Forgiveness is probably that hardest thing we do with one another. It is not easy to forgive. The reason is simple enough: the wrong done against us is too great when compared with our greatness. Not only did I not deserve your angry words, bitter comments, slight, etc., but you should have known the importance of my person refuses any offense due to my lofty position in the universe. Besides, coddling our grudges nestled close to our hearts can be such a comforting self-justifying companion.
No Christian that I know would voice such a self-exalting idea about him or herself. But the heart speaks it quietly in the silence of the night.
Asking for forgiveness is probably the second hardest thing we do with one another. You can tell this is true by the way in which public figures (or we) ask: “If (with all the weight of the subjunctive mood bearing down on this remotest of possibilities!) I have done anything to offend anybody out there, I’m sorry.” Subject over; never to be spoken of again. The bruised ego now wants nothing more than “to move on.”
Of course, the implication is that “I couldn’t have done anything to offend anybody; but if you think I did, then I’m sorry for you that you felt that way because in reality I was just being me and you know, I have to be me; and just because you don’t like me being me is no reason for me to have to apologize. I will never apologize for being me.” Seriously! Besides asking this way keeps me shielded from having to talk to you face-to-face. I can hide behind the duplicitous mask of “an apology.”
When Christians engage in the practice of forgiving (Matt 18:15f) we take too many cues from the culture or psychology. We should take our cues from Jesus. The culture tells us to apologize or even to pair forgetting with our forgiving. Psychology teaches us that apologizing and forgiveness is good because it rebounds on us with benefits.
Neither of these are at the heart of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. Forgiveness makes us like the Father who has forgiven us in Christ (Eph 4:32). While there may be a residual blessing in forgiveness (and there is), Jesus’ first concern was that forgiveness reflected the believer’s union and identification with him. He gets the credit for our obedience in forgiving.
William Gurnall (1617-1679), Puritan pastor and author of the massive work, The Christian in Complete Armour, points out why Christians forgive and what Christians need most in forgiving. Forgiving one another is another circumstance in the progress of our sanctification. Justification (being made right with God) is a grace and instrument for our sanctification (being made holy as God is holy). Faith unites us to Christ the way a pipe carries fresh water from a fountain. Jesus said that this union with him would be like a river of living waters flowing from us (John 7:38). This river will flow with thirst quenching grace to others. This river includes forgiving those who have wronged us, whether they know they have or not.
Christians may think that what we need to forgive is more love and realize they have to pray for that grace, too. Praying for more love is a good thing. I pray for it every day! More love for God, for Christ, for my wife, my children and grandchildren, my church. But that’s not what we need first when it comes time to forgive. What we need is more faith.
Sounds contradictory, but Gurnall makes his case from Scripture. When Jesus told the disciples they had to forgive seventy times seven – in one day – Peter blurted out the truth. He did not said, “Lord, increase our love!” Or “Lord, give us more tolerance!” No. He said, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:1-5). (Actually, Luke doesn’t tell us it was Peter. He says only, “the apostles.” I just imagine it was Peter because that statement at that time was so typical of him: to say what everyone else was thinking. Do you think I may have to ask him to forgive me when I see him in heaven?)
The reason Jesus said we needed faith (he did affirm the apostles’ response in v. 6) is because forgiveness is difficult and this is a very hard lesson to learn. So, the question is “why faith?” Gurnall answers helpfully.
If they could get more faith on Christ, they might be sure they should have more love to their brother also. The more strongly they could believe on Christ for the pardon of their own sins, not ‘seven’ but ‘seventy times’ in a day committed against God, the more easy it would be to forgive their brother offending themselves seven times a day . . . [It is] as if he said, “You have hit on the right way to get a forgiving spirit; it is faith indeed that would enable you to conquer the mercifulness of your hearts. Though it were as deeply rooted in you as this sycamore-tree is in the ground, yet by faith you should be able to pluck it up.” When we would have the whole tree fruitful, we think we do enough to water the root, knowing what the root sucks from the earth it will soon disperse into the branches. Thus that sap and fatness, faith, which is the radical grace, draws from Christ, will be quickly diffused through the branches of the others graces and tasted in the pleasantness of their fruit. (The Christian in Complete Armour, 2:16, 17)
Praying for an increase of faith with you,