This post was written by Kara Holmes. Kara is a wife and mother, Gretchen’s older sister, and has contributed to many of the Well-Watered Women Bible Studies. You can follow along with her on her blog, Chasing Genuine , and you can read more from her in our Ascending Calvary devotion.
Forgiven to Forgive
When I think back on my college days, many wonderful memories with friends come to mind. We laughed that side-splitting laughter that cheers you all the way to the depths of your soul. We went on adventures born from wild, youthful imaginations ready to take on the world. We stayed up long into the night, talking about nothing and everything at the same time. We traversed together that unique balancing act on the tightrope into adulthood, transitioning away from our dependence on mom and dad into a more independent, responsible phase of life.
College was also a time of intense personal growth. Discovering who you are, or who you will become, is often a painful and lonely journey. I faced situations that forced me to examine the quality of my character. I wrestled with worldviews that opposed my own, searching for truth in the midst of many conflicting and diverging opinions. I experienced relational conflict that challenged me to consider how I would respond to hurt, differing opinions, and even betrayal. College was a wonderful yet painful season. It was also the first time I truly struggled with forgiveness.
I had, of course, needed to forgive others before college. I had also needed others’ forgiveness often in life. Relationships are messy, and we continually need to forgive and be forgiven. Thankfully, most relational offenses are minor and easily resolved. In these situations, it’s rather easy to offer forgiveness and move on with life.
In other situations, though, things just stick. It feels like no matter what we do, the brokenness from betrayal will stay with us for the rest of our days, as if someone has super glued the offense to our hearts. In these times, forgiveness seems impossible. This is how I felt during that season in college, when I faced one of those soul-penetrating, identity-smearing, heart-wrecking betrayals, the kind that can quickly become a black mark on the timeline of our lives.
It was at this point that I truly faced the dilemma of needing to forgive what seemed to me a most unforgivable offense.
Forgiving the Unforgivable
I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, throughout all my years of ministry and counseling, the issue of forgiveness is by far the greatest reason I have seen for why people seek help. The exact offenses are as varied as the people I have met. Some have clawed their way to the top of the pit, desperately crying out for help in releasing a lifetime of betrayal, broken promises, and violating experiences. Others stumble away from the blast, needing help in processing and forgiving one single, devastating betrayal.
No two situations are ever exactly the same. But no matter what the circumstances, there is a common theme threaded throughout nearly all of the stories I’ve heard: How do I forgive this?
People usually desire to forgive, or at least to find some sort of release from the cumbersome load they’ve carried. Indeed, withholding forgiveness is a burdensome and taxing undertaking, one that exacts great amounts of time and energy from the wounded one. Yet even though many desperately desire to be freed from the pain and heartache born out of their situations, they wrestle with how to forgive their offender.
Before we can ever really dig into the “how” of forgiveness, though, we must first understand the “why” of it. We will discover that in answering this question of why we should forgive, we will already begin to answer the second question of how to forgive.
Forgiving Like Jesus
For the Christ-follower, the “why” of forgiveness holds a simple answer: we forgive because God has forgiven us. One parable told by Jesus, found in Matthew 18:21–35, plainly explains this principle. In context, the disciple Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Prompted by this question, Jesus then goes on to tell a parable, illustrating His expectation.
In brief, the parable tells the story of a master settling accounts with his servants. One such servant, who owed a great debt, was brought before the master. But the servant could not pay, and the master ordered him and his family to be sold into slavery to satisfy the debt. The servant fell to his knees, begging for mercy, and the master took pity on him. In a surprising twist, the master did not simply delay the servant’s punishment, but he forgave the debt entirely, releasing the servant completely.
Jesus goes on to tell how the servant, released from such a burdensome and impossible debt, went out and found another who owed him a significantly smaller debt than he had owed his master. He physically grabbed his debtor and demanded immediate payment. When his debtor begged for mercy, the servant had no mercy but instead had him thrown into prison until the debt could be paid.
The parable concludes with the master learning of the servant’s behavior. Summoning the unforgiving servant, the master exclaims, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
We have been forgiven of the greatest debt there ever was: our sin debt. God has granted us—who have committed the most heinous and unforgivable of acts against His Name—mercy. He has satisfied the debt with His own blood so that we might be freed. Through the unmerited, undeserved sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have the privilege, the gift, and the honor of being delivered from the curse and the consequence of our sin: death and eternal separation from God.
The expectation for God’s people is clear. We forgive—we extend mercy—because we have been forgiven. There is no exception to this rule, no situation in which a Christian is excused from the costly act of forgiveness. In all situations, in all betrayals, we are called to forgive.
The Power of Forgiveness
This theological groundwork must be laid before we can ever get to the practical steps of forgiveness because it is crucial to the process. God has called us to forgive, and God does not ever call us to do something He is not also fully capable of bringing about through His power, for His glory, and for our good. If God has called us to forgive, then we can know it is possible through Him. When we are weak, we know that He is strong (2 Cor. 12:9). We can do all things He has called us to do because He is our strength (Phil. 4:13). The true hero of this story is the Lord God.
We also know that in all things, God’s way is the best way for us to live. As David proclaimed in Psalm 119:93, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.” God’s laws, His ways, bring life. To conform our ways to His ways means living the fullest life possible. We can know no joy, no contentment, and no peace outside of the ways of God.
When we withhold forgiveness, we rob ourselves of the full life God offers. An unforgiving heart is a heart shackled to the past, chained to bitterness and resentment. An unforgiving heart is a heart that cannot fully realize the goodness, grace, and gift of salvation. An unforgiving heart is also a heart that cannot enter into real, genuine relationship with others.
But when we forgive, we participate in the sufferings of Christ and know the costliness of loving broken people. A heart that forgives is a heart that truly realizes the benefits of Christ’s salvation, experiencing the peace and the joy God has already made available to His children. A heart that forgives is a heart that discovers a deeper life, a fuller freedom. A heart that forgives is also a heart that is able to live genuinely and vulnerably with others.
Forgiveness is not only possible through God; forgiveness also makes possible the life God has for us. We forgive because God has forgiven us, and we forgive because God’s ways are always better than our own. Once we grasp these truths about why we forgive, we are now able to move forward into the more practical, pragmatic steps of how we forgive, which we will cover in the next blog post.
As you read today’s post, did a situation or person come to mind which requires your forgiveness? What keeps you from finding freedom in this situation through forgiving the one who has hurt you?
What are some of the benefits of forgiving others?
How does understanding why we forgive help us begin to discern how to forgive?