Forgiveness and the Christian's Piety
Before I was a pastor I served with the college ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. During my New Staff Training, we had the opportunity to hear from Bill Bright, the founder of Crusade. Our new staff class was actually the last class to be addressed by him before he died. By this time Dr. Bright was suffering from significant respiratory problems and was on oxygen and in a wheelchair. Through labored breaths, he said that he wanted to share with us one of the most important things we should know as we began our ministries. Now, if you’re familiar with Campus Crusade, you might expect Dr. Bright to talk about the Four Spiritual Laws, prayer and fasting, the Great Commission, or something about the Jesus Film. But he didn’t speak about any of these things (which is good because I probably would have forgotten whatever he said about them). Instead, he spoke to us about the 12 most important words for your marriage--or, really for any relationship. These are 12 words that can change, strengthen, and renew any relationship. These 12 words are: I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me. I love you.
Of all the things Dr. Bright might have shared with us, the topic of forgiveness in relationships was paramount in his mind. I think he was on point. One of the central components of a Christian’s piety is forgiveness. However, we often allow the necessity of forgiveness to escape us in our daily lives. In Thomas Watson’s brilliant book on the Lord’s Prayer he notes that immediately after Christ instructs us to pray for our “daily bread” he adds, “forgive us.” Watson commented, “[Christ] joins the petition of forgiveness of sin immediately to the other of daily bread, to show us that though we have daily bread, yet all is nothing without forgiveness.”1
The necessity of forgiveness relates both to our relationship with God and our relationship with others. This is just as Jesus has modeled in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). We are to pray for the forgiveness of our sins as we have forgiven others their sins. And there is a deep weightiness added to this prayer. In the next two verses, Jesus says that if you forgive others, the Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will the Father forgive you (Matt 6:14, 15). These are high stakes indeed! Conversion will bring about an ability and willingness to forgive and seek forgiveness. Simply put, the evidence of a forgiven heart is a forgiving heart. Watson adds, “He that cannot forgive, his grace is counterfeit, his faith is fancy, his devotion is hypocrisy.”2
What is the danger of withholding forgiveness or failing to ask for forgiveness? Again, Watson is helpful in seeing the necessity of forgiveness as part of the Christian’s piety. He uses a colorful but, I believe, very appropriate metaphor in describing this problem. He describes an unforgiving spirit as an “obstruction in the body” or “bowels which are shut up.” The person who will not forgive is like one whose colon is impacted to such an extent that excrement can no longer exit. Grotesque as that might sound, quite literally, the unforgiving person is full of it!
Our first step toward spiritual maturity in forgiveness is to admit that we struggle with it. We struggle to ask for it. We struggle to give it. We often stop short of seeking actual forgiveness. We are usually willing to say, “I’m sorry,” but seldom will we ask one another, “Will you forgive me?” Do you see the difference between the two? Saying, “I’m sorry” is a form of contrition, but it offers no opportunity for the other person to respond. I’m usually stumped when someone just says, “I’m sorry.” The only response I can honestly give to them is, “Okay.” But if they say, “Will you forgive me?” I feel as though they have invited me into the healing process with them. I can grant them the forgiveness that is necessary for the restoration of the relationship. I can respond with a life giving and relationship restoring, “I forgive you.” Once again, the benefits of relationship are free-flowing. I admit that this is hard. When we say, “Please forgive me," we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position. We are opening ourselves up to the possibility that other person might say, “No.” But, in our sin, we must be quick to confess and to humbly admit our faults. It certainly isn’t the Gospel that prevents us from being vulnerable by being humble and honest; it's our pride that prevents us from responding in humility and brokenness. Through the humility and honesty of “Please forgive me,” we’ll see healing come into our life and relationships. Those are the words that we need to hear when our relationships have been obstructed or disrupted by sin. Those words, in the power of the Holy Spirit, will clear out the rubbish and bring in life and wholeness.
1. Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 210.
2. Ibid., 253.