Have you ever sinned against a person and never experienced a full release from the guilt? Have you been sinned against and never been freed from the pain? These are two sides of the same coin, but the remedies are totally different.
If you have been sinned against, you have to forgive. No matter how difficult, forgiveness is still a necessity. In his model prayer, Jesus says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Because he knows how difficult this can be, he repeats himself after his prayer. “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” (vv 14–15).
I don’t know of anyone who can actually do this, instantly and fully, except Jesus (Luke 23:34). The advice I received was to see forgiveness as a three-step process.
- Start by asking God to enable me to want to forgive. In many cases, this is a miracle in and of itself.
- Eventually, this prayer is answered and so you take the next step and sincerely ask God to enable you to forgive. You are amazed that you even want to (Step 1), and now it is time to pray that someday you actually will want to forgive that person (Step 2).
- Months or perhaps years later, you will realize that your prayer has been answered (Step 2) and you actually want to forgive the person.
Depending on the nature of the sin, your personality, and many other factors, this may take years; I believe that as long as you are in the process of forgiveness, our Lord is pleased. And the more you follow this process, the easier it becomes to forgive future sins against you.
One of the problems in refusing to forgive is that you may be the only person being hurt. As you relive the pain, you may be the only person thinking about it; the person who sinned against you may not even be thinking about you. This is why forgiveness has been called the “selfish” response, selfish in that you do it for yourself. If you wait for the person to ask for forgiveness, you are handing control of your life over to someone else and allowing them to continue to hurt you.
But more than this, refusing to forgive is a sin, a sin that damages our relationship with God (Matt 6:14–15). In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the master forgave his servant a debt he could never repay. However, in turn the servant refused to forgive his own servant who owed him much less. Jesus says, “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (Matt 18:32–33).
Please see Jesus’ warning to us in the next verse. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v 34). I have been forgiven a sin against God that is greater than any sin that can be committed against me. If I have been forgiven such a debt, I must be willing to forgive sins against me, no matter how painful they are (Eph. 4:32).
What is forgiveness? It is simply turning all thoughts and desires for revenge over to God, not ignoring the pain but consciously, deliberately, telling God that it is now his job to deal with the sin and the sinner, believing that he in fact will do the loving and just thing (Rom 12:19). It is letting go of your bitterness and anger, allowing God to deal with the person. It doesn’t mean you trust the person or should have a relationship with him or her, but it does mean you have to release the pain. I know; easier said than done. We have a wonderful three-hour seminar on forgiveness on at BiblicalTraining.org/forgiveness if you want to learn more.
But what about confession of sin by the sinner? I think one of the most ignored passages in the Bible is Matt 5:23–24. Jesus is in Capernaum, a three-day walk from the temple were sacrifices were made. He says, “If you are bringing your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
If you have sinned against a brother or sister, you are only compounding your sin by going to church and participating in acts of worship. Every time you sing a song, every biblical passage you read, every “amen” you utter, you are compounding your guilt. If only we would listen to Jesus and reconcile as quickly as possible, assuming reconciliation is possible, even if it means we walk with that person for six days.
What is confession? I am sure we have all received “fake apologies.” “If I have hurt you, I’m sorry.” “Are we okay?” Saying “I’m sorry” without specifying what trhey are sorry for.
Psalm 51 provides the biblical model for confession.
- A total admission of guilt, without making excuses.
- Agree that sin is bad and that you need to be washed and cleansed.
- Confess that you don’t deserve to be forgiven, but that God in his abundant mercy will forgive.
I have twice been the recipient of true confession. In both cases, the person told me what they did, made no excuses, didn’t play the “victim” card, refused to trivialize their actions, admitted the consequences of their sin, and asked for forgiveness even though they did not deserve it. I rejoiced with them. I rejoiced because I had already forgiven them (and hence I was free), and now I could see that they too would be free.
If you want to learn more about forgiveness, I invite you to the lesson on Psalm 51 in our class, 52 Major Stories of the Bible.
Forgiveness and confession, on the one hand, are extremely difficult. When you first determine to forgive others and confess your own sin, it can be difficult, humbling, embarrassing. But as is true of God’s laws in general, the more you obey, the easier it becomes, and eventually the habit is second nature and you don’t have to wait years to be freed.