Why Won’t You Forgive?

Kevin Harney: "If we refuse to forgive, we compromise our witness to the amazing grace of Jesus."

As a pastor and preacher, there are two topics I have discovered always get pushback when I address them from the pulpit. I can count on a few lively conversations or tough follow-up emails when I speak about personal finances (generous living) and any time I preach about forgiveness. It is the second topic that seems to take me by surprise. I am baffled every time someone corners me and tries to explain why they should not have to extend forgiveness, even though Jesus was emphatic that this is part of the Christian life.

If we refuse to forgive, we compromise our witness to the amazing grace of Jesus. When we hold bitterness rather than showing mercy, we make the world wonder if we really know a God of grace.

The truth is, we have all been wronged, hurt, abused and sinned against—all of us. Jesus knows this. He is personally aware because he actually bore the punishment for those sins. And he calls us to extend forgiveness as we have received it from the Father.

Have you every found yourself asking, “Do I have to forgive that person?”

Who comes to your mind when you think about the call to forgive? Who is your “That Person”?

Who has wronged you? Who said, “I will be with you no matter what—through the good and bad times,” and then they bailed out on you? Who betrayed your trust? Who is that person who should have protected you but they hurt you instead—and they hurt you badly. Who ripped you off in a business deal, lied to you, took advantage of you or neglected you?

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That is the person God wants you to forgive!

Your forgiveness becomes a testimony to the world that Jesus is alive in you and his grace is so powerful that you must share it with others. Your refusal to forgive also sends a message to the world, but it is not the message you want to communicate.

In Matthew 18 we read about Jesus teaching his disciples the importance of forgiveness and restored relationships. After Jesus gave a simple process to walk through to make sure we do everything possible to live with healed and healthy relationships, Peter came up to the Savior and asked if he should forgive up to seven times.

This specific number might seem strange to the modern reader but it was actually a generous offer. In Peter’s day the religious leaders taught that a good and religious person need only forgive three times:

“He who begs for forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times” (Rabbi Jose ben Hanina).

“If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; If he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; If he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the forth time they do not forgive” (Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda).

In light of the religious norm in Peter’s day, he was actually being generous. Peter doubled the number of times people normally forgave and then added one more for good measure. He must have expected Jesus to affirm his lavish offer to forgive with such reckless abandon—up to seven times!

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The response Jesus gave must have put Peter back on his heals. Jesus said, “Not seven times but 70” (or seven times 70). No matter how we translate the number, the point is the same. Jesus was saying, we are to forgive and forgive and then forgive more. We are to extend the same opulent and abundant grace that we have received through faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians forgive­—it is what we do.

Who is “That Person” in your life? When you ask the question, “Do I really have to forgive that person?” who comes to your mind? Make a decision to pray for strength to forgive them and ask God to help you share the very grace God gave you when you did not deserve it. If you want to increase your witness and outreach effectiveness, commit to forgive—starting today!

To learn more about the call to radical forgiveness, check out chapter 2 of the book Organic Outreach for Ordinary People by Kevin Harney (Zondervan, 2009). Order it from Amazon here.