by Dorothy Littell Greco
To follow Christ is to choose to forgive. Once we receive forgiveness from the Lord—a vertical transaction—we are to give it away horizontally to others. To do this well, we need to fully understand what forgiveness is. Sometimes actual events are the best teachers.
In the fall of 2015, a young white man walked into a historic South Carolina church during their midweek Bible study and killed nine African Americans. The family members of the victims publicly expressed their grief but also spoke forgiveness to the murderer. This confounded the secular media, leading some news outlets to view the families’ radical choice as denial or insanity. Forgiveness might seem foolish, but it’s certainly not denial.
When we drop the charges against those who have sinned against us, we are not excusing their actions, minimizing the damages, or opening ourselves up to further mistreatment. We are simply agreeing that Jesus’s redemptive work on the cross is sufficient. His willingness to die for sins that He did not commit fulfills the ancient laws that preceded his incarnation.
When God set the universe in motion, He established physical laws (such as gravity) and spiritual laws (such as the shedding of blood to atone for sin). Prior to Jesus’s death on the cross, Hebrew priests heard the confessions of their people and subsequently sacrificed animals so that individuals or tribes could be forgiven. God, who seems slightly detail oriented, specified exactly how these rituals should take place (Lev. 4). For sensitive animal lovers like me, the system seems like a gruesome non sequitur. Yet God deemed that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). The rituals appeased God but had to be constantly repeated.
Jesus’s death satisfied the need for sacrifice once and for all. He became our high priest as well as the sacrificial lamb, freeing us from the need to continually shed innocent blood. This changes everything. Because of Jesus’s holy life and sacrificial death, we can “go right into the presence of God”—the Holy of Holies, once reserved for only the high priests—“with true hearts fully trusting him to receive us because we have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean and because our bodies have been washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22 TLB).
Forgiveness is rarely simple or quick. In fact, it’s helpful for us to understand it as simultaneously a command, choice, and process.
Jesus taught his disciples about the command component on multiple occasions. As recorded by Luke, Jesus said, “If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive” (Luke 17:3-4). Also quoting Jesus, the apostle Mark writes, “When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too” (Mark 11:25). In certain situations—like cold-blooded murder—we might be tempted to assume that the command to forgive doesn’t apply. Scripture does not validate such spin. When it comes to forgiveness, there are no extenuating circumstances that let us off the hook. (In the case of an abusive spouse, we can forgive while still making choices to protect ourselves and our children.) If you think someone doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, you’re probably correct. However, those who crucified Jesus didn’t deserve to be forgiven either but He forgave them anyway (Luke 23:34).
Similar to any command in Scripture, we get to decide whether or not we want to obey. God does not coerce or manipulate us; He gives us the terrible freedom to choose. When we obey, God’s power gets released in our lives, which should be an incredible motivator for us.
Finally, forgiveness is sometimes a process. As much as we’d like our hurt, bitterness, and anger to completely disappear when we forgive the first time, it’s seldom that straightforward. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he was to forgive someone who sinned against him, I can imagine Peter having a little swagger as he suggested seven times. But Jesus countered with “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” (Matt. 18:22). That could mean forgiving the same person for the same offense 490 times or that if a particular person (who perhaps shares your last name and zip code) repeatedly sins against you, you have the opportunity to continually forgive.
Today, as we confess our sins to each other and extend forgiveness, we become “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV) helping each other inch toward holiness. According to Drs. Paul and Virginia Friesen, “As image bearers of Christ, we are never more Christ-like than when we forgive.” I pray that God will give all of us the courage to be more like him with each passing day.
The article above is an excerpt from Making Marriage Beautiful, written by Dorothy Littell Greco in 2017 and used by permission from the publisher, David © Cook. You can find out more about this book and Dorothy’s more recent marriage book on her website.