How Far is Too Far for Forgiveness?
It is unrighteous for us as children of God to avenge ourselves. But that is exactly what we are seeking when we refuse to forgive. We desire, seek, plan, and carry out revenge. We will not forgive until the debt is paid in full, and only we can determine the acceptable compensation. When we seek to correct the wrong done to us, we set ourselves up as judges. But we know:
There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! —James 4:12; 5:9
God is the just Judge. He will pass righteous judgment. But He will repay according to righteousness. If someone has done wrong and genuinely repents, Jesus’s work at Calvary erases the debt.
You may say, “But the wrong was done to me, not to Jesus!” Yes, but you don’t realize the wrong you did to Him. An innocent victim, He bore no guilt while every other human had sinned and was condemned to die. Each one of us has broken laws of God that transcend the laws of the land. All of us should be condemned to death by the hand of the highest court in the universe if justice is served.
You may have done nothing to provoke the wrong you incurred at the hand of another. But if you contrast what was done to you with what you’ve been forgiven of, there is no comparison. It would not even put a dent in the debt you owe! If you feel cheated, you have lost your concept of the mercy extended you.
Under the Old Testament covenant, if you trespassed against me, I had legal rights to bring the same back on you. Permission was granted to collect on debts, repaying evil for evil. (See Leviticus 24:19; Exodus 21:23–25.) Law was supreme. Jesus had not yet died to set them free.
Look how He addresses new covenant believers.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. —Matthew 5:38–42
Jesus eliminates any gray areas for grudges. In fact, He says that our attitude is to be so far removed from avenging ourselves that we are willing to open ourselves to the possibility of being taken advantage of again.
When we seek to correct the wrong done to us, we set ourselves up as a judge. The unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 did this when he put his fellow servant in jail. In turn this unforgiving servant was turned over to the tormentors, and his family sold, until he should pay all.
We must make room and give place to the just Judge. He rewards righteously. Only He avenges in righteousness.
If Jesus had waited for us to come to Him and apologize, saying, “We were wrong. You were right. Forgive us,” He would not have forgiven us from the cross. As He hung on the cross, He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). He forgave us before we came to Him confessing our offense against Him. We are admonished by the words of the apostle Paul: “Even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Col. 3:13). And “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
Often Jesus likened the condition of our hearts to that of soil. We are admonished to be rooted and grounded in the love of God. The seed of God’s Word will then take root in our hearts and grow and eventually produce the fruit of righteousness. This fruit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (See Galatians 5:22–23.)
But ground will produce only what is planted in it. If we plant seeds of debt, unforgiveness, and offense, another root will spring up in place of the love of God. It is called the root of bitterness.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews spoke directly about this issue.
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled. —Hebrews 12:14–15
Bitterness is a root. If roots are nursed—watered, protected, fed, and given attention—they increase in depth and strength. If not dealt with quickly, roots are hard to pull up. The strength of the offense will continue to grow. We are therefore exhorted not to let the sun go down on our wrath. (See Ephesians 4:26.)
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