Unforgiveness: Is It Really a Problem?
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(Total reading time: 5.8 minutes. All scripture quotations are from the NIV 1984 Bible.)
As long as we’re alive, people will hurt us or cause us harm, even if it’s unintentional. That’s the nature of the world we live in. But for us Christians, our response to those offenses depends on how important we think forgiveness is. If we don’t actually do anything to the ones who hurt us, does it really matter what our attitude is toward them? Specifically, is unforgiveness really a problem?
Let’s begin by considering God’s forgiveness. The New Testament instructs us to be kind and compassionate and to forgive others as God forgave us (Eph. 4:32). So, why and to what extent did he forgive us? We all deserved to die for our sin, but he didn’t want any of us to perish, so he sent his Son, Jesus, to die in our place (Rom. 6:23; 2 Pet. 3:9; John 3:16). Jesus died for the sin of the whole world and reconciled us to God, so he no longer holds our sins against us (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19). Jesus died for sins once for all; that is, for all sins committed by all people for all time (Heb. 10:10; 1 Pet. 3:18).
Now it’s up to us, whether we’ll acknowledge Jesus’ death as payment for our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. If we choose to accept this, we commit ourselves to serving God and living a life that pleases him with his help. If we instead reject Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, then we’re still guilty and will receive the full punishment we deserve (2 Thess. 2:10, 12). Here’s the main point: God forgave us completely while we were still sinners and allows us to either accept or reject his forgiveness.
Jesus clearly died for sin once for all, so his death covers all of our sins, including our future ones. But we deceive ourselves if we think God automatically forgives us even if we refuse to forgive others.
We all can remember something someone said or did that really hurt us, but how we respond to those memories might prove we haven’t really forgiven that person. We keep thinking about what they said or did. We keep thinking about how much it hurt us. We rehearse what we wish we’d done to retaliate or get even with that person. We might become bitter or hold a grudge against them. We may never forget what happened to us, but these actions are proof we haven’t forgiven the person responsible. Is that really a problem?
Although Jesus paid the total penalty for all the sin we’ll ever commit and God no longer holds our sins against us, as Christians we need to forgive others as God forgave us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). In fact, God will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive others. The Lord’s model prayer is very clear about this: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus then emphasized the point: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15). That is, God our Father will not forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others when they sin against us.
We see this point again in one of Jesus’ parables about a king settling accounts with his servants. One servant owed the king a huge amount of money and begged him for patience, promising to pay back everything he owed. The king knew the servant likely could never repay him, but he canceled the debt and let him go. That same servant went to one who owed him a very small amount he couldn’t pay, so he put the indebted servant in prison. When the king heard what the man did, he reinstated his huge debt and had him put in prison. The king asked the servant, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matt. 18:33). After finishing the parable, Jesus explained, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).
We’re in the same position as that servant. Before we accepted Jesus’ death as payment for our sin, we owed a debt to God we could never repay and we were destined for hell. When we asked him to forgive our sin, he cancelled our debt and erased the record of it, so it’s as if we’d never sinned. Now he expects us to forgive others the same way he forgave us.
In the parable, the king ordered the unforgiving servant to be tormented until he paid his debt, which was customary in those days. Today, when we think or act like the world, such as by refusing to forgive someone, we in fact authorize Satan to influence or even torment us. God allows that to happen because he uses the torment to get our attention so we’ll change our ways. So if we’re tormented in some area of life, we should consider whether we’re holding a grudge then choose to forgive as God expects.
Does this apply only to forgiving our “brothers,” other Christians? No, because Jesus also requires us to forgive “men,” including non-Christians, just as he requires us to love our enemies (Matt. 6:14-15; 5:44).
We saw earlier that God our Father won’t forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others. Does that mean we’ll lose our salvation and go to hell if we don’t forgive? That’s entirely possible, if not likely. Even if it doesn’t, unforgiveness definitely disrupts our relationship with God, and why would we ever want to do that?
To ask God to forgive our sin while we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character. We don’t earn God’s forgiveness or favor by forgiving others; rather, we forgive others because God forgave us. God reconciled us to himself through Jesus’ death on the cross and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. Now we’re to present that message to people everywhere, as “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). That requires us to forgive and reconcile with others as God forgave and reconciled with us.
We are God’s representatives on earth, yet we misrepresent him if we accept his forgiveness but refuse to forgive others. Please consider that God totally forgave you and erased the record of your offense against him, then extend forgiveness to others in the same way.
How can we develop a forgiving attitude? First, by humbling ourselves as servants of God and focusing on serving him, rather than focusing on ourselves. Second, by choosing to forgive. Think about what the person did, decide not to hold them accountable and turn the incident over to God. He’ll do what’s best for everyone involved.
To ask God to forgive our sin while we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character. We must humble ourselves and choose to forgive, by not holding people accountable for how they hurt us.