What it really meant by forgiving others, and what does it involve?
12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour? James 4:12 (ESV)
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:11-12 (NASB)
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 1 John 3:15 (RSV)
Do not say, "I will do to him as he has done to me;
I will pay the man back for what he has done." Proverbs 24:29 (RSV)
The duty to forgive people rather than judge them – first of all we have to realise that we are not authorised to judge anybody
We can see from the above passages that we are commanded not to judge other people. Instead, we are told to forgive them, and that very serious consequences will follow if we don’t. In short, God will not forgive us unless we are willing to forgive others. That puts a heavy duty upon us in what can frequently be a difficult and painful area.
In particular, it also makes it essential that we know exactly what forgiveness is. Then we can make sure that what we do meets the biblical definition of forgiveness and that we are not missing the mark, either by doing too little, or trying to do too much.
Some people set the bar too low and therefore assume that they are being forgiving when, in fact, they aren’t. Probably a larger number make the opposite error and set the bar too high. Then they assume that forgiveness is far too hard for them to achieve. In fact, they are trying to do more than merely ‘forgiving’ the other person and are going farther than the Bible actually requires of us.
Therefore, in this chapter, we will examine the vital link between not judging people and forgiving them. These two commands go together and need to be understood as a combined package. We will also look at exactly what forgiveness is, how it works, why it matters, and how to actually forgive people, and avoid bitterness, in practical terms.
We shall also look carefully at what forgiveness isn’t and what it doesn’t involve. We need to do this because forgiving others is such a badly misunderstood subject. It gets mixed up with, or mistaken for, many other things which are closely related to forgiveness, but are actually separate and distinct.
For many years, I personally found it hard to define forgiveness, i.e. to know exactly what was being required of me. I was not helped by any of the preaching I ever heard in any church. If anything, the few sermons that I did hear on forgiveness tended to add to the confusion. They also promoted a general feeling of failure and that forgiveness of others is too difficult for most of us to achieve.
When people come to the conclusion that forgiveness is too difficult, or even impossible, it is often because they are wrongly defining it. In particular, they are probably including within its definition some or all of these other things, such as mercy, grace, reconciliation and the resumption of trust and friendship. Admittedly, they are all linked to forgiveness, and often accompany it, but they go beyond forgiveness and are not part of its basic definition.
So, when a person says, “I have tried to forgive, but it’s impossible. I just can’t do it”, the chances are that what they really mean, although they don’t realise it, is that they can’t be reconciled with the wrongdoer. Or, they may mean that they can no longer trust the wrongdoer, or that they still feel violated or angry or hurt. But the point is that a person can validly and genuinely forgive a wrongdoer and yet still continue to feel any or all of the following things:
a) hurt and emotionally upset
b) wounded, violated or traumatised
c) anger (which must not be confused with holding a grudge or feeling bitterness or rage – see below)
d) distrustful and wary
e) unreconciled and unwilling even to attempt reconciliation, at least for the time being
f) unable to relate to the wrongdoer or to have fellowship with them or work alongside them
g) unwilling to give them another chance, at least for now, for fear that they will do it again
Many people have been put under condemnation by preachers, or have made themselves feel condemned, for being unable or unwilling to forgive. Yet the real issue is often their inability or unwillingness to do something else, which is not actually a part of the definition of forgiveness at all. So, when people speak of forgiveness, or even when the Bible speaks of it, we always need to ask what the context is and work out exactly what is being referred to, or required of us.
Sometimes what is meant is just the narrowest, most basic definition of forgiveness. Then again, at other times, it may be that what is being spoken of is the same basic forgiveness plus some other related concept(s) alongside it, or together with it. We therefore need to be able to identify, at any given time, exactly what the Bible is referring to, or commanding us to do. Then we can be clear as to what we must do, so that we do not attempt to do more than is required of us in the circumstances we face.