While we may have heard teaching on forgiveness many times and feel confident in our understanding of what it is, consider the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor in Matthew 18. Verse 35 may give us reason to revisit our understanding of forgiveness. It says, “So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:35). Jesus’ teaching says that tormenters and torturers accompany those that don’t forgive from the heart. So what does it mean to truly forgive someone from the heart?
Forgiving From the Heart
Many times, we adamantly declare that we have forgiven someone that has caused great harm in our life, but when asked what we would do if that person walked into the room, we respond with things like, “well, the first thing I would do is run up and slap them” or “I would avoid them at all costs.” Is this what it means to forgive from the heart?
What is Forgiveness?
In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus gives us the model prayer of a saint’s daily life. He exhorts us to pray,
“And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”
–Matthew 6:12, 14-15
Forgiveness is the central theme of this entire passage (v. 9–15), being mentioned six times in eight verses. Everything leads to or issues from forgiveness. Though we have been forgiven the ultimate penalty of sin, we need God’s constant forgiveness for the sins we continue to commit. We are therefore instructed to pray for His forgiveness.
The word forgive means “release”. As we regularly pray for forgiveness, we are exhorted to forgive others. In fact, Jesus tells us if you don’t release others, He won’t release you. He tells us that we will be forgiven in proportion to the forgiveness we give others. The Lord is so serious about forgiveness that we cannot walk in fellowship with God if we refuse to forgive others.
Lessons from the Lord’s Prayer
Forgiveness Precedes Forgiveness
We have received forgiveness from a debt that we would never be able to pay. Jesus pardoned us just as He took the cross in Barabbas’ place, and this supernatural forgiveness cannot be earned. It’s something that can only be freely received and then freely given to those we encounter. As we receive Jesus’ mercy we extend mercy to another and forgive them. “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). If we come into fresh understanding of the Lord’s grace and forgiveness over our lives daily, we will be quick to forgive those that have trespassed against us. It may be the most courageous Christ-like thing we ever do. The person who gains the most from forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving.
Ask and Receive Forgiveness
To forgive others, we must first receive the forgiveness Jesus grants His children through His grace. We will have a problem forgiving others their debt against us if we do not receive the forgiveness Jesus offers us for our debts. The Greek word for debt in verse 12 is only used twice: in the Lord’s Prayer and Matthew 18. The word means a loan that is justly due that will never be able to be repaid. The debt is so high that even if you had 10 jobs that paid six figures, you would never be able to repay it. It is so far out of our ability that the only way to be released from it is to be forgiven.
If you have a problem forgiving others, it is probably because you have a hard time forgiving yourself. It is easy to get stuck in cycles of legalistic striving trying to give reasons why we are forgivable. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). The reason people can’t forgive freely is because they can’t receive freely. If you think that you are earning God’s forgiveness in any way, you will turn around and make others earn your forgiveness.
Choosing Not to Forgive Leads to Bondage
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” -Nelson Mandela.
The truth is that if you don’t release others, the Father won’t release you. “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:34–35).
This means that if we are nursing bitterness or a grudge in our hearts, we are likely under some level of demonic oppression in our lives. The Bible tells us, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). Our bitterness infects not only our lives, but the lives of those around us. Bitterness divides many families, churches, and relationships.
Bitterness is so bad that also produces physical symptoms. One of the most important problems that medical doctors encounter among patients is that of bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness. It is a major reason why they don’t heal and carries many other consequences. For example, salvation is unconditional, but fellowship with the Father is conditional. Justification before God is unconditional, but the anointing of the Spirit is conditional. Our status in the family of God is unconditional, but our intimacy with Christ is conditional. Our eternal destiny – whether we go to heaven or to hell – is fixed, but receiving an additional reward is conditional.
If you are wondering if you have bitterness in your heart, consider these self-assessment questions:
- Am I living in a level of isolation?
- Do I find myself being a little punchy or edgy?
- Any eruptions in anger?
- How many people do you choose to sophisticatedly ignore?
- How is my trust level with others?
- Confusion in mind? Oppression of my heart?
- How many people do I just “tolerate”?
Forgiving like Jesus is possible. It means releasing a person for what they did and without them ever knowing what they said about your or did to you was painful. When we forgive like Jesus, we will pray for them to blessed with the fullness of life. This type of forgiveness is a life-long commitment. When you forgive this way, these people stay forgiven when you resist the temptation to pick up a renewed offense. Do you see areas of resentment and bitterness in your life? The most Christ-like thing you can do is release them the way Jesus has released you…fully!
“You must make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”
-Colossians 3:13 (NLT)