Forgiving People You Don’t Want to Forgive
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15
Amidst the heather of beautiful Scotland lived a country doctor many years ago. This Scottish physician was greatly loved by the villagers and patients of the wee town in bonny Scotland, so when he died, he was greatly missed by his village. His wife, though, did not share his disposition or love for people, and upon his death she examined the financial records which were found in the doctor’s office. On several pages were written these words in the doctor’s hand in bold red ink: “Forgiven—too poor to pay.”
The widow, believing that she could collect the forgiven debt, instructed her attorney to enter suit against the forgiven patients of her deceased husband. When the matter reached the court, the judge examined the accounts. He turned to the widow and asked, “Is this handwriting in red ink that of your husband?” “It is,” she replied. “Then,” said the judge, “there is no tribunal in the land that can demand payment of any account over which the deceased has written the word Forgiven.” And the case was dismissed.
Forgiveness is really a legal concept. In the first century, the Greek word for forgiveness meant “to give up the right to something,” hence, to give back your right to redress a grievance. To give forgiveness and yet hold a grudge against someone is really no forgiveness at all.
I am thinking of the young wife who sat in my office for counseling. Her husband had been unfaithful to her, but then realizing how deeply he loved her and wanted her, begged her to forgive him, promising that it would never happen again. Finally, she blurted out, “Well, I guess I can forgive him, but I can never forget it.” To say I can forgive but not forget is like saying, “For the moment I will not demand your punishment, but if I ever have any reason to question your integrity, I’ll quickly remind you of your failure.” Such is not forgiveness at all.
Esther York Burkholder was driving at this when she wrote, “Most of us find forgiveness one of the most difficult virtues to put into practice. ‘I can forgive…but I can’t forget.’ This is a rather paradoxical statement. For in our hearts, we still hold a grudge which rankles and festers and does us more harm than to the offender.”
Man’s forgiveness is different from God’s, for man’s forgiveness is marred by his hesitance to forget. God’s forgiveness is complete. How many times does God expect a person to forgive another? Is it once under some circumstances; or twice, or three times, or even thirty times?
On one occasion Peter, the big fisherman, came to Jesus with this problem of forgiveness. Perhaps he remembered his competitor’s fouling his fishing nets, or taking his favorite fishing spot, so Peter put the question to Jesus, “How often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me, as many as seven times?” This was quite liberal for blustering Peter, yet Jesus responded, “Not seven times but seventy times seven.” In other words, “Always forgive.”
The Apostle Paul told us that we ought to forgive because of God’s forgiveness to those who have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To the Ephesians he wrote, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave You.” (Ephesians 4:32).
Perhaps you are thinking, “I just cannot forgive.” If you feel like that, may I pass on to you a formula for forgiveness that I have never seen fail? Begin earnestly to pray for the one who has hurt you, asking God to give you the grace to forgive, and soon you will discover your hate has turned to pity, and you will find the grace to forgive and to forget.
Resource reading: Colossians 3:12-14.