Jesus gave us some very specific teaching about having a forgiving spirit: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:3-6, ESV).
“Forgiveness is the act of granting a free pardon or giving up a claim of requital for an offense or debt… the cost or penalty for a wrong, whether actual or perceived, is borne by the forgiver and not by the one forgiven.” (Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics).
The crux of the above passage is that practicing Jesus’ plan for forgiveness calls for a lot of faith. Notice how the first responses of the apostles after Jesus called for unlimited forgiveness was “Increase our faith!” What kind of faith is needed for me to practice forgiveness like Jesus taught?
FIRST, PRACTICING FORGIVENESS CALLS FOR ME TO HAVE FAITH IN GOD’S KNOWLEDGE OF ME. Everyone is tempted to be unforgiving. Jesus gave the parable of the unforgiving forgiven servant (Matt. 18:21-35), illustrating the illogical manner in which we can withhold forgiveness. It made the unforgiving creditor a slave. Jesus also gave the parable of the prodigal son and the bitter brother (Luke 15:11-32), showing the immature manner in which we can relish resentment. It made the unforgiving brother an outcast. The Lord knows forgiveness is good for you and me. Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who were crucifying Him – for His own sake, there’d be no bitterness in His heart (Luke 23:34). Here’s this concept distilled in a single proverb: “The merciful man doeth good to his own soul: but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh” (Prov. 11:17).
SECOND, I NEED FAITH IN GOD’S FORGIVENESS OF ME. The parable about the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35) depicts the cycle that should continue from our receiving God’s forgiveness. There is a direct correlation between our appreciation for being forgiven and our propensity to be forgiving. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). There is a rhythm to redemption that is a pattern of God forgiving you and me, our accepting that forgiveness on His terms, and then you and I practicing that with others: “Bear with one another and forgive one another. If anyone has a quarrel against anyone, even as Christ forgave you, so you must do” (Col. 3:13 (MEV).
THIRD, I NEED FAITH IN GOD’S VINDICATION OF ME. An unforgiving spirit is a form of vigilante justice – “I don’t trust that you’ll get your due from anywhere else, so I’m going to make sure you suffer for how you’ve hurt, wronged or disappointed me.” As Christians, we are called to do good for and to pray for those who hurt us (Matt. 5:11-12, 38-39). As “living sacrifices,” we trust justice to God (Rom. 12:1-2, 17-21).
This is part of loving others as God has loved us: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Three important practices are bound up in that verse: (1) Let go of grudges and any matter that tempts me to feel resentment; (2) Be pro-active in loving and being kind to others; and (3) Do all of these things out of respect and reverence for the Lord.
FOURTH, I NEED FAITH IN GOD’S POWER TO CHANGE SOMEONE. One of the great messages of the Bible is that imperfect people can change their direction to become useful to God through Christ. One example we can follow in the New Testament is the mission worker John Mark. He accompanied Paul on the first missionary trip, but left the group and returned home early in the mission (Acts 13:13). Whatever his reasons might have been for quitting, it prompted serious problems a couple of years later when plans were being made to include him in another mission trip (see Acts 15:36-41). Paul strongly disapproved of John Mark’s involvement. Meanwhile, John Mark was changing, maturing. Later, Paul said he enjoyed working with him because of how effective he had become (II Tim. 4:11). People can change for the better. Practicing forgiveness is firmly latched on to the belief that a person who hurt me yesterday can, with the Lord’s help, become a better person, who can help others one day.