace-given capacity to forgive. It is imperative to recall this as well: not only are we offended, but we all offend.
Free Yourself to Love: the Liberating Power of Forgiveness, p. 21, emphasis in original
Jesus offered the well-known “seventy times seven” call to forgiveness after a parable about a servant forgiven a great debt and yet unwilling to then forgive the much-lesser debt of another. We are called to identify ourselves with this greatly-forgiven and realize the debt we owe our King is infinitely beyond our ability to repay … and thus we have no just cause to withhold forgiveness from another.
That all sounds good in theory, right? But sometimes people deeply wound us, so deeply there is no restoration possible or restitution to make amends. How do we forgive then? WHY do we forgive then?
How? We make a choice. We determine to be obedient and walk in the grace we have been given.
How? We make the choice over and over. This is where the seventy times seven comes in. We continue to choose forgiveness even when we don’t want to and don’t feel like it. We make the decision to extend mercy even when we’d rather, as my husband says, hoard grace.
The “How?” we generally understand. It’s the “Why?” that leaves us baffled.
Why offer forgiveness? Why does it matter?
Why? Because we need to forgive in order to experience healing.
From another of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Counseling, by Muriel L. Cook and Shelly Cook Volkhardt:
I’ve learned that a lack of forgiveness is the root of most problems. In almost every problem situation, after peeling off the layers of grief or distress, I find a wounded spirit or unresolved resentment. (40).
Forgiving is what heals us. We get that mixed up, don’t we? We convince ourselves that it’s the apology that leads to our healing. But it’s not. It’s forgiving – even without the apology – that changes and restores our hearts. Yes, we like the apology but we must learn that it is not vital to our wholeness. But forgiveness is.
It is in forgiving, with or without the other party’s apology or desire for healing, that we experience the freedom of living in God’s plan for His children. Again from Kitchen Table Counseling:
What appears to be a condition on His forgiveness is actually a demonstration of His love … God’s commandment to us to forgive was not given out of the meanness of His heart, nor was it meant to make life hard for us. Its purpose is to set us free. (40-45)
Forgiveness isn’t a fence holding us in … it’s a gate opening to the abundant life God has for us. Through forgiving we imitate Christ. Through forgiving, we find healing. Through forgiving, we find freedom.
Have you ever felt fenced in by the command to forgive? How have you learned to extend forgiveness?