NOTE: This post is the result of conversations on this topic between the men I serve in ministry with and myself as we seek to understand the depths of God’s forgiveness. Therefore, I want to extend special thanks to David Teague and Dick Fisher for being the iron the Lord is using to provide my own sharpening (Proverbs 27:17).
One of the many things we enjoy as Christians is the fact that God has forgiven us of every sin we’ve ever committed or will commit. The Apostle Paul describes this as having our certificate of debt canceled in Colossians 2:13-14. The theme of forgiveness seems to be ubiquitous in the entirety of the New Testament, not only God forgiving man, but also believers forgiving one another. In the Sermon on the Mount we learn that we should even postpone our worship if we realize that a brother or sister has something against us so that we might be reconciled before going before the Lord (Matthew 5:23-24). Further, each of the Synoptic writers points out that a significant part of our prayer is to not only ask for forgiveness but to also forgive those who have sinned against us (Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25; Luke 11:4). And in case you’re wondering how often you must forgive someone, well that’s covered as well in Matthew 18:21-22.
It would seem to me that whenever a Christian is being obedient to the commands given, principles provided, and example of Jesus that forgiveness is the foregone conclusion in settling each and every matter involving sin. In each case referenced in the preceding paragraph the example assumes that a sin(s) has been identified and reconciliation (forgiveness) has been sought. If that is the case what should the response be? Once again I point to my “forgone conclusion” – forgiveness and reconciliation between the two parties should be the result.
This leaves me with the question, “What do we call it when one Christian withholds forgiveness from another?” Well, if what Paul writes in Colossians 2:13-14 is true – and it is – then the penalty for any sin committed by believers toward one another has been likewise canceled out by Christ’s atoning sacrifice upon the Cross for our salvation.
So back to the question I just posed – “What do we call it when one Christian withholds forgiveness from another?” Truthfully, I believe most people are likely to answer this question with words like selfish, stubborn, unforgiving, unloving, etc. I think all of these are true descriptions; however, I think they fail to get to the heart of the issue at hand.
I want to propose that when a Christian withholds forgiveness – most especially when it’s asked for – that person is behaving in an idolatrous manner. So the answer to my question is, “Idolatry” and what’s more the idol they are serving is self. They are refusing to forgive a sin against them which has already been forgiven by God, whom the sin is ultimately against! That person is in effect saying, “My feelings are more important than God’s! The injury I have endured because of this sin is greater than the challenge to God’s holiness He has endured because of the same.” Additionally, the one withholding forgiveness is likewise saying, “All those things in the Bible apply to everyone except me. I am ‘above the law.’ I am an island of righteousness unto myself and you must appease me!” This particular attitude flies in the face of the 1st Commandment (Exodus 20:3) and the answer Christ gives when questioned concerning the greatest of the commandments (Matthew 22:36-37).
Now I know most folks who are guilty of withholding forgiveness when it is sought are probably not consciously declaring these things about themselves. However, this is a situation in which a person’s actions reveal their heart. Their actions “speak” and thus reveal what is within the heart, bringing it out into the light of day (Matthew 15:19).
So how do we approach a brother or sister who is behaving in such a way? First and foremost, I commend the practices outlined in Scripture (Matthew 18:15-20). Furthermore, I would like to propose that we keep the following Scripture passages in mind whenever we are tempted to withhold forgiveness from others: Matthew 5:23-24; 6:12; 7:12; 18:21-22; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:31; 6:37; 11:4; Romans 5:6-11; 12:3; 12:18; 1 Corinthians 10:14; 13:4-8a.
Meditate on these passages that offer clear guidelines on the importance and practice of forgiving others. Pray that God will soften your heart and allow you the same capacity to forgive that He exercises with us.