Is Unforgiveness Really a Problem?
(Reading time: 10 minutes) As long as we’re alive, people will hurt us or cause us harm, even if it’s unintentional. That’s the nature of the world we live in. But for us Christians, our response to those offenses depends on how important we think forgiveness is. If we don’t actually do anything to the ones who hurt us, does it really matter what our attitude is toward them? Specifically, is unforgiveness really a problem? Let’s begin by considering God’s forgiveness.
God Forgave Us
The New Testament instructs us, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32, NIV). So, why and to what extent did he forgive us? We all deserved to die for our sin, but he loved everyone and didn’t want any of us to perish, so he sent his Son, Jesus, to die in our place (Rom. 6:23; 2 Pet. 3:9; John 3:16).
Jesus died to take away the sin of the whole world and reconcile us to God, so he no longer holds people’s sins against them (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19). Now it’s possible for us to reconcile with God and not be condemned for our sin. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). This is much more than an intellectual acceptance of Jesus’ death on the cross as fact. It’s a conviction that Jesus’ death cleared the record of our sin, an absolute trust in God’s forgiveness, and a reliance on his love for us. That conviction, or faith in what Jesus did for us, allows God to reconcile us to himself (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). The word, “reconcile,” is a key. Obviously, we’re not reconciled with God if we ignore or reject relationship with him and insist on living as we please, regardless of what he says.
Now, people don’t go to hell for their sin, but for not believing and accepting what Jesus did for them, which includes nurturing a healthy relationship with the God who loves us. People will perish spiritually “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10); the truth that God sent his Son to die for our sin so we could be reconciled to him.
Jesus died for sins once for all; that is, for all sins committed by all people for all time (Heb. 10:10; 1 Pet. 3:18). So his death covers all of our sins, including our future ones. However, this phenomenal gift creates an obligation. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). We must respond to God’s free gift with one of our own.
It’s up to us, whether we’ll acknowledge Jesus’ death as payment for our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. If we choose to accept this, we commit ourselves to serving God and living a life that pleases him with his help. If we instead reject Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, then we’re still guilty of sin and will receive the full punishment we deserve (2 Thess. 2:10, 12). Here’s the main point: God forgave us completely while we were still sinners and allows us to either accept or reject his forgiveness. We definitely will experience the results of our choice.
Now God Forgives Us Conditionally
The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most widely known prayer in the world. Yet it contains a statement most of us repeat without really considering what it means: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). This means we’re asking God to forgive us like, how, in the same manner, or to the same extent we have forgiven (past tense) others. Jesus clearly was saying this is the manner in which God forgives us, because he emphasized that point when he completed the prayer: “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” (Matt. 6:14–15). Jesus clearly referred to Christians, those who relate to God as their Father.
This was not an isolated thought, because Jesus made similar statements at other times. Most of us are familiar with the withered fig tree incident, when Jesus told his disciples they could do the same thing, even command a mountain to move. Then he made the statement we all love: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). We love that statement, but ignore what he said next: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25). The “whatever you ask for in prayer” (v. 24) has very broad application, but it clearly includes asking God to forgive us once we have forgiven someone else (v. 25). We’re to forgive others so our Father in heaven may forgive us.
We see this point again in one of Jesus’ parables about a king settling accounts with his servants. One servant owed the king a huge amount of money and begged him for patience, promising to pay back everything he owed. The king knew the servant likely could never repay him, but he canceled the debt and let him go. That same servant went to one who owed him a very small amount he couldn’t pay, so he put the indebted servant in prison. When the king heard what the man did, he reinstated his huge debt and had him put in prison. The king asked the servant, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matt. 18:33). After finishing the parable, Jesus explained, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).
We’re in the same position as that servant. Before we accepted Jesus’ death as payment for our sin, we owed a debt to God we could never repay and we were destined for hell. When we asked him to forgive our sin, he cancelled our debt and erased the record of it, so it’s as if we’d never sinned. Now he expects us to forgive others the same way he forgave us.
In the parable, the king ordered the unforgiving servant to be tormented until he paid his debt, which was customary in those days. Today, when we think or act like the world, such as by refusing to forgive someone, we in fact authorize Satan to influence or even torment us. God allows that to happen because he uses the torment to get our attention so we’ll change our ways. So if we’re tormented in some area of life, we should consider whether we’re holding a grudge, then choose to forgive as God expects.
Does this apply only to forgiving other Christians? No, because Jesus also requires us to forgive “men,” including non-Christians, just as he requires us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44-45). However, Jesus’ parable about the servant who had his debt reinstated because he refused to forgive his fellow servant suggests our refusal to forgive a Christian, whom God has forgiven, may cause our sin-debt to be reinstated and bring a severe penalty.
As Christians, we need to forgive others as God forgave us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). We deceive ourselves if we think God automatically forgives us even if we refuse to forgive others.
Becoming Like Father
It’s natural – that is, sinful or worldly – to hold grudges and even retaliate. But Jesus taught that we’re not to be like the world. He talked about turning the other cheek, doing more than someone requires of us, loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us and becoming like our heavenly Father (see Matt. 5:38-48). Quite frankly, we’re to do the opposite of what the world would do, including what comes naturally to us.
Forgiving those who hurt, impose on or offend us will not be easy, but that isn’t the point. If we’re unwilling to forgive, we’re embracing sinful attitudes and ungodly character, which disrupts our relationship with God. This in turn prevents God from developing his character in us. That’s a serious problem even in the short term, because we’re preventing God from doing what’s best for us. Choosing to forgive allows God to make us more like Jesus and himself.
Our Eternal Destiny
We all can remember something someone said or did that really hurt us, but how we respond to those memories might prove we haven’t really forgiven that person. We keep thinking about what they said or did. We keep thinking about how much it hurt us. We rehearse what we wish we’d done to retaliate or get even with that person. We might become bitter or hold a grudge against them. We may never forget what happened to us, but these actions are proof we haven’t forgiven the person responsible. Is that really a problem?
We saw earlier that God our Father won’t forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others, and may even reinstate our sin-debt. Does that mean we’ll lose our salvation and go to hell if we don’t forgive? That’s entirely possible, if not likely. Even if it doesn’t, unforgiveness definitely disrupts our relationship with God, interferes with what he’s doing in us, and even authorizes Satan to influence us. Why would we ever want to do any of that?
To ask God to forgive our sin while we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character. We don’t earn God’s forgiveness or favor by forgiving others; rather, we forgive others because God forgave us. God reconciled us to himself through Jesus’ death on the cross and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. Now we’re to present that message to people everywhere, as “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:19-20). That requires us to forgive and reconcile with others as God forgave and reconciled with us.
We are God’s representatives on earth, yet we misrepresent him if we accept his forgiveness but refuse to forgive others. Please consider that God totally forgave you and erased the record of your offense against him, then extend forgiveness to others in the same way.
How can we develop a forgiving attitude? First, by humbling ourselves as servants of God and focusing on serving him, rather than focusing on ourselves. Second, by choosing to forgive. Think about what the person did, decide not to hold them accountable and turn the incident over to God. He’ll do what’s best for everyone involved.
In the long term, refusing to do what God says and rejecting his desire to make us like him disrupts our relationship with him and potentially jeopardizes our future.
To ask God to forgive our sin while we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character. We must humble ourselves and choose to forgive, by not holding people accountable for how they hurt us.