Forgiving is giving the gift of not holding something against someone. To be unforgiving, then, is to withhold that gift. But being unforgiving can have devastating consequences on us and others. So to be forgiving is not only good because we experience the positive of avoiding the negative consequences of unforgiveness, but because we experience the positive consequences—the blessings—of forgiveness.
From the outside in, here are four reasons we should be forgiving:
1. We both share humanity and sin
Miroslav Volf says that, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” Everyone, those who have hurt us in the most horrible of ways even, are created in the image of God. Simply by virtue of being created they are valuable, and they never cease to be so. Although this does not rule out of bounds justice where it should be sought, it does mean that our offender is never “not human,” worthless and without value.
But it is also true that they are sinners…and so are we. We often take great hope in Paul’s words that when we experience temptation we are experiencing something that countless others have as well, and so we are not alone in this! If they have overcome it, so can we (1 Corinthians 10:13). But it is also equally true that where countless others have fallen to sin, we are just as likely as them to sin in the same ways. We are not above them. Forgiving puts us and keeps us on the same level with everyone.
2. It’s reciprocal
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Does this seem unfair? It is, if we fail to understand certain “laws”. For example, you reap what you sow. The more you forgive, the more you can forgive; the more you don’t forgive, the more you can’t forgive.
Exclusion leads to exclusion. If you keep one person out through your unforgiveness, you will find yourself keeping others out more easily. And then, finally, one day you will wake up to discover that you have kept yourself out. There is your circle of friends, and you are on the outside. On the contrary, embrace leads to embrace. If you learn to forgive, you will become more “warm”, likable, friendly, and in a true sense “holy”—set apart, other, different from— in a culture that is cold, critical, selfish, angry, bitter, and bearing grudges like hidden daggers. It is easy to be around forgiving people, but it is terribly, even cruelly, difficult to be around unforgiving people.
3. We’re all self-deceived
Often we want to dismiss others because of their sin or offense against us. “How can I listen to anything they say after the sin they’ve committed?” But why should they or anyone listen to anything we have to say? We also have sinned. There is no question that we readily see the solid color of our lives but fail to see upon closer inspection the countless spots that remain unpainted. We must learn to be patient with others, because we are all to some extent living with unknown and/or unconfessed sin.
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) There is always in every act of sin a side that we understand and a side that we don’t. In some way we always know what we’re doing, while in another way we never know the full extent of what we do, that is, the extent of the damage that is caused and inflicted. We must then forgive what we do understand and what we don’t; we must forgive what others understand that they do and what they don’t.
It is true that no one except God can understand the full extent of damage caused by any one sin. Yet, in giving His Son, Jesus Christ, He suffered to the fullest extent the damage caused by all of humanity’s sin; He bore sin’s full punishment; He gives us forgiveness for our sin in and through His death on the cross. “Here is love, vast as the ocean!”
4. Unforgiveness is a sin
Finally, if Jesus has commanded us to forgive, and we don’t, then we have disobeyed. There is no way around this. We must remember that habitual disobedience leads to death: a dying in and of our relationships. If some or most of our relationships are dying, it could be that there is unforgiveness in the water of our heart, a poison that is spreading through our thoughts and actions. We are living out of the reality of God’s wisdom and love. But obedience leads to life. Obeying is living into the reality of God’s wisdom and love. It is receiving in and through our obedience the life and cleansing that is found in and through God’s Word and Spirit.
How can we follow Jesus’s command to love our enemies, which surely involves forgiving our enemies, if we cannot first love “one another” and forgive one another? As most parents know, a child’s act of obedience is often followed by an attitude of obedience. Overtime, one hopes that the attitude, condition, habit, character of heart, will lead them to being forgiving. If you don’t love or want to forgive, obey anyway and “pretend” and act in/on what God’s says. You may find that love will follow, that God’s love will follow you, and begin to trickle, then pour, then flood into and change your heart.