Balancing Acts

Why forgive?tom b

by Tom Beutel

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15 (NIV) 

Recently I was leading a Sunday School class in a discussion about forgiveness. The issue had come up the week before in the context of considering an event that had taken place in the local community. Several questions were raised: Why do some seem to forgive more readily than others? Should we forgive if the offender has not shown remorse? What does God require of us with respect to forgiveness?

Some of these questions seem to have relatively easy answers. Scriptures such as the one above clearly state that God expects us to forgive others or He will not forgive us! The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21-35 makes the same point. In this parable Jesus tells of the servant who was forgiven a very large debt by his master, but who then refused to forgive the debt of one of his fellow servants. Because of his lack of mercy, his master “handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Jesus wraps up the parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

As the class discussed the issue of forgiveness, we focused on several points, one of which was that not forgiving, that is harboring resentment, a grudge, or anger, does us real physical and emotional harm. One doctor in the class referred to the effects of not forgiving as having a “Zantac moment.”

The physical and emotional ill effects of not forgiving are well known and supported in the medical community. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for compassion, kindness and peace.”  Note the emphasis on peace! The article goes on to cite the following benefits of forgiveness:

  • Healthier relationships
  • Greater  spiritual and psychological well-being
  • Less  anxiety, stress and hostility
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Fewer  symptoms of depression
  • Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse

Jeffrey Bernstein, writing in Psychology Today, says the following:

 Individuals who have been hurt, betrayed, and abused have the right to be angry and resentful.  These are normal reactions and emotions when feeling the crushed spirit that can come from  being disrespected or abused. If not dealt with, such angry reactions can damage personal health  on several levels:  These include killer cell cytotoxicity, autoimmune suppression, disruption of  personal relationships, Acute Coronary Syndrome, and consequent increased  mortality.

As these articles suggest forgiveness is as much for the offended as for the offender. It is something that we can, and must, do for our own benefit as well as for the benefit of the other.

Forgiveness can open up the possibility of reconciliation and restored relationship between the offended and the offender. As peacemakers this is always our goal, when possible. As Christians we believe that God is a God of relationships and that Biblical peace – shalom – is largely defined as healthy, right relationships. Forgiveness can, therefore, promote peace.

Reconciliation; however, involves two parties. One must forgive, the other must repent. Either can happen without the other. But, when forgiveness and repentance both occur, there is the chance for reconciliation. Whichever side of the equation we find ourselves on, we must be willing to do our part: forgive or repent, thus paving the way for restored relationship.

It is interesting that Jesus covers both of these roles in His teachings. In Matthew 5:23-24 He says, “ So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” And in Matthew 18:15, Jesus instructs us, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (NRSV)

In the first case, it is we who are the offender. In the second, it is we who have been offended against. In either case, Jesus says, we should initiate the reconciliation process. In the first, we will need to show repentance and seek forgiveness. In the second, we offer forgiveness.

The final point we discussed in the class and which is brought out in the articles is that of how to become a person who can forgive or forgive more easily. Some suggestions are to try to find common ground between ourselves and the other; recognize our own fallibility and try to see the situation from the other’s point of view; practice forgiveness in small things, daily, to build a habit of forgiving.

The three links below are excellent references related to forgiveness and the ill effects of not forgiving:

The Mayo Clinic: Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness

Psychology Today: Anger, Forgiveness, and Healing

WOSU The Emotional Life: Understanding Forgiveness


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