Forgiveness is undoubtedly an important theme and doctrine in Christian faith and life. But it is much more than just a theme. It is essential. The world doesn’t look fondly on forgiveness and its counterpart the apology. Very often, saying you’re sorry or forgiving someone of a debt or wrong is seen as weakness. How many people cringe at the thought of the federal government forgiving student debt in light of the trillions of dollars of its own indebtedness? How many actors, politicians, and talking heads have actually offered a truly sincere and believable apology? How many of us actually live by the cliché “forgive and forget?”
It should not surprise us that forgiveness isn’t an option for the believer. Jesus taught in His model prayer that we should ask God to “forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.” To drive the point home, Jesus repeats, under no uncertain terms, that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. In fact, it is that last part that drives the Christian to forgive.
The arc of the salvation narrative is, frankly put, a God who is very mad and people who are very bad. Many soft churches will teach that God isn’t so mad and people aren’t so bad, but that’s clearly not the portrait in Scripture and to argue such downplays the beauty of grace. Yes, man is very bad and God is very mad. It is against this harsh backdrop that the diamond of forgiveness shines. Though God is mad and man is bad, God’s great love for His creatures and infinite love for His Son means He is willing to forgive us our debts. In light of that grace, we should forgive others.
Jesus used the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate this point. He also intimated to Peter that forgiveness isn’t optional so long as true repentance is present. That’s the context of His answer to Peter’s question on frequency: not seven times, but seventy times seven! Consider an often overlooked book of the Bible, Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. This is a book that takes Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and applies it to a real-world setting. Here is a slave owner who is a Christian, whose runaway slave is also Christian and encountered the Apostle himself. Paul’s appeal is to Philemon’s ethic as a redeemed sinner, no different than his slave Onesimus, both of whom have experienced the forgiving love of God. In light of that grace, Philemon is urged to show that selfsame grace.
People have and will wrong us. Sometimes in little things, and sometimes in large things. Sometimes forgiveness is easy. Sometimes forgiveness is very hard. It might take some time, but forgiveness isn’t optional.