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It’s easy to get angry. It’s not so easy to maintain the rhythm of forgiveness that sits at the heart of the Christian life. But for Christians, it’s essential.
We become arrhythmic in forgiveness when we stop asking it of others and when we stop extending it to others. These two things are related. When we stop asking it of others, our unwillingness traces back to our failure to go to God with our sin. When we stop extending it to others, our unwillingness traces back to our failure to grasp the grace that God extends to us when we do go to Him with our sin.
When King David sinned infamously, he penned these words: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). The inscription of Psalm 51 gives us enough context to know that the sin David had in mind involved others, but he directed these words to the Lord. When I sin against others, especially out of anger, it can take time for my heart to soften, for me to realize how foolish I’ve been. It’s not that I don’t realize that I’ve sinned. In truth, that realization may even be met with more anger and sometimes self-hatred if I allow my pride to produce a mere worldly sorrow within me (see 2 Cor. 7:10). But by God’s grace, my heart softens when I come to realize the ultimacy of my sin, that I have sinned against Him. It’s in this light—in His light—that I see my sin for what it truly is, and when I can see my sin for what it truly is, I can grieve it appropriately and thus ask forgiveness from others. If we do not see the ultimacy of our sin, we do not take it before God, and we don’t take it before others.
Good parents strive to establish a rhythm of forgiveness with and among their children. Yet it isn’t uncommon when teaching children how to ask for forgiveness to face stubborn unwillingness. Ideally, siblings would ask for forgiveness from one another in true sincerity, but sometimes it can seem as if they are just going through the motions. The problem is, as adults, we can even stop going through the motions. It’s when we stop going before God with our sin, before the One whose forgiveness enlivens our hearts to forgive, that we get out of the rhythm of asking forgiveness from others and that perhaps even more dreadfully, we get out of the rhythm of extending forgiveness to others.
Receiving forgiveness is intimately connected to extending forgiveness. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). It is easy to misread this petition of the Lord’s Prayer as if it were saying that forgiving others is the sufficient condition of being forgiven ourselves. This is especially easy to do when we consider what Jesus says immediately after the Lord’s Prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). If our forgiving others were the sufficient condition of our forgiveness, then it would be the cause of our forgiveness. But forgiveness would then not be by the grace of God. Our forgiving others is not the sufficient condition of our forgiveness, but it is a necessary condition, or better, fruit of our forgiveness. Our forgiving others does not cause our forgiveness, but it does accompany it.
We cannot truly forgive others unless we experience God’s forgiveness in Christ. It is our experience of the Father’s love for us through the Son that enables us to resemble our Father in the act of forgiveness. The primary rationale that we are given in the New Testament for why we ought to forgive one another is resemblance. The Apostle Paul said, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32), and “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13), grounding both commands in the definitive forgiveness of the Father and the Son. As children of the Father and brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are called to resemble Him through forgiveness.
There is a dreadful flip side to our call to resemble the Father in forgiving others. Those whose lives are characterized by unforgiveness will themselves be unforgiven and will be judged apart from Christ. This is a sober warning that Jesus often attached to His teaching about forgiveness (see Matt. 6:14–15; 18:21–35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37–38).
Are you living in the rhythm of forgiveness? A life that is lived in this way is marked by a willingness to go to the Lord with one’s sin, confident of having been justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. A life that is lived in this way is marked by a willingness to be reconciled with others, whether one sins against another or is sinned against.
If we are not living in this rhythm, we must go to the Lord, for “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Through His forgiveness, He will establish us in this rhythm, the rhythm that all starts with Him, of asking for forgiveness from others and extending forgiveness to others.
If we are living in this rhythm, we must go to the Lord and praise Him for the grace in which we stand. Let us take joy in every opportunity we have to extend forgiveness to others and take comfort in the assurance that, in so doing, we are resembling our heavenly Father.