“…And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Heb 9:22, NASU)
I have been wondering… How could it be that of all religions in the world, we have decided to communicate that forgiveness is easy and/or cheap, or even worse, flippant? I am always amazed at how often people come to see me in counseling and they tell me about some serious trauma they have experienced at the hands of another person, and then tell me about talking to another Christian and being told “well, you just need to forgive that person.” Sure, they neglected you; sure, they abused you, or someone you loved; sure, they abandoned you; sure, they left you; sure, they used you, molested you, hurt you, and/or failed to fulfill some of the basic things you needed in life… were they an alcoholic, a pedophile, a perfectionist, or just hateful? Without seeming to take either the pain or the concept of forgiveness seriously, people tell us, “You just need to forgive them.”
I will make clear, that I certainly agree that we do need to forgive… but, really, is it just some meaningless words? Is it that simplistic? Sure, no problem, I will just ignore what happened; I will pretend like it never happened; nobody has to suffer over this… after all, it is just words, right? Forgiveness is cheap, right? Frivolous, right?
We stood in debt to God. We, as a race had offended Him; as individuals, we have each offended Him. We had run up against Him the debts of sin, un-appreciation, blasphemy, faithlessness, going astray, and even some level of hatred and rebellion. Each of us has gone our own way, and each of us have fallen short of His glory. We had trespassed against Him. We owed a debt. So, what would have happened if He had visited one of our small groups and someone had flippantly said “Y’know, You just need to forgive all those people.” Instead, through the work of His precious Son, He paid the debt we owed. This represents a truth.
Someone always pays.
If you owe me $500, and I forgive it. It isn’t that no one pays, it is that I have paid it myself. That is $500 less to buy clothes, food or Christmas presents for my kids. The $500 and its consequences don’t just vanish. Someone pays; someone always pays. Remember the old song? “He paid a debt He did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay; I needed someone to wash my sins away…” I owed a debt and someone had to pay. Jesus paid for my forgiveness.
Jesus paid our debt, He didn’t ignore it.
Incidentally, I think this is what forgiveness is all about – our reaction to debt. Check out two of the key teachings by Jesus about debt:
Matt 6:9-15 (NASU)
” Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
I know that this passage is largely about forgiveness because of what immediately follows:
14 ” For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (NASU)
Notice the “for” at the beginning of verse 14. I grew up on the word “trespasses” in place of “debts.” I love the alliteration of a room full of people saying “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…” It sounded like a room full of snakes praying. However, I never knew what a “trespass” was beyond walking on other people’s lands (which I did all the time). Here is the Greek information:
* opheilema (of-i’-lay-mah); from (the alternate of) NT:3784; something owed, i.e. (figuratively) a due; morally, a fault: KJV – debt.
Another great teaching about forgiveness from our Rabbi is found in Matthew 18:21-35. When Peter asks about how often he should forgive someone who sins against him, Jesus tells him the parable of a man who owes, you guessed it, a very large debt. The master “forgave him the debt” (vs. 27), but the slave refused to forgive a lesser debt. The master is infuriated and the fellowship is broken between them. The master condemns the unwilling servant. This is all we need for our motivation to forgive. Is it meaningless, or flippant, or cheap? No. God, once again, uses Himself as the motivator for our obedience. Remember why we should honor the Sabbath? Because He rested. Why should husbands love their wives? Because Christ loves the Church. Why do we love? Because He first loved us. Why should we forgive others? Because God forgave us. My earlier concerns would never make ok to refuse to forgive another. We MUST forgive those who trespass against us… why? Because the work of Christ offers us ultimate forgiveness, and because God forgives us according to the measure of the generosity of our forgiveness. We need to be abundant and opulent in our forgiveness, and He will do the same for us. Hold fast to Luke 6:37-38:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. 38 “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure — pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”
Note that pardoning is one of the things that can be poured back into our laps. We must forgive, but the point I was making is that we should not treat forgiveness as simple, cheap, or easy. It is like a covenant. We make it once and then have to live it out the rest of our lives. It is more like marriage than just a wedding. Sure, marriages start with wedding, and forgiveness starts with a first commitment, but the commitment must be lived out for the rest of our lives.
By the way, I think this teaching helps us know what forgiveness is in application as well. When we forgive, we do not make sin not wrong (we don’t have that kind of authority), we don’t make the past go away (we aren’t anything like that powerful), and we don’t take away our feelings (we are humans, after all)… but we just commit that we expect and require no payment on the debt we are owed. Also, in doing so we set ourselves free of the responsibility to collect on the debt (which is usually the larger burden, by the way). The relationship may not ever be fully restored (after all, you may be forgiving someone who is still too dangerous to have around those you love, or it may be someone who is long dead!) It just means you forgive the person, and absolve (blot out) their debt. I wondered then, how should we receive something from that person in the future. After all, though we don’t expect or require payment, the person may still decide to pay! My friend Ashton recently explained that once we forgive, we are able to accept what comes from that person as a gift rather than a payment! What a great insight!
When I forgive, I set my debtor free… and I set the debt collector free. God knows this perfectly well, and though forgiveness is expensive and even Divine, it is freeing. And for freedom He set us free. What a shame, if, once freed, we re-bind ourselves to a debt – to collect or pay.
I usually have students write an honest and specific letter of debt describing what their debtor owes them. This often takes months. Then I have them read it out loud – the spoken word is powerful. They usually balk at this idea, and I take that as evidence that it is necessary. Then, I have the write the last paragraph when they are ready to make that commitment, forgiving the person and absolving their debt. It is often the serious first step to their process of healing and I can often trace the small changes in their lives as starting at that time. God loves to work in the fertile garden of a heart that forgives lavishly.
Final note: If you know that your brother has something against you, go to them and seek their forgiveness. God desires this just like He desires us to forgive. He calls us to seek to be forgiven as well. (Matt 5:23)
What else do I need to add to this article?
* (Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.)