What does it really mean to forgive? Forgiveness may be one of the least understood topics in Scripture, and yet God says our willingness to forgive others will have a direct impact on where we spend eternity (cf. Matt. 6:12-15). Its one thing to talk about forgiveness, but really practicing it is a humbling, maturing, difficult experience. When we are hurt by someone else, how difficult it can be to truly forgive!
What happens to Christian fellowship when the will to forgive is not present? Paul answers this question in Ephesians 4:31-32. He first lists six evidences of a failure to forgive, and then he shows how true blessings result from a will to forgive.
Evidences of an unforgiving heart (Ephesians 4:31):
Bitterness Someone has well said that hurt is what others do to you, but bitterness is what you do to yourself. People who lack the will to forgive frequently revisit past hurts. These people are miserable, dwelling on the wrongs of others sometimes to the point that they actually begin to enjoy the misfortunes of other people! Christians had better be careful of taking frequent mental trips to revisit their pain thats likely evidence of an unforgiving heart.
Wrath The Greek word translated wrath in Ephesians 4:31 carries the idea of a seething desire for revenge. This person may seem calm on the surface, but inside they are like a pressure cooker about to explode. When we are full of this kind of rage, it is impossible to truly forgive someone else; worse yet, it is impossible for God to forgive us (Mark 11:25-26)!
Anger Anger differs from wrath because it involves a sudden outburst of rage. Rather than a heart that tries to hold rage inside, anger seeks every opportunity to show itself. Like a lightning bolt out of a cloud, the angry man unleashes his fury upon everyone he thinks has wronged him. Christians beware: our tempers might well keep us from heaven.
Clamor This word describes a brawling, argumentative, adversarial spirit. One who is full of clamor will seek every opportunity to air their grievances with offending parties and anyone else in the vicinity. Loving confrontation when we have been wronged is commanded (Matt. 18:15ff), but clamor is a contentious attitude that confronts others solely for the purpose of getting even or winning.
Evil Speaking When an unforgiving heart is present, so often is the desire to speak evil of others. Some people really seem to enjoy taking every opportunity to say unkind and ungodly things about those who have wronged them. One common temptation when weve been hurt is to gather a circle of friends around us and to justify ourselves while condemning those who have done wrong. Jesus said that we will give an account for every idle word we speak (Matt. 12:36), just as we will give account for having a heart that refuses to forgive.
Malice The Greek word behind malice indicates one who possesses a bad heart. One who is full of malice harbors a general feeling of ill will toward the one who has wronged him. How can we claim to be followers of the One who said, Father, forgive them, when our every thought and wish is for our enemies to get exactly what they deserve? Woe to those who will stand before God with unforgiving hearts! JB
Forgiveness is truly one of the most difficult things God commands His people to do. How many people have difficulty forgiving when theyve been wronged or hurt? When there is no forgiveness, there can be no fellowship like God intended Christians to enjoy (Eph. 4:31-32). Worse, when there is no forgiveness, the work of the Lord is hindered and souls are at stake (Matt. 6:12ff). Oh, how Christians need to be willing to have a heart that truly forgives!
Biblically speaking, forgiveness involves two parties. There is to be an acknowledgement of sin for true forgiveness to take place (cf. Psalm 51:3, 16-17). However, it is also Biblical and right to say that the will to forgive must be present, even when sin is not acknowledged. Our Lord showed a will to forgive even while His enemies nailed Him to the cross (Luke 23:34), but true forgiveness (the condition in which the relationship between Jesus and His executioners was finally mended) did not take place until their sin was acknowledged (cf. Acts 2:36-38).
Kindness Even if sin is not acknowledged, Christians are to have the will to forgive, and this will expresses itself in kindness. Gods kindness is seen in the fact that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Eph. 2:7; Rom. 5:8). God didnt wait to be kind until you and I acknowledged our sin before Him. He showed kindness when He blessed us with His only Son (John 3:16). When Christians have been wronged, we are not to wait until sin is acknowledged to be kind. Kindness is evidence of a heart that knows true forgiveness!
Tenderheartedness Not only is the forgiving heart kind, but it is tender and sympathetic to the needs of others. Especially is this true when forgiveness must take place. It is humbling to forgive, but it is more humbling to ask for forgiveness from someone weve wronged. When someone asks for forgiveness, they are making themselves extremely vulnerable, and a tender heart is needed to respond properly. What a blessing when Christians truly possess a tender heart.
Covering of sin Paul concludes these two verses by telling Christians to forgive, even as God in Christ forgave you. But how does God forgive? God forgives completely, freely, and quickly. Most of all, He promises NOT to dwell on our forgiven sins: I will remember them no more (Heb. 8:12). Thus, when Christians possess a forgiving heart, they will choose not to dwell on sin. Forgiveness covers up sin so that what has been forgiven is not continually brought back to our remembrance (Psalm 32:1-2). A heart that truly forgives will not go about mentioning the offense in the presence of others, nor will it continually bring up that offense before the offender, except for his or her benefit. If God chooses not dwell on our past sins, how much more should we choose to cover those offenses that have been forgiven?
The pews in our brotherhood are often filled with bitter, angry people who stubbornly declare, Ill never forgive or, Ill forgive, but Ill never forget. All the while the words of Jesus clamor for our attention: By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, that you love one another (John 13:34-35). An unforgiving heart is worse than any cancer because it eats away our very souls. Conversely, a forgiving heart is better than any balm of healing because it restores in kindness and tenderness with a will to cover a multitude of sins. Brethren, lets pray for more forgiving hearts in the church of Jesus Christ! JB