July 02, 2009

Overflowing in forgiveness


sn’t forgiveness a difficult thing? So often I think back on past offenses—often from decades ago—and I realize that I am still harboring anger deep down inside.

Matthew 18:21–22

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

I was reminded of this recently when discussing with a friend how often Christians treat each other with a degree of scorn and inhumanity that is uncommon even among non-believers. My friend and I have both been treated in this way by professing Christians who apparently think there is a hierarchy in the family of God and that they hold a royal position. My friend and I have both had trouble forgiving those people.

But we are commanded to forgive.

I think we do ourselves disservice when we take these commands to forgive outside of their context. Matthew 18 deals with the commonplace issue of a Christian sinning against another Christian and how this is to be handled. Matthew 18:15–17 says,

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Typically this passage has been used to describe formal church discipline, but it seems to me to be a simple explanation of how each of us is to individually handle the abuses that will be leveled against us by other Christians. The first unspoken but assumed directive is that we should not be surprised when this happens. Christians are fallen people with sin natures. Anytime one of us strays away from adherence to scripture, we are prone to sin and evil. So it should not surprise us when a believer treats us terribly.

Our response, however, should not be to strike back against that brother and hurt him. And it should not be to sulk or keep quiet so as to not be an obvious target in the future. Jesus is telling us that when we have been victimized by a fellow believer, we are to go to that person and tell him his fault.

It seems that we are to assume that this was not intentional—not a pre-meditated personal attack, but rather an accidental sin against us. So we should go to this person and say, in essence, “here’s what you did to me and it is a sin against me.”

Once we have made the person aware of his sin, he is responsible to repent of it. He is not responsible to say, “I did it because...” or “if I offended you in some way...” but he is to repent. That means he is to accept his guilt in the matter and turn away from that behavior.

If this person continues in his evil behavior, we are to go to him with another person as a witness. We should not fall for the accusation that this is gossip, because it is what Jesus is telling us to do in this situation. And Jesus is not encouraging the sin of gossip here.

If the person then continues in the inappropriate behavior, the matter is to be brought before the congregation of believers—the local church. And if that does not get his behavior into line, we are instructed to consider him a pagan, a non-believer, not a member of the family of God.

Perhaps the reason that I have harbored anger in my heart for many years is that I have not followed this process. I have typically chosen the path of quietness, attempting to fade into the woodwork so as to become less of a target. I have simply tried to avoid the pain caused by these people. In so doing, I have not given the offending party the opportunity to correct his behavior (I have not “gained a brother”). Instead, I have harbored anger for many years—allowing it to eat away at me and cause me greater pain and anger both when I relive it in my memory and when it happens again with another abusive Christian.

This is something I need to learn to handle appropriately. God’s way is always the best way.


  1. Good post and good reminder.

  2. Thank you so much for this post, Rich.

    I have been working through this same issue recently and have discussed it with friends and family. We each brought out the fact that it has been extremely rare when someone has come to us or when we have gone to another. This is just not taking place within the body of Christ or often even within our homes. Maybe this is the reason why so many in the church have not matured; we are not being obedient to God's word.

    Rather than deal with issues, we simply try to ignore them. But Christ makes it clear. When someone has offended US we need to go to THEM.

    The only times I've heard this scripture taught, is when there is teaching on church discipline. But Christ doesn't start the passage speaking to the church, it is to the individual.

    I think your point regarding the other person's response is critical. The times I have gone to others the most common response is not to ask for forgiveness, but to explain their motives. It is rare for people to say "Will you forgive me?" Without that question, it truly is hard to move beyond. When they ask, it is easy to respond positively.

    When they degrade themselves or say they were being unthoughtful you are left at a loss. It is not accurate to say "Oh, it's okay," because it's not. That's why it needs to be dealt with. It IS correct to say, "Would you forgive me?" That does not excuse the sin or the thoughtlessness, but it does give us an appropriate way to response. "Yes. I will forgive you."

    Great post. Now we need to go and do.

  3. Wow Great to see and read this!

    It is difficult to forgive and even worse to forget! Oh Lord, show us how to do this and let it go! If we have let go so many things why not let this one go?


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