Do I HAVE to Forgive?
Forgiving those who have offended us is one of the more significant challenges we face as Christians. I know some have been hurt by horrific sins, who struggle to forgive the perpetrators and enablers of their abuse. Even those who are victims of lesser crimes wrestle with the inclinations of the flesh like malice and vengeance.
And yet the Savior hung on a cross, battered and beaten to a pulp, betrayed by one close to Him, abandoned by nearly everyone closest to Him, bearing the insults and condescension of the powerful. Bearing all this, He prayed, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Regardless, in these moments of pain and grief, we are tempted to wonder, “Do I have to forgive?”
The Bible’s answer is pretty clear: yes, we need to forgive the offenses of others.
Jesus, in Luke 17:3-4, warns us:
Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.
If we have been offended, we need to take the initiative by letting our offenders know how they have hurt us.
Sometimes, other people have NO idea they have offended us. I have been in this situation more times than I can count. I said something without the intent to harm, only to find out later that my words or actions hurt another person. And the same is true in reverse: others have unintentionally hurt or offended me. So waiting for our offenders to “come to their senses” means we may never resolve the offense.=
Instead, Jesus counsels us to rebuke those who offend us, and if they repent and ask for forgiveness, we should forgive. And He takes it a step further by urging us to forgive those who offend us as many times as they require.
Blessed are the Merciful
Matthew 6:14-15 tells us why we should be quick to forgive others as often as is needed:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Jesus has just modeled prayer for his disciples — a prayer we often call “the Lord’s prayer” — in which He says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Of all the parts of the prayer Jesus could comment on, He chooses to revisit forgiveness. He teaches us that if we want God to forgive us, we need to forgive others. As He said previously in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” I need to be willing to forgive because God will only be merciful to those who have been merciful to others.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Jesus illustrates this principle in The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-25. A servant owes his master a vast sum of money, 10,000 talents, which he cannot repay, so he begs his master to forgive the debt. Having received his master’s forgiveness, the servant does not show any mercy to his fellow servant, who owed him a comparatively meager amount of money. When the master finds out about the unforgiving servant, he punishes him severely for his lack of mercy.
Our sins have deeply offended God and have racked up a debt we could never repay. The sins of others committed against us are not comparable debt; they are a relatively paltry debt in comparison. Should we choose not to forgive others, God will retract his forgiveness of us in response.
Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness is direct and straightforward: we need to be willing to forgive anyone who sins against us, or else we jeopardize our souls.
We Wait for an Apology
We struggle because we wait for an apology — we convince ourselves our offenders will realize how they have hurt us and come to us with their apologies. But remember what Jesus said in Luke 17:3? “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” If we have been offended, we need to take the initiative. Waiting for our offenders to “come to their senses” means we may never resolve the offense.
Jesus teaches us how to do this in Matthew 18:15-17. He teaches us to go to our offender first in private. Then, if they do not listen, go to them with witnesses a second time. If they do not listen to you and your witnesses, then take the matter to the church — or if it is in a work context, take the issue up the “chain of command.”
But far too often, we do not follow the words of Jesus. We never have a conversation with the person who offends us because we convince ourselves that “they won’t listen.” Or we go behind their backs by talking to others and never seek resolution. Or we skip steps one and two by involving those in authority. I urge you to take to heart the words of Jesus: if you are offended, don’t wait for an apology; go to your offenders, express how they have hurt you, and seek to resolve this offense as quickly as possible.
We Fail to see the Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Reconciliation happens when two hostile parties resolve their issues and change the relationship from enmity into friendship. Reconciliation is what God sought with us: in Romans 5:8-10, Paul says,
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
Without the blood of Christ washing away our sins, we are God’s enemies.
God did not want to be our enemy, so He offered Jesus to reconcile with us. In return, we do not want to be God’s enemies. So we accept His terms by confessing our belief in Jesus, repenting of our sins, and submitting to the Lord’s command by being baptized in Jesus’s name. This is reconciliation — two parties who are enemies seeking peace and friendship.
Reconciliation is different from forgiveness insofar as forgiveness requires only one party while reconciliation requires two. I can be reconciled to God because that’s what we both want: He does not want to be my enemy, and I don’t want to be His. You can forgive an enemy, but you cannot necessarily turn an enemy into a friend. Facing death, both Stephen and Jesus sought to forgive their enemies. But their forgiveness did not turn their enemies into friends (see Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60). I can forgive my offenders without reconciliation.
Forgiveness Does Not Right a Wrong
Some people struggle to forgive because they think forgiving the offender says that what the offender did was okay. But that’s not what forgiveness means.
Forgiveness means no longer charging another with a wrong. The one who forgives does not hold an offense against the offender.
However, forgiveness does not deny that the offense happened, nor does it say it was okay. What was done to hurt or harm you was wrong, and it will always be wrong. But forgiveness means you no longer hold the offender accountable.
Benefits to Forgiveness
Over the long term, forgiveness relieves the pain we feel from hurt and harm. Of course, it’s easier to be angry than it is to deal with our pain. But harboring our anger, nursing it, and allowing it to fester only hurts one person — us.
One person observed, “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person.” Forgiveness is the harder path, but it is the path that leads to internal peace and spiritual well-being. We will feel better in the long term if we strive to forgive.
Forgiveness also helps us leave the past behind. When we refuse to forgive the offenses of others, it’s very easy to live in the past. We wish it were different by thinking about and reliving the offense repeatedly. If we remain stuck in the past, we will find it increasingly difficult to move forward in the present and into the future.
The only way to put the past behind us is to confront it directly. In some cases, forgiving others for past offenses is the only way to escape the trap of living in yesterday. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past,” and by forgiving, we can move on into the future.
Forgiving our offenders helps us learn humility.
For example, it is sometimes hard to admit that we are offended (we view it as a sign of weakness). Because it’s hard to admit our offense, it’s easier to assume the high ground. The trouble is the offense remains unresolved. But, try as we might, the likelihood of forgetting the offense without forgiving is very low. Humbling ourselves, recognizing our frailties, and acknowledging our offense is the better way.
God “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” is an excellent verse to keep in mind. If we humble ourselves, God will help us learn how to forgive those who have wronged us.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, “‘BE ANGRY, AND DO NOT SIN’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath,” a verse that urges us to seek resolution with those who offend us quickly. However, for some sins, forgiveness does not happen overnight.
I know a dear woman whose son died in the Vietnam war. After his death, war protestors would call her and say all sorts of horrific, terrible things. Then, to add further insult to injury, he died when it had become abundantly clear that the war was a useless affair. We had no business fighting in Vietnam. She related how all of these factors led her to bitterness.
Finally, her husband urged her to do something lest she drown in resentment. It took her around a year of daily, determined effort to reach a point where she could say with all sincerity, “I forgive them for what they did to my son and our family.”
Forgiveness may take weeks, months, or even years, but it is a goal worth pursuing — it is a cleaner way, a way of peace, leading to wisdom and strength of character. So if you are troubled by the offenses of others, I urge you to start your journey to forgiveness today. Blessed are the merciful, for God will show them mercy.