When we studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in an earlier chapter, we learned how important it is that we forgive those who sin against us. If we don’t forgive them, Jesus solemnly promised that God will not forgive us (see Matt. 6:14-15).
What does it mean to forgive someone? Let’s consider what Scripture teaches.
Jesus compared forgiveness to erasing someone’s debt (see Matt. 18:23-35). Imagine someone owing you money and then releasing that person from his obligation to repay you. You destroy the document that recorded his debt. You no longer expect payment, and you are no longer angry with your debtor. You now see him differently than you did when he owed you money.
We can also better understand what it means to forgive if we consider what it means to be forgiven by God. When He forgives us of a sin, He no longer holds us accountable for what we did that displeased Him. He is no longer angry with us because of that sin. He will not discipline or punish us for what we did. We are reconciled with Him.
Likewise, if I truly forgive someone, I release that person in my heart, overcoming the desire for justice or revenge by means of showing mercy. I am no longer angry with the person who sinned against me. We are reconciled. If I am harboring anger or a grudge against someone, I haven’t forgiven him.
Christians often fool themselves in this regard. They say they have forgiven someone, knowing that is what they are supposed to do, but they still harbor a grudge against the offender deep inside. They avoid seeing the offender because it causes that suppressed anger to surface again. I know what I’m talking about, because I’ve done just that. Let us not fool ourselves. Remember that Jesus does not want us to even be angry with a fellow believer (see Matt. 5:22).
Now let me ask a question: Who is easier to forgive, an offender who asks for forgiveness or an offender who does not ask forgiveness? Of course, we all agree that is it much easier to forgive an offender who admits his wrong and asks for our forgiveness. In fact, it seems infinitely easier to forgive someone who asks for it than someone who doesn’t. To forgive someone who doesn’t request it seems practically impossible.
Let’s consider this from another angle. If refusing to forgive an offender who repents and refusing to forgive an offender who does not repent are both wrong, which is the greater sin? I think we would all agree that if both are wrong, to refuse to forgive an offender who repents would be a greater evil.