If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6.14-15)
An Essential Tool
We’re apt to think of forgiveness as a principle, when it’s more accurate to view it as an essential tool every bit as powerful and effective as prayer, Scripture, good deeds, and meditation. We use forgiveness to pry loose clamps of hatred and resentment binding our minds. Then, turning to our hearts, we use it to break padlocks of fear and worry so we’re able to love those we forgive. Love is the principle. Forgiveness activates it. This is true for everyone, including God. It’s inaccurate to believe Jesus died simply to purchase pardon for sin. Yes, forgiveness for all—regardless of nationality, religious standing, and every other contrived impediment—is available through Christ’s sacrifice. But Calvary’s purpose exceeds forgiveness. It remains the purest portrayal of love the world will see. “God loved the world,” John 3.16 says—not, “God forgave the world.”
In light of this, might we make too big a deal of forgiveness, and thus make it harder than it actually is? How many times do we say, “I know I should, but I just can’t find it in my heart to forgive So-and-So”? Perhaps we can’t find forgiveness in our hearts because we already hold its power in our hands. Of course, admitting struggles to forgive implicitly confesses doubts about loving those who’ve wronged us. Particularly with enormous, unresolved debts owed to us, we estimate love will cost more trust and hope than we can (or care to) sacrifice. This is hard to accept, if only because we want to love others as Christ taught. We want to live by His example. So we justify reticence to love by citing incapacity to forgive.
Expecting Future Increase by Exempting Former Debts
If we detach the two, we can train ourselves to use forgiveness as a tool to facilitate love instead attempting to use love to prove forgiveness. Forgiveness functions much like bank checks. It promises eventual settlement of unreconciled accounts. It’s presented in good faith, expecting love's future increase by exempting its former debts. Seeing forgiveness as the first step toward debt resolution, rather than all-or-nothing restitution, achieves two things. It eliminates the need to delay forgiving others until we’ve amassed enough love to absorb previous losses—because, spiritually or financially, that’s all forgiveness is: repaying what’s owed us at our expense. Then, relieved from making the full debt “whole” (another financial term replete with resonance), we honor our promise gradually, offering love and trust as needed. Here’s where forgiveness proves its real strength and value. Every debt must be reassessed as it’s addressed. Some turn out less severe than we recall, others much worse than we thought. But from the most to least traumatic, our pledge to forgive constrains us to find sufficient love to compensate for what’s owed us. As much and as long as it takes, we get the job done.
Isn’t this how Calvary works and God forgives? The cross ensures pardon for our past and future sins. Any time we err, we look to the cross in full confidence God will find love He needs to make us whole. In Hebrews 4.16, we’re urged to ask forgiveness without hesitance: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” God sealed His promise of forgiveness the instant Jesus died. But He honors it by meting out mercy and grace as we need it. By learning to forgive like God we learn to love like Him. Forgiving freely and loving fully at the same time expects more of us than we expect of Him. Is it any surprise we struggle to find enough love to forgive people who’ve deeply hurt us? There’s probably not room in our hearts to contain the love needed to pay all of their debts at once. So we forgive in advance and pay as we go, replacing love we sacrifice for those we’ve forgiven (note: past tense) with love we receive from God in reward for asking His forgiveness.
The out-in, give-receive dynamic is rudimentary to following Jesus. He quashes any possible doubt about this by opening His first major discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, with an eight-point manifesto that explicitly states sacrifice defines reward. Impoverished spirits gain heavenly riches. Mourners find comfort. Humble people earn earthly honor. And so on—including, those who give mercy receive mercy. The rest of the Sermon basically expounds on these points in greater detail, piquing interest in where Jesus ties each attribute to certain situations and behaviors.
He links forgiveness to prayer—The Lord’s Prayer—setting aside the bulk of its content to zero in on one phrase: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12; again: past tense) He enlarges on this in verses 14 and 15: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Jesus provides no wiggle room for mitigating circumstances, rare exceptions, or other alibis for withholding forgiveness. Extending mercy to others predicates obtaining mercy from God. The 1:1 reciprocation appears too obvious for further thought. Yet if we maintain ability to forgive hinges on adequate love to back it up, Jesus’s later thoughts about it are misplaced. They should land at the end of chapter 5, where He builds on the eighth Beatitude (enduring unjust persecution) by charging us to love our enemies. But forgiveness goes unmentioned in context with unconditional love. There’s just no ambiguity here. We forgive others to be forgiven. We love in obedience to Christ's command. The two are related, but not interdependent. Forgiveness promises to make love whole. Love makes good on forgiveness’s pledge over time.
Hat-tip to Rev. Harvey Carr for his inspiration.
Forgiveness promises to make outstanding debts whole and love steadily delivers, reassessing and reconciling each debt as needed.
(Tomorrow: Axes Are for Floating)