“Do you forgive me?”
In my head? Yes.
In my heart? No.
This is often how things play out between my husband and I after an argument. It doesn’t really matter the circumstance, whether it’s a huge, deep hurt against the other or a small comment taken too seriously, when my husband and I disagree, he is always quick to apologize and quick to forgive.
I wish I could say I’m the same way. I wish I could say I fight for unity with ease and am quick to reconcile, but the truth is, I don’t and I’m not.
And I hate that.
I hate that I am often the grudge holder in our marriage. I hate that I am a keeper of wrongs. I hate that apologies don’t come easy and that I cling to unforgiveness. I hate that my mind is ready to forgive, but my heart and my emotions are not.
No matter how sincere the apology, my grace seems to have limits and my forgiveness is conditional. I meditate on bitterness and I follow my feelings – my bruised, broken, fallen feelings.
Sure, I say, “I forgive you,” but I make sure to let my husband know my feelings are still hurt and he’s still in my penalty box. My forgiveness becomes manipulative. My heart stays cold.
And all the while I know I am the one who really needs forgiveness.
Can you relate, reader? Do you feel like your emotions don’t catch up with your actions? Do you have a desire to forgive, but a stronger desire to withhold grace and cling to pain? Do you hold others’ sins over them, despite knowing that what is best for you and best for them, is grace?
And do you hate that you do those things, yet still feel incapable of freely extending grace to others?
Isn’t it annoying, when you know the truth and have a sincere desire to live it out, but just can’t get yourself to actually do so in the heat of the moment? Isn’t it tiresome, to live in rebellion of what you know will bring freedom and healing?
But sometimes, forgiveness feels really hard. And despite knowing in your head that it will bring unity to a relationship, healing to another, and freedom for yourself, your heart just can’t bring itself to agree with your head.
See, in the heat of the moment, what I want to do is withdraw and isolate. When my husband sins against me, I want to turn around and sin against him by not extending grace. When he comes to me in repentance, I want to hold the power of his sin over him, so that my hurt feelings can be avenged.
And I am very aware of how wrong and sinful and evil that behavior is. So then why is it that I so often run away from the call to forgive?
Sin, yes. That’s the obvious and true answer.
I think there’s more to it, though. Not that sin alone wouldn’t be enough of an answer, but when I’m in the midst of an argument with my husband, I don’t just feel the tug of temptation to withhold forgiveness; I feel the lure of a lie that fuels my fire and makes forgiveness feel impossible.
And the lie is this: Why would I extend forgiveness to others when I myself am not truly forgiven?
Yes, reader. If I pause in the midst of the battle with my husband, I recognize that there is another battle going on. In the place where temptation and sin and lies originate, there is a battle going on not just between me and my husband, but between me and my real enemy.
And the same is true for all of you, who like me, struggle to forgive. See, when we refuse to extend grace to others, I think we are actually refusing to believe that God’s grace extends to us.
And if we don’t believe we are forgiven, then we become incapable of forgiving others.
When I put my husband in a penalty box and refuse him forgiveness, I’m revealing I believe the lie that God does the same to me when I sin against him. When after an argument with my husband I think, “Sure, I’ll eventually come around and forgive him, but only after he has felt bad enough, long enough,” I’m revealing that that is how I view God’s forgiveness for me.
When I refuse to forgive my husband, I’m showing the world that I don’t believe God has forgiven me.
And we cannot extend something that we have not received ourselves.
But reader, if you have put your faith in Jesus, then you are forgiven and you are capable of forgiving.
Despite what the enemy says, despite the lies he whispers in your ear that want to travel down and make a home in your heart, you are forgiven. And because you have trusted in the sacrifice of Jesus to cover your sins, you are free to lavish grace unto others.
See, the enemy loves nothing more than when the body of Christ is at odds with one another. He wants to tear apart Churches, wreck marriages, ruin friendships, and cause dysfunction and bitterness to take hold of believers. The enemy is constantly trying to make believers look and act no different than the world.
Because he knows that if the Church handles conflict and hurt the same way as the world, then the world will want no part of the Church.
But the enemy flees in the presence of truth. So, in the heat of the moment, when forgiveness is hard and the hurt is raw, we call on the help of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God and we show the enemy that we are equipped to forgive others as God forgave us: “freely, with no bitterness or wrath or anger, without malice – being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving…as God in Christ forgave us” (Ephesian 4:31-32, ESV paraphrase.)
Believer, when God forgives, he does not do it halfheartedly. He doesn’t pout and withdraw and hold on to anger. He doesn’t reluctantly extend grace.
No, he lavishes his grace upon us, full of mercy and kindness. “In him we have redemption thorough his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7, ESV.) This is what we’ve been given, reader. God has separated us from our sin “as far as east is from the west” and has promised to “remember [our] sins no more” (Psalm 103:12a, ESV, Hebrews 8:12b, ESV.)
And friend, if there was anyone with a right to hold our wrongs against us, to punish us and isolate us, to put us in a penalty box, would it not be King Jesus? If there was anyone with more of a right to punish a sinner and withhold grace, would it not be Jesus himself – the sinless, innocent God Man betrayed, beaten, bruised, and broken for the sins of the world?
And yet, it is because of his very sacrifice that God is able to look upon us, his repentant children, and pour out nothing but mercy.
Do we deserve it? No.
Do we get it anyway? Yes.
So, if God looks at us and sees us washed as white as snow, as perfect children free of spot or blemish, then that equips us to look at his children the same way, even when they sin against us.
We can forgive others because Jesus declared us forgiven.
So, when you recognize you aren’t giving grace to your spouse, or friend, or coworker, identify the lie that you are believing about God’s grace for you.
Are you holding a grudge? Remind yourself that God never puts his repentant child in a penalty box to await his forgiveness. His grace is immediately given to those who ask for it. Including you.
Are you keeping a record of wrongs? Remember that when the enemy goes to the Lord with your list of sins and accuses you to him, God responds: “I am he who blots out [their] transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember [their] sins” (Isaiah 43:25, ESV.). In the face of the enemy’s accusations, the Lord proclaims we are forgiven, we are free, and we are his.
Are you identifying others by their struggles? Recognize that though the enemy wants believers to identify themselves with their sin, God made it possible for believers to identify with the Savior. Though we will always battle sin on this side of heaven, God says believers are “holy and blameless before him” because of Jesus (Ephesians 1:4, ESV.)
And if God sees Jesus when he looks at us, then we can see Jesus when we look at others.
Now you might be thinking: What about those people who do not repent and who are not saved? Well, rather than let our unforgiveness and bitterness be a barrier that blocks them from tasting the mercy found in a relationship with Christ, let our forgiveness be a stepping stone on their path to encountering Jesus. Let us swallow our fallen feelings and extend the mercy that Jesus long ago extended to us: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, ESV.)
And yes, this will cost you. Forgiveness always has a cost.
But the expensive price was already paid by the bloody sacrifice of our Savior. It requires no further payment. And notice that the price of forgiveness wasn’t paid reluctantly. It wasn’t paid with bitterness. It wasn’t paid with a begrudging spirit.
No, the cost of forgiveness was paid for with love. Jesus threw himself at the feet of his persecutors so that we could one day kneel at the feet of Jesus.
And while pursuing grace for others may require biting our tongue, letting go of our feelings, and addressing the discomfort that precedes reconciliation, it will lead you to more freedom and more victory from sin. Because the only thing that tastes sweeter than sin is the grace of God.
The benefits of learning to forgive as Jesus forgave abound. It will bring freedom and healing to relationships and allow those who have sinned against us to experience God’s grace. But even more so, it will allow us to experience freedom. For where bitterness and unforgiveness reign, freedom cannot be. But where freedom is, the fruits of peace and unity and healing rule.