I happen to agree with country singer-songwriter Rebecca Lynn Howard: Forgive IS a mighty big word.
Last Sunday I preached on forgiving one another out of Ephesians 4:31-32:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been on one side or the other of forgiveness. That is to say, either you have been hurt and faced the choice to forgive, or, you’ve been the offending party and need to ask for someone’s forgiveness. I see the Apostle Paul as bookending these verses with two ends of the spectrum.
If I choose to withhold forgiveness when you’ve done or said something to hurt me, then eventually my resentment will grow into bitterness and slowly overtake my mind and heart. The time will come when what I’m harboring internally will find external expression—wrath, clamor (shouting), slander, malice. I liken this to having a garden that was once fruitful and cared for but soon became ignored and neglected. Weeds have overtaken what used to be, to the point that I cannot even imagine what it would look like to have a healthy garden once again.
We do this with relationships that were once cared for, cultivated, groomed, pruned, but then have been ignored. Forgiveness has been denied. Bitterness has overtaken and choked out anything healthy and good. The only resolution is to allow the forgiveness of God in Christ to overtake my life (head, heart, and hands). Now should you choose to forgiven, or at least consider forgiving, you will face the following internal objection: But how can I just forgive this person and move on? They don’t deserve to be forgiven!
I appeal here to Tim Keller. The answer to our common objection is this: “God’s grace and forgiveness, while free to the recipient, are always costly for the giver. You can never just forgive…when you forgive, that means you absorb the loss the debt. You bear it yourself.” (Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 89-92).
In other words, when faced with the choice to forgive, you are facing the choice to absorb the loss, to bear the pain that comes with extending forgiveness. This is what God has done on the cosmic level. He paid our debt Himself with the life of His Son, Jesus Christ,(ibid.)
I imagine it is rare to hear of a bank calling a customer and saying, “Great news! Your loan has been completely forgiven. This one is on us!” But that is exactly what happens in the economy of grace. It holds no record of wrong. Our debt is erased. It won’t be held over our heads and used to manipulate us in any way. In the same manner, we forgive liberally because of our being forgiven. In fact, the only qualifier in the Lord’s Prayer, which nearly everyone, Christian or not, has prayed, is this: 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).
To summarize: the measure of grace and forgiveness you show others will be shown to you. The longer you withhold forgiveness, the stronger your bitterness will grow and that person who hurt you will continue to have power over you.
Strangely, even though in forgiving you absorb the loss and the pain, only then will you experience freedom and peace. Who do you need to forgive? A mother, father, sibling, co-worker, church member? Or maybe the question is who do you need to approach and ask for forgiveness?