There are certain words that are near synonymous with Christianity. Words like grace, love, and mercy ought to not only be a part of our vocabulary; they should be a part of our regular operating system. These are the kind of words that frame our whole disposition as Christians, and the reason is simple – these are the words that frame God’s disposition towards us.
There is a relationship between our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with other people. We love others because He first loved us. We extend grace to others because He first extended grace toward us. We are merciful to those around us because He has been merciful toward us. In fact, these vertical and horizontal relationships are so closely linked that if we find difficulty in extending grace, love, and mercy toward others it might well be that the root of our issue lies not in those people, but instead in our relationship with God. If, for example, we have trouble loving others, it might be that we have failed to grasp the extent to which God has loved us.
This is the case with all these things – grace, love, and mercy. But it’s also true when it comes to forgiveness. Christians ought to speak the language and live the life of forgiveness because we are forgiven people. But that fact doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy. Or natural. Or without its challenges. We see some of those difficult lessons about forgiveness from Jesus in Luke 17:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4).
1. Forgiveness requires commitment.
Forgiveness is hard, especially when what needs to be forgiven is something very, very personal. Sure, you can say the words of forgiveness, but it’s another matter to truly live it. Here, Jesus reminds us of that difficulty because it’s often not a “one time” thing. It happens over and over again when you are in a relationship with someone. This is human nature; we are going to make mistakes. We are going to act selfishly. We are going to do hurtful things, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Jesus’ example is pretty extreme here. In this case, a person sings against us seven different times in a single day, and each time they come back with the same “I’m sorry.” Surely after infraction 4 or 5 we start to wonder if they really mean it, but it doesn’t matter. The response must be the same – forgiveness. How can we do that?
It’s only through commitment in relationship. It’s only when we see the person needing our forgiveness as someone who we must continue to be in relationship with that we will find the strength to continue forgiving them. Forgiveness, in this sense, is not only rooted in how much we’ve forgiven of by God; it’s also rooted in how committed we are to the person who has sinned against us.
2. Forgiveness is a discipline.
Back to Jesus’ example. It is indeed extreme. I certainly haven’t ever had the experience of the same person wronging me 7 times in a single day. But if I had, I would surely have to treat forgiveness as a discipline.
This is important to recognize because sometimes we think of forgiveness in terms of feelings. We forgive people when we feel like it; we don’t, when we don’t. Problem is we rarely feel like forgiving anyone; we feel like exacting revenge. Or holding onto bitterness. If we wait to forgive until we feel like it just simply won’t happen. Forgiveness, at least to the extent Jesus is describing, is much more about discipline than feeling.
3. Forgiveness is an act of faith.
If we find Jesus’ teaching challenging here, at least we’re not alone. When confronted with the words of Christ, Jesus’ disciples, too, are at a loss. But there is a lot of truth in their response:
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (v. 5).
They did not ask Jesus to increase their will; or to increase their resolve; or even to increase their capacity for forgiveness. They asked Him to increase their faith, and that’s appropriate, because forgiveness is an act of faith. Why might that be? It’s because when we choose the road of repeated, disciplined, committed forgiveness, we are entrusting a great many things to God. We are entrusting the justice of the situation, our feelings, our reputation, and a lot of other stuff to Him. Yes, forgiveness is indeed an act of faith.
Even with these difficult lessons, we are still back where we started. Forgiveness is the language we speak as Christians. It is the posture we adopt. Not naturally – certainly not. But now, because of the extent of the forgiveness that’s been shown to us in Christ, it has become such. Forgiven people, forgive people – over and over again.