Unforgiving self, let us continue our meditation on forgiveness. In the last letter, we saw that having been forgiven by God, you are to forgive your neighbour even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you (Eph. 4:32). We saw that some of your excuses for being unforgiving cannot stand up to the model of God’s forgiveness for you – unconditional, not based on what you did, but what Christ did; initiating, by approaching you first; embracing, by drawing you to Himself. Self, let us continue our reflection in this letter by examining two more of your excuses in light of God’s forgiveness of you. Next, we consider how you can grow in your forgiveness of others, and finally, some practical ways of forgiving your neighbour.
My Feeble Excuses for Being Unforgiving, Examined (Continued)
“What she did to me was so spiteful; even though she has already apologised, I’m going to be cold and distant towards her for a while, to let her realise how much she hurt me.”
You don’t actually say that, do you, self? You soothe your conscience by telling yourself that you’ll forgive eventually.
You make this excuse sound a lot better by focusing on the immense difficulty you face to forgive. Yet what makes it difficult for you to forgive? Is it not pride, that sin which thoroughly infects you? Is it not an excessive love of self, that values your own feelings so highly that any infringement against them is deserving of tenfold retribution? You know, self, even in those very moments when you justify being cold to your neighbour, that you illicitly harbour an unforgiving spirit.
Let’s see how God forgives you, self, so that you may also learn to forgive others in the same manner. What is God’s response each time you turn to Him in sorrow after sinning against Him? A cold, dismissive wave of the hand? No! As the loving father who embraced his wayward son and restored him to sonship, God forgives you the moment you turn to Him in repentance (Luke 15:20-24). How often have you crawled to the throne of grace and experienced God’s forgiveness as you began to confess your sins before Him? Having experienced such forgiveness, self, you may not withhold forgiveness from your repentant neighbour.
“I will forgive him, but I’ll never forget what he did towards me.”
Self, perhaps you think that it’s impossible to ever forget how your neighbour has hurt you. At the same time, you also know that God forgives you by forgetting your sins, as He says in Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins” (emphasis mine). There are a couple of things that you need to know about forgiving and forgetting, self.
First, forgiving by forgetting does not involve having no memory of the neighbour’s sin. When God Himself forgives, He does not simply lose the knowledge that we have ever committed sins. After all, He is omniscient, and will judge us out of the books where all our deeds are recorded (Rev. 20:12). Furthermore, when Joseph forgave his brothers, he said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt” (Gen 45:4b, emphasis mine). Joseph evidently remembered that his brothers had sold him into slavery – how could he ever forget that? – yet this was compatible with his forgiving them.
Second, if forgiving by forgetting does not involve wiping your memory, it does involve wiping clean your brother’s slate against you. God removes our transgressions from us as far as east from west (Ps. 103:12), so that there is none to be found on our slate (Jer. 50:20). He counts all our sins on the person of Christ, and none remains on our account. Likewise, when Joseph brought up his brothers’ infractions, he did so with no bitterness in his heart, desiring that his brothers come to live with him in prosperous Egypt. He had wiped their slates clean.
Self, you need to emulate God in forgiving and forgetting. You may have a physical memory of your neighbour’s sin against you, accompanied by hurt, but this memory must be void of bitterness. And when this memory flares up, tempting you to spitefully remind your neighbour of his sin, bite that poisonous tongue of yours. Also, pray to God for strength not to let this memory fester within you as a grudge that you hold against your neighbour.
Growing to Forgive My Neighbour
Self, we have tackled two more of your greatest excuses about being unforgiving, by considering God’s forgiveness of you – immediate and forgetting. Now let’s explore how you can grow in your ability to forgive your neighbour.
- Growing to Appreciate God’s Forgiveness of Me
Self, you need to grow in your appreciation of God’s forgiveness of you. Oh, you know intellectually that you are totally depraved and that God sent His only begotten Son to die for you. Yet if you truly appreciated how much God has forgiven you, you would be willing to forgive your neighbour. If you knew that you have been forgiven of ten thousand talents (an unpayable debt!), then you wouldn’t be casting your neighbour in prison for the hundred pence he owes you. Self, keep growing to appreciate God’s forgiveness of you. Meditate often on how horrendous each sin that you have committed is, how you repeatedly and wilfully sin, and how, despite your numerous sins, God still bestows His forgiveness on you. As you grow in awareness of how horrible your sins are and how much God has forgiven you, then you will grow in your capacity to forgive your neighbour, by recognising how small in comparison your neighbour’s sins are towards you.
- Growing to Appreciate God’s Forgiveness of My Neighbour
Self, what are you saying when you refuse to forgive a fellow believer? That your neighbour is “worthy” of God’s forgiveness, but not yours? That God made a mistake in His wise counsel of electing your neighbour unto salvation and forgiving her sins, and that you know better than Him, to withhold forgiveness? You probably don’t mean it, but you sure act that way by your thoughts and actions! Self, grow to appreciate your neighbour as a sibling in Christ who has been forgiven by God, and you will find yourself growing in your capacity to forgive your neighbour.
3. Growing in My Dependence on God
Self, perhaps you are utterly exhausted from wrestling to forgive your neighbour and have thought more than once, “It is impossible for me to forgive him!” There is a ring of truth in that statement. If forgiveness were dependent on you, it would indeed be impossible. Yet you are not alone in this struggle. Self, you need to depend on God, the source of all forgiveness, by whose grace you are empowered to forgive your neighbour. Do you earnestly wrestle with God, that He may grant you the strength to forgive?
Practical Ways to Forgive My Neighbour
Self, let us now consider some practical ways in which you can forgive your neighbour. These considerations apply especially when you have a long- standing difficulty in forgiving your neighbour.
- Thinking the Best of My Neighbour
Perhaps you are embroiled in a bitter, long-drawn conflict where many hurtful words have been exchanged on both sides. New events only seem to exacerbate the existing issues. When you learn that the neighbour did this or said that, your immediate tendency is to flare up in indignation, and you begin adding to the mountain of grudge that you already hold, making it that much more difficult to forgive your neighbour.
Self, even while working to wipe clean your neighbour’s slate of a past wrong, do not continue to needlessly pile on fresh wrongs! How often do you hear a piece of news about your neighbour and immediately jump to an evil conclusion about her? Without knowing the full picture, how often do you fill in the gaps with your preconceived notions about your neighbour (“Oh, I knew she was like that”)? With only external information about the neighbour, how often do you assign a motive to what he did? Oh the deceitfulness of your heart, self!
Self, do not perpetuate your unforgiving tendencies by adding sin to sin. Instead, with a charity that “believeth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7), you must think the best of your neighbour. If you are not in a position to clarify what the neighbour did, assign the best possible motive to her action. Keep your mind focused on things which are true and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8), which will help you resist the downward spiral of evil thoughts.
2. Focusing on My Part to Play
It’s always easier to focus on what the neighbour did wrongly, isn’t it, self? You have on hand a long list of what he did, while what you did is easily forgotten or minimised. After all, you were provoked into doing what you did. Or what you did pales in comparison to what he did. Really, self? Who made you a judge over this matter? What business do you have deciding that your neighbour has sinned more grievously than you have? Yes, your neighbour has sinned greatly against you. Yet it is likely that you too have some part to play in this conflict, however great or small. Focus instead on that, self. Focus on how you have wronged your neighbour and are in need of his forgiveness. Set aside your pride and approach him to apologise. Do not make your apology conditional on whether he too apologises. Yes, you have a responsibility to ensure his repentance for sin; however, be more concerned about your own sin in the conflict. After that is settled, you can then bring up the sin of the brother, and not in a manner that excuses your own.
Seeking Forgiveness for My Unforgiving Spirit
Self, continue working on becoming more forgiving and seeking strength from God to forgive. While you do that, however, do not be too easy on yourself. No matter the difficulty you face in this process, no matter the pain you experience, this fact remains: your unforgiving spirit is a sin which you choose to cling on to, and even continue to nurse with your thoughts and actions. You, self, need forgiveness for your unforgiving spirit. You need forgiveness, from God first of all, and also from your neighbour. Make sure not only to pray for strength to forgive; pray also for forgiveness for being unforgiving.
Self, consider what you are doing by perpetuating an unforgiving spirit: you are claiming that your sin of being unforgiving is less serious than the neighbour’s sin, whatever he did. You are presuming to take issue with your neighbour’s sin, while permitting and justifying your own. Does that sound familiar? Self, you are trying to take the mote out of your neighbour’s eye, while there is a beam lodged in your own (Matt. 7:3)! Do not do that, self. Do not be a beam-eyed mote-remover, but recognise the beam which is in your own eye before you presume to remove the mote in your neighbour’s.
Self, it is difficult to snap out of this cycle of an unforgiving spirit, for however long it has gripped you. As we saw, it is even impossible to do so on your own. Yet praise be to God, who empowers you to forgive by forgiving you, sending His only begotten Son to die on the cross for your sins. From the One who said of his murderers while hanging on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), you have new life to break free of the chains of an unforgiving spirit, and nurture a forgiving spirit towards your neighbour. May the grace of our forgiving God be with you!
Key, Steven. “Forgiving One Another (12).” Loveland Protestant Reformed Church, Loveland, Colorado, July 12, 2015.
Baucham, Voddie. “Forgiveness.” Tabernacle Baptist Church, Ennis, Texas, August 9, 2013.
Written by: Marcus Wee | Issue 48