Why Be Forgiving?
JEWISH scholar and writer Joseph Jacobs once described forgiveness as “the highest and most difficult of all moral lessons.” Indeed, many find the words “I forgive you” very difficult to say.
Forgiveness, it seems, is much like money. It can be spent freely and mercifully on others or can be hoarded stingily for oneself. The former is the godly way. We should cultivate generous spending habits when it comes to forgiveness. Why? Because God encourages this and because an unforgiving, vengeful spirit may only make matters worse.
Often heard are the words: “I don’t get mad; I get even!” Sadly, this statement is a guiding principle in many lives today. One woman, for example, refused to talk to her sister-in-law for over seven years because, as the woman says, “she did me unbelievable dirt and I have never been able to forgive her.” But such silent treatment, when used as a lever to pry an apology from the accused or as a weapon with which to punish, rarely satisfies the desire for revenge. Rather, it may simply prolong the controversy, allowing a full-fledged grudge to develop. If this cycle of pain is not broken, the powerful clutches of vengeance can ruin relationships and even one’s health.
The Harm of an Unforgiving Spirit
When a person is unforgiving, the resulting conflict creates stress. In turn, stress can lead to serious illnesses. Dr. William S. Sadler wrote: “No one can appreciate so fully as a doctor the amazingly large percentage of human disease and suffering which is directly traceable to worry, fear, conflict, . . . unwholesome thinking and unclean living.” Really, though, how much damage does emotional turmoil cause? One medical publication answers: “Statistics . . . indicated that two thirds of the patients who went to a physician had symptoms caused or aggravated by mental stress.”
Yes, bitterness, resentment, and spite are far from harmless. These caustic emotions are like rust that slowly corrodes the body of a car. The car’s outside may appear beautiful, but under the paint a destructive process is taking place.
Even more important, our refusing to forgive when there is a basis for mercy can also harm us spiritually. In Jehovah God’s eyes, we might become like the slave in Jesus’ illustration. The slave was forgiven an enormous debt by his master. Yet, when his fellow slave pleaded with him to forgive a comparatively paltry debt, he was harsh and unforgiving. Jesus made it clear that if we are similarly unwilling to forgive, Jehovah will refuse to forgive us our sins. (Matthew 18:21-35) If we are unforgiving, therefore, we might lose our clean conscience before God and even our hope for the future! (Compare 2 Timothy 1:3.) What, then, can we do?
Learn to Forgive
True forgiveness stems from the heart. It involves pardoning an offender’s error and giving up any desire for revenge. Thus, final justice and possible retribution are left in Jehovah’s hands.—Romans 12:19.
It must be noted, however, that since “the heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate,” it does not always lean toward forgiveness even when it should. (Jeremiah 17:9) Jesus himself said: “Out of the heart come wicked reasonings, murders, adulteries, fornications, thieveries, false testimonies, blasphemies.”—Matthew 15:19.
Thankfully, our heart can be trained to do what is right. However, the training we need must come from a higher source. We cannot do it alone. (Jeremiah 10:23) A divinely inspired psalmist recognized this and prayed for God’s direction. He beseeched Jehovah in prayer: “Teach me your regulations. Make me understand the way of your own orders.”—Psalm 119:26, 27.
According to another psalm, King David of ancient Israel came to “understand the way” of Jehovah. He experienced it firsthand and learned from it. Hence, he was able to say: “Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. As a father shows mercy to his sons, Jehovah has shown mercy to those fearing him.”—Psalm 103:8, 13.
We need to learn as David did. Prayerfully study God’s perfect example of forgiveness, as well as that of his Son. Thus, we can learn to forgive from the heart.
Yet, some might well ask: What about serious sin? Must all sins be forgiven?
Seeking a Balance
When a person has been grievously wronged, the pain can be immense. This is particularly true if one is the innocent victim of a serious sin. Some may even wonder, ‘How can I forgive someone who viciously betrayed and hurt me?’ In the case of a gross sin that could merit disfellowshipping, the victim may need to apply the counsel of Matthew 18:15-17.
In any case, much may depend on the offender. Since the wrongdoing has there been any sign of sincere repentance? Has the sinner changed, perhaps even attempted to make real amends? In Jehovah’s eyes such repentance is a key to forgiveness even in the case of truly horrendous sins. For example, Jehovah forgave Manasseh, one of the most wicked kings in Israel’s history. On what basis? God did so because Manasseh finally humbled himself and repented of his vile ways.—2 Chronicles 33:12, 13.
In the Bible genuine repentance involves a sincere change in attitude, a heartfelt regret over any wrongs committed. Where appropriate and possible, repentance is accompanied by an effort to make restitution to the victim of the sin. (Luke 19:7-10; 2 Corinthians 7:11) Where there is no such repentance, Jehovah does not forgive.* Moreover, God does not expect Christians to forgive those who were once enlightened spiritually but who now willfully, unrepentantly practice wrongdoing. (Hebrews 10:26-31) In extreme cases, forgiveness may well be inappropriate.—Psalm 139:21, 22; Ezekiel 18:30-32.
Whether forgiveness is possible or not, a victim of serious sin may want to weigh another question: Must I remain in severe emotional turmoil, feeling intensely hurt and angry, until the matter is fully resolved? Consider an example. King David felt intensely hurt when his general, Joab, murdered Abner and Amasa, “two men more righteous and better than [Joab] was.” (1 Kings 2:32) David expressed his outrage orally and undoubtedly to Jehovah in prayer. In time, though, the sheer intensity of David’s feelings likely subsided. He was not dominated by outrage to the end of his days. David even continued to work with Joab, but he did not simply forgive this unrepentant killer. David saw to it that justice was done in the end.—2 Samuel 3:28-39; 1 Kings 2:5, 6.
It may take some time and work before those hurt by the serious sins of others get over their initial anger. The healing process may be much easier when the offender acknowledges his wrong and repents. However, an innocent victim of sin should be able to find comfort and solace in his knowledge of Jehovah’s justice and wisdom and in the Christian congregation, regardless of the wrongdoer’s course.
Recognize, too, that when you do forgive a sinner, this does not mean that you are condoning the sin. For the Christian, forgiveness means trustfully leaving the matter in Jehovah’s hands. He is the righteous Judge of all the universe, and he will carry out justice at the right time. That will include judging treacherous “fornicators and adulterers.”—Hebrews 13:4.
The Benefits of Forgiving
The psalmist David sang: “For you, O Jehovah, are good and ready to forgive; and the loving-kindness to all those calling upon you is abundant.” (Psalm 86:5) Are you, like Jehovah, “ready to forgive”? The benefits are many.
First, forgiving others promotes good relations. The Bible urges Christians: “Become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, freely forgiving one another just as God also by Christ freely forgave you.”—Ephesians 4:32.
Third, forgiving others helps us to remember that we ourselves are in need of forgiveness. Yes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”—Romans 3:23.
Finally, forgiving others clears the way for our sins to be forgiven by God. Jesus said: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”—Matthew 6:14.
Imagine the many things that must have occupied Jesus’ mind on the afternoon of his death. He was concerned about his disciples, the preaching work, and especially his integrity to Jehovah. Yet, even when he was suffering intensely on the torture stake, what did he speak about? Among his last words were, “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34) We can imitate Jesus’ perfect example by forgiving one another from the heart.
However, Jehovah does take other factors into account when weighing forgiveness. For instance, if a wrongdoer is ignorant of God’s standards, such ignorance may lessen the burden of guilt. When Jesus asked his Father to forgive his executioners, Jesus evidently was speaking of the Roman soldiers who put him to death. They ‘did not know what they were doing,’ being ignorant of who he really was. However, the religious leaders who were behind that execution bore far greater guilt—and for many of them, no forgiveness was possible.—John 11:45-53; compare Acts 17:30.
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Did you get the point of Jesus’ illustration of the unforgiving slave?
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Forgiving others promotes good relations and brings happiness