If you, Lord, keep account of sins Lord, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness and so you are revered- Psalm 130:3-4 NABRE
Christianity is more than just a get out of hell free card.
Ultimately, Christianity is the path to looking like and acting like Jesus (Romans 12:2, 2nd Corinthians 3:18).
When we put our faith and trust in Jesus, God forgives our sins and removes our guilt and shame (Psalm 103:12). In return Jesus’ goodness and righteousness is credited to us (Romans 4:5, James 2:23). When God sees us, He no longer sees the horrible, awful things we’ve done. Instead, He sees the righteousness of Jesus. Imputation of righteousness is the fancy-pants theological term for this incredibly beautiful exchange (2nd Corinthians 5:17)
We don’t wake up the day after our salvation experience looking and acting like a little Jesus. In fact, most of us wakeup the day after our salvation experience feeling somewhat different but with all the same problems, attitudes and behaviors we had pre-Jesus. The only difference is now we feel bad about those things instead of simply accepting them as a standard part of our operating system.
That’s where sanctification comes in. Sanctification is the lifelong process of becoming like Jesus (1st Corinthians 6:11, 1st Thessalonians 4:3). Paul called this process “working out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13). We become sanctified (holy) by letting go of old behaviors that are normal part of our human nature and taking on new behaviors and attitudes that imitate Jesus (Colossians 3:5-14, Ephesians 4:1-3, Galatians 5:16-26).
One critical step in the sanctification process is learning to forgive like Jesus forgave.
Forgiveness is hard. It is, perhaps, the hardest part of becoming like Jesus. It just kind of goes against the grain of our human nature to forgive wrongs committed against us. However, forgiveness is absolutely essential because we are never more like Jesus than when we are actively choosing to forgive (Psalm 103:2-4, Isaiah 1:18). In order to forgive we have to get past the notion forgiveness is something we do for other people. Most of the time, the people we forgive will never even know we forgave them. Forgiving others is something we do for our own spiritual, psychological and emotional well-being. Corrie Ten Boom spent nearly a year of hell in Ravensbruck concentration camp. She later said this about forgiveness:
Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.
God longs for His people to be free of resentment, bitterness and selfishness because freedom is what transforms us into the image of Jesus and prepares us to do the ministry He has for us (Ephesians 2:10, Colossians 4:17).
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. In order to forgive we must:
Understand the call to forgive-
Forgiveness is not an optional activity or something we get to do when we feel like it. Our willingness to forgive others is closely connected to God forgiving us and directly affects the level of freedom and joy we feel as Christians (Matthew 6:15, Luke 6:38, Luke 7:36-47).
Acknowledge the genuineness of the offense-
Unfortunately, forgiveness is rarely as easy as simply saying the words “I forgive you”. This might work in situations only involving minor hurts or social slights, however, in the case of a big hurt or a massive injustice this simply will not work. Instead, it is absolutely critical we acknowledge the wrong we suffered rather than attempting to stuff or pretend it was nothing. This means taking some time to process through the hurt we experienced in prayer and with a trusted Christian friend, a wise pastor or Christian counselor (Proverbs 11:14). Because some hurts are significant and not everyone we need to forgive is remorseful, God does not command us to be besties with the people we forgive. We are only called to forgive.
Own our part (if there is one)-
Oftentimes (but not always) we bear a certain level of responsibility for what went wrong in a relationship or a situation. “Our part” might be as basic as refusing to address issues and problems when they first came up (which always leads to more issues and problems) or as complicated as being complicit in a sinful relationship or situation. Jesus is clear: truth sets us free (John 8:32). Telling ourselves and God (and in some cases the other people involved) the truth about our part in a situation will keep us firmly in God’s grace and go a long way in freeing us from the prison of bitterness (James 5:16, 1st John 1:8-10, Hebrews 12:15)
Remember how much we have been forgiven-
Forgiveness is easier when we are real with ourselves about our own level of sinfulness. We may not have done the awful thing that was done to us, but we all do and have done awful things (Romans 3:23). Recognizing this uncomfortable reality keeps us from becoming bloated with pride and it makes it much easier to forgive others (Psalm 51:10-17)
The essence of genuine forgiveness is completely letting go of the right we have to punish and hate those who hurt us (Romans 12:19). This is the hardest of all the hard things and it simply cannot not be done without dedicated, intensive and repetitive prayer. Letting go of hate is hard because in a very real sense we all have a “right” to hold people’s sins against them, just like God has the right to hold our sins against us. Nonetheless, God in His infinite kindness chose to be merciful and forgive our sins when we were least deserving of forgiveness (Romans 5:7-8).
Can we do any less?