Malice, gossip, lies, broken possessions, broken promises, broken hearts, unkindness, partiality, neglect, selfishness—even in the church, we frequently sin against one another as we live and worship together. Further, we have not always been loved well by others. Each of us has been hurt, sometimes grievously.
And so, amid the commands to welcome, serve, encourage, and love one another, we receive a command for when our Christian brothers and sisters fail us in those very things. Our one-another responsibilities in the church do not cease if others break the rules. In Ephesians 4:32, the Apostle Paul directs sinned-against Christians to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Think about Yourself
Usually, my gut reaction when I am sinned against is to think about myself. My grievance, my rights, my loss, and my hurt consume my mind. Like Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, I collect and cherish each moldy token of how I have been wronged.
It might be surprising, then, that the Lord tells us to respond to wrongs by first thinking about ourselves. But Paul’s “as God in Christ forgave you” is no encouragement to self-pity. An unblinking look into God’s mirror reveals not the extent of my injuries but the extent to which I have injured (Isa. 53:5), not the ways I have been offended but the long list of my own offenses (Rom. 4:25), not my feelings of rejection but how I once rejected God (Isa. 53:3).
Many commentators helpfully connect Ephesians 4:32 to Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35). The servant is a familiar biblical character. Having had his enormous debt forgiven, he immediately demands repayment of a much smaller debt from a fellow servant. What was the unforgiving servant’s problem? He forgot himself and the size of his own debt.
Think about Your Savior
My second response when I’ve been sinned against is to limit carefully the terms of forgiveness. I want loopholes and exceptions. I might forgive that person a little if I have to, if he does the right things first. Like Peter, I want to keep it grudgingly small—seven times, Lord (Matt. 18:21)?
This command again reorients our thinking when it directs us to meditate on our Savior: “as God in Christ forgave.” The forgiveness of our God in Christ is astoundingly large. The Bible tells us it is for many people (Matt. 26:28), covers all kinds of trespasses (Ps. 103:3; Col. 2:13–14), and casts the sin infinitely far from the sinner (Ps. 103:12). God’s forgiveness is complete and irrevocable (Heb. 10:17– 18). It is seventy times seven. You who have been forgiven should go and do likewise, Paul says.
Think about Your Brother
But Jesus is not merely an example of forgiveness—He is the source of our forgiveness. This is good news, because having been called to forgive, I want to sit down and protest, “I can’t!”
Earlier in Ephesians, Paul reminds us of how Christ reconciles estranged people: “He . . . has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). By His obedience, death, and resurrection, He reconciled us to Himself, and He also reconciled us to everyone else who is reconciled to Him. Though Christians are called to be ready to forgive even non-Christians, “forgiving one another” (Eph. 4:32) has special significance for the church. Our brothers and sisters are branches on the same tree (John 15:1– 17), stones in the same building (Eph. 2:18–22), and parts of the same body (4: 15–16). We can live at peace with one another because “he himself is our peace” (2:14).
The work of Christ changes everything. When my brother’s sin is nailed next to mine on the cross, forgiveness becomes not merely a matter of canceling his debt on the ledger—bringing the columns back to zero—but of positively contributing to his well-being. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted,” Paul writes (4:32). In Christ, I embrace my sinful but repentant brother as one for whom Christ also died. In Christ, I tenderly meet my brother’s needs (Rom. 12:13), kindly consider his interests (Phil. 2:4), humbly count him more significant than myself (Phil. 2:3), and actively seek his good (Gal. 6:10).
Brothers and sisters, forgive one another.