We live in a society that knows and cares little about forgiveness. In fact, I would think that one of the major contributors to the destruction of relationships in our culture is the absence of forgiveness.
Our culture pushes us to be unforgiving. It celebrates and exalts people who are not willing to forgive. We make heroes out of the Dirty Harry’s and the Rambo’s who murder people out of vengeance. As a result of this unforgiveness, we have a society filled with bitterness, vengeance, anger and hate toward others.
For a Christian, however, the failure to forgive is unthinkable. Whatever the issue, whatever the offense, a failure to forgive is a blatant act of disobedience. We have been told as explicitly as possible that if anybody offends us, we are to forgive them. How many times? Seventy times seven — that is, an endless number of times (Matthew 18:22).
To look at this issue from the negative side for a moment, if we buy into this culture — a culture that says you don’t have to forgive, you have a right to your pound of flesh — I’ll give you four things that will happen in the life of a Christian.
As long as you fail to forgive an offender, you are shackled to the past. Unforgiveness keeps that pain alive. Unforgiveness never lets that wound heal, and you go through life reminding yourself of what was done to you, stirring up that pain and making yourself progressively angrier. You go through life accumulating bad feelings.
Now, think about it. What’s the point of that? What’s the benefit? Unforgiveness just imprisons you in the past and robs you of the joy of living. On the other hand, forgiveness opens the door and lets the prisoner out. Forgiveness sets you free from your past. As soon as you forgive, you’re free. If you insist on remembering the offense and never forgiving it, then you allow the person to go on offending you the rest of your life.
The cumulative effect of remembering without forgiveness some offense done against you is that you become a bitter person. The longer you remember the offense, the more data you accumulate on it, the more you recite the memory, the more it occupies your thinking, the more it shapes your person.
Bitterness is not just a sin; it is an infection, and it will infect your whole life. And bitterness can be directly traced to the failure to forgive. It makes you caustic, sarcastic, condemning and nasty. Harassed by the memories of what you can’t forgive, your thoughts become malignant toward others, and your whole view of life becomes distorted.
Anger begins to rage in you, and it can easily get out of control. Your emotions begin to run wild. You entertain continuing thoughts of revenge. And what happens? Even casual conversation becomes a forum for slander against the offender, and your flesh, that horrible remnant of your old self, gains control.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, dispels bitterness and replaces it with love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control. Why would anybody want to live in the prison of their past? Why would anybody want to live with accumulated bitterness that makes them violate every relationship?
Unforgiveness throws the welcome mat out and invites the demons in. Where you have unresolved bitterness and an unforgiving spirit, you have given place to the devil:
Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Corinthians 2:10-11)
It is no exaggeration to say that most of the ground that Satan gains in our lives is due to unforgiveness. We’re not ignorant of his scheme to move in on an unforgiving attitude and destroy relationships. You can evict all the demonic trespassers by an act of forgiveness.
Jesus said that if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you (Mark 11:25). If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. In the ongoing relationship with God, if we don’t forgive others, He doesn’t forgive us. So if I’m not right with you, then I’m not right with Him.
Why would I sentence myself to not being right with God? Is there some virtue in cutting off the purity and the joy of my fellowship with God?
You see the idiocy, don’t you, of an unforgiving attitude? It makes you a prisoner of your past, it gives you the all-pervasive disease of bitterness, it opens the door for Satan, and it alienates you from the full, rich fellowship that God desires to have with you. There is plenty of good reason, then, to be a forgiving person.
To forgive is to turn the key, open the cell door, and let the prisoner out. To forgive is to write in large letters across a debt, “Nothing owed.” To forgive is to pound the gavel in a courtroom and say, “Not guilty.” To forgive is to bundle up all the garbage and dispose of it, leaving the house clean and fresh. To forgive is to relax a stranglehold on a wrestling opponent and give him his life. To forgive is to sandblast a wall of graffiti, leaving it looking like new.
This matter of forgiveness is very important, and it’s right at the crux of our spiritual health.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “The Characteristics of One Who Forgives.”
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