In the spring of 1994 an estimated five hundred thousand to one million Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered by their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizen Hutu Rwandans. The genocide is arguably the most devastating and frightening display of hate and violence in recent history. But what may be even more remarkable than the genocide itself is the response since. Today the people of Rwanda, who only a few years ago were literally killing each other, are finding peace and prosperity even as they are surrounded by warring peoples on every side. The reconciliation of Rwanda has shown the world the power of forgiveness.
We all have been injured or cheated and even daily face the decision whether or not we will forgive. It may be a small debt like being cut off in traffic or not getting exactly what you ordered. Or it may be a momentous injury like infidelity or being lied to by a close friend. Whatever wrong has been done to you, the Lord commands that you do the difficult work of forgiveness. Fortunately, the Bible lays out many truths that lead us to forgive. Here are five that will help you to practice forgiveness today.
#1 Forgiveness is paying a debt that someone else owes.
Probably the biggest hurdle to forgiveness is that it is not fair. Human beings have an innate sense that imbalance is wrong. This sense of justice is true and right, which is why the doctrine of God’s ultimate just judgment upon all evil is so critical to surviving in an unfair and unbalanced world. But the fact is that we are called upon by God to be treated unfairly. To forgive someone then means that I must to pay the debt that they owe me; I must correct the imbalance they caused. Jesus illustrated this in his story about The Forgiving King and The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). In that story, forgiveness demanded that the King would absorb (i.e. pay) the debt that his Servant owed him. When you struggle to forgive and think, “I can’t let this go! They have to make this right before I can forgive them!” Remember: True forgiveness is paying a debt that someone else owes.
#2 Forgiveness means you leave wrongs behind.
One of the Greek words that is translated in the Bible as “forgive” is a word that can also mean “leave” or “depart”. These pictures help us to see that to truly forgive someone is to leave behind whatever wrong was done. Have you ever heard the phrase, “I will forgive, but I won’t forget!”? That may be the world’s idea of ‘forgiveness’ but that is not the forgiveness that God demands. To be clear, it is often impossible to literally rid your memory of past wrongs, but it is possible refuse to allow those memories to dictate your attitude and treatment of someone who did you wrong. Just like the graduate who leaves high school never to return, you need to learn to leave the wrongs of others behind and never return to them.
#3 Withholding forgiveness only hurts.
You may think that bearing a grudge against someone will somehow make things right, but it never will. You probably already know this from your own life and experience, and God confirms it. Scripture teaches that withholding forgiveness can ruin the life of a person who is trying to do better after having done wrong in the past (2 Corinthians 2:7). Do you want to be a stumbling block to someone who is trying to make amends for their past sins? Besides that, Scripture also teaches that refusing to forgive is a sign (and perhaps even a cause) of bitterness that will rot your heart and soul (Ephesians 4:31-32; Hebrews 12:14-15). Do you want to live with the burden of bitterness? Stop holding grudges so that you can extend and enjoy the healing power of forgiveness.
#4 If you do not forgive, then you will not be forgiven.
Jesus once said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, NIV). I don’t think there is much more to say about that.
#5 God is a forgiver.
But the real reason I should forgive is not to convince God to forgive me. Actually, the forgiveness I show toward others should be a response to the forgiveness God has already shown me (Ephesians 4:31-5:2; Colossians 3:13). I have sinned against God to an infinitely greater degree than any other person could ever sin against me. If God has provided reconciliation for me through the death of His Son on the Cross, how can I refuse to be reconciled to those who seek my forgiveness?
There are many details and nuances to practicing forgiveness without promoting injustice that we cannot address at length here, but these truths from Scripture help us remember that we must forgive. Like the Hutus and Tutsis, we must all learn to do the difficult work of bearing the burdens of the debts that others owe us. We must learn the truth that reconciliation is the right path. We must learn to forgive.
So who do you need to forgive today?