“Jesus said, ”I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 23:34)
There is a sin that totally destroys relationships, is a deadly cancer eating at one’s own psyche, and — worst of all — shuts a person off from God’s grace. And yet nowhere does the Bible define it. Scripture seems to assume that everyone knows in all circumstances what it means to forgive. A large assumption.
Webster’s Dictionary lists three meanings, all related to the idea of pardon, remission of guilt, cancellation of debt. That’s easy to understand, though it may not always be easy to do: treat the guilty party as if the offence had never occurred. But there sometimes seems to be something left over after canceling a debt, something that eats at my spirit. So Webster’s comes through with another possible meaning: “to cease to feel resentment against.” Ah, there’s the rub! Don’t make him pay for his offence against me, scrub out the debt. Fine. But how do I scrub out the feelings? Does God really expect me to forgive in that sense before he forgives me? So the first problem is to define what I will do and feel if I forgive. But that is far from the last of the problems.
For example, must I forgive even if the person doesn’t ask for it? And what of responsibility for discipline on the part of parents, church officers, or civil authorities- can they treat the offender “as if it never happened”? Another thing: how can I untangle my feelings so as to distinguish between pain or fear on the one hand, which may be legitimate, and resentment or bitterness which are not? Simple forgiveness turns out to be not so simple.
The Bible may not define forgiveness, but it does point to a model. Of course, that may not be very helpful since the model seems so far out of reach. But God’s own forgiveness is the central theme of Scripture. And what we are to do is follow his example: “Forgive one another just as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4.32; Col 3.13). The amazing concept, that an infinite, holy, all-powerful deity should make arrangements – at great personal loss – to expunge all the rotten filth of our lives and treat us as clean, is so overwhelming that Bible dictionaries deal almost exclusively with God’s forgiveness. The other startling thing is that I am to do the same! If I fail to follow his example, if I don’t forgive, Jesus repeatedly warns that God will not forgive me.
How can that which seems so “natural” to God prove so unnatural to us? Because God is love. Forgiveness flows from an inner spring of love and our springs are fouled so often with self-love if not hatred. Sensing the connection between love and forgiveness, many have combined them, defining forgiveness in terms that the Bible assigns to love. Much confusion and guilt result from this failure to clearly distinguish between the demands of love and the demands of forgiveness. For example, God’s love is unlimited, for everyone. And ours ought to be. But God’s forgiveness is strictly limited to those who repent. Confusion and guilt overwhelm many of God’s people who demand that we do what God does not do – forgive everyone of everything.
Perhaps the distinction would be clarified by returning to the two basic meanings of forgive: to remit the guilt and to relinquish resentment. In the sense of remitting guilt, pardoning, treating as if it never happened, God, in love, does this for a specified few and, in love, does not do this for the majority of humankind. But he never for a moment felt resentment or ill-will against anyone because, again, God is love and that is the way love relates to people, whether friend or enemy. To follow his example is not always easy, but this is what we are to do.
 Matthew 6:14,15; 18.35; Mark 11:25,26; Luke 11:4