A mean-spirited country bumpkin was asked, “Do you have a grudge?” “Heck, no,” he replied in a huff. “Ah jest put mah truck in the front yard like everybody else.” Well, many of us do have a grudge – just not the kind this fellow had in mind. We harbor grudges about many things, ranging from hurtful words people have said, to not receiving thanks for a kind act, to an unresolved family dispute.
Unfortunately, there’s only one way of getting rid of grudges: Forgive. But to do so, it often seems, is like knowing someone who’s sick, then swallowing the nasty-tasting medicine for them.
We’re told, “forgive and forget,” but much of the time it’s difficult to do either. Forgiving is hard, especially when the offender hasn’t apologized or shown remorse. To forgive in effect would mean letting someone off the hook for doing or saying something wrong without making amends. Instead, we decide never to forget the harm they’ve done to us.
On the other hand, if we’ve inflicted harm upon someone else – whether a minor slight or a serious, selfish act – we believe our apologies should be readily accepted, without repercussions. Isn’t “I’m sorry” good enough?
One of the great thinkers of the mid-20th century was C.S. Lewis, whose profound conclusions about matters of faith still resonate powerfully in this century. Lewis observed, “Everyone thinks that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until he has something to forgive.” Forgiveness, it would seem, is more blessed to receive than to give.
But should it be that way, especially for followers of Jesus? In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus presented a vivid picture of what forgiveness should look like. Dismissing the “eye for an eye” philosophy, He stated, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…” (Matthew 5:38-40).
When His followers asked how they should pray, Jesus included these words as a guide: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Moments later He added, “For 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). Strong words.
In another passage, the apostle Paul also challenged unwillingness to let bygones be bygones: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Particularly penetrating is the phrase, “just as God in Christ has forgiven you.” If we truly understand the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, what it cost Him to make forgiveness available, harboring ill will toward others and refusing to forgive amounts to an act of rebellion.
This teaching is anchored in the biblical concept of grace – God’s unmerited and unconditional favor. Grace strikes us as an alien concept, since we so rarely experience it in everyday life. Author Max Lucado, in his book, Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine, describes it: “Grace is not blind. It sees the hurt full well. But grace chooses to see God’s forgiveness even more. It refuses to let hurts poison the heart…. Where grace is lacking, bitterness abounds. Where grace abounds, forgiveness grows.”
We have two strong motivations for forgiving others: First, because of what God in Christ has done for us. If we can comprehend how much God has forgiven us, how can we not forgive others, no matter what they have done?
Second, failure to forgive “poisons the heart,” as Lucado writes. Hebrews 12:14-15 speaks of a “root of bitterness” that acts like an emotional cancer that destroys from within: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”