You can’t receive forgiveness without giving forgiveness. At least that’s what Jesus seems to teach in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18) and the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For Jesus it seems that receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness are like two sides of the same coin. They go together in the life of all those who would follow Jesus. They must go together. They will go together.
But then, we might ask ourselves, “What is the relationship between the forgiveness I receive from God and the forgiveness I give to others?” Jesus is insisting that they go together, but how do they go together? What is the relationship between forgiveness received and forgiveness given?
Forgiveness as a Gift with an Obligation
The first way we might answer this question might seem like the obvious answer upon first reading what Jesus has to say in Matthew 18. Obviously the forgiveness God gives us is a gift. It’s something that we receive freely. It’s not something we earn or deserve, just like the servant in the parable. He didn’t earn nothing. But the king forgives him anyway. But then we find out from Jesus that it looks like this gift comes with some strings attached. It can seem like Jesus is effectively saying, “Alright, you get this “free” gift of forgiveness, but now you have to forgive other people…or else.” When we think of it like this, the whole free gift part of forgiveness starts to feel like a bait-and-switch. In this way of looking at the relationship between forgiveness received and forgiveness given, forgiveness received is a gift that places a burden, an obligation on us. The forgiveness is a gift, but it ends up being like a hundred pound backpack that we now have to carry with us wherever we go. Some gift.
The problem with this way of thinking about forgiveness is that it makes the forgiveness that we receive from God conditional on our ability to carry this burden that has been placed on us. And while it’s true that Jesus does indeed command us to forgive others, after all forgiving others is not optional for Christians, viewing Jesus’ instructions to forgive others merely like a new command or the fine-print stipulation on the free gift of forgiveness quickly becomes a denial of salvation by grace alone.
Forgiveness as Freeing Yourself
This brings us to the second answer to the question about the relationship between the forgiveness we receive from God and the forgiveness we give to others. This is one that you might hear even non-Christian people talk about. People will point out how holding a grudge against someone, refusing to forgive another person is damaging to yourself. In other words, when you choose to forgive people, what you’re also doing is releasing yourself from the bonds of anger and resentment. In this view forgiving others is important because it benefits yourself.
Now, there is a lot of truth to this perspective. It’s true that resentment and grudges trap us in destructive anger and sin. It’s healthier to forgive than to hold grudges. It’s healthier for relationships and for ourselves both psychologically and even spiritually. This is all true. But it’s not really a point that the authors of the New Testament make. While some of what this view says is true, it turns forgiveness into a self-serving action. We forgive not for the benefit of others, but for our own benefit. And notice that this answer to our question is actually a non-answer. That is, there is no real relationship between forgiveness received and forgiveness given. In this way of thinking, I don’t forgive because I have been forgiven by God. Rather, I forgive others so that I can benefit myself.
But forgiveness cannot be just about our own self-benefit. Forgiveness is at heart a selfless activity where we let go of the claim that we have over other people because of the wrong that they have done to us. In other words, forgiveness is about not giving people what they deserve. It’s about mercy for the benefit of others. Not myself.
Another problem with this view is that it makes forgiveness into merely the wisest course of action. It makes a pragmatic argument for forgiveness that even a non-Christian could agree with. But in a certain sense, forgiveness is irrational outside of the love of God in Jesus. It goes against everything we think makes sense.
An Example from the Amish
About twelve years ago a man drove into an Amish community in Pennsylvania. He broke into a schoolhouse and held several of the schoolgirls hostage. Before police could defuse the situation he shot eight girls before taking his own life. Five of the girls later died.
But what was even more astounding than the shooting was the instant response that the Amish community had to this tragedy. Not only did they forgive the shooter that very day, they reached out to the shooter’s family, including his wife, his parents, and others. They set up a charitable fund to help take care of the family of the shooter after his death. About thirty Amish attended the funeral of the shooter, and one Amish man visited the shooter’s father and comforted this grieving father, holding him while this grown man sobbed for nearly an hour.
People in the media were astounded and confused. Many thought that this was amazing, but others said that the forgiveness of the Amish was actually wrong. They claimed that it denied the evil that had been committed against them. After all, we would expect the family of the victims of a shooting like this to be clamoring for justice. Instead, these Amish Christians repay evil with good. And it doesn’t make sense. But that’s the kind of forgiveness that we have received and that we are called to give: an irrational forgiveness.
The Final Answer
This leads me into the third and final answer. When you see how the Amish Christians responded to sin and evil, you’re struck with how naturally and selflessly they forgave. It doesn’t seem like something they had to force; it’s not something that they were doing for their own benefit. But how can this be?
The answer is that the forgiveness of God actually changes us. When we truly encounter the infinite love, mercy, and forgiveness of God, we can never be the same. When God forgives our sins, he’s not merely cancelling a record of debt, but he pours the Holy Spirit into our hearts and makes us a new creation. In other words, when we receive God’s forgiveness, we become forgiving people. It’s not a matter of being obligated to forgive or forgiveness for self-service, but when we have been forgiven by God we can’t help but forgive others. It’s just what you do.
You can think of it like this: Imagine a pitcher of water than has been filled all the way to the top so that it’s overflowing. When you pick up the pitcher and move it, even if you’re very careful, you’re going to get water everywhere. You can’t help it. Forgiveness received and forgiveness given is kind of like this. We have received so much forgiveness from God, that we now can’t help but allow that same forgiveness to overflow to others.
Now, it’s important to point out that this kind of transformation doesn’t happen all at once. As we often talk about, we remain both saints and sinners until Jesus comes again. This means that we will often struggle to forgive other people. We will at times fail to do so perfectly or even well. And it’s helpful to point out that the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 is not struggling to forgive. He has utterly refused to forgive. He has turned his back on the forgiveness given to him by pursuing vengeance against his fellow servant. This is not what those who have been forgiven and transformed by the king do. They may still struggle. But they do not willfully and obstinately pursue vengeance like this servant. Instead they receive the forgiveness freely offered to them and are transformed by that same forgiveness.
Back in the 300s AD there was a monk in Egypt named Moses the Black. Now, of course this is a different Moses than the one who led the Israelites out from Egypt. Moses the Black was a man of huge stature and great strength. He was from Ethiopia and before he was a monk, he was the leader a band of thugs that ran around the Nile river valley and wreaked havoc among the people who lived there. One day when he was attempting a robbery, he was prevented by a dog barking. He was so angry that we swore vengeance on the owner of the dog. Later, he came back, swimming across the river with a knife in his teeth and when he couldn’t find the owner of the dog to kill him, he killed this man’s sheep out of spite. Later when he needed to hide from the local authorities, he hid in the nearby monastery. He was so struck and astounded by the lives of these monks, by the peace and love and contentment in their lives that he was baptized and joined the community.
However, Moses had a hard time transitioning to life in the community. He had spent such a long time living a violent life, that it was hard to leave all of that behind instantly. He had to learn to be patient and to continually rely on the love of God and his Son, Jesus the Messiah.
One day there was a band of robbers who tried to rob the monastery. Moses apprehended them, tied them up, and carried the whole lot of them into the chapel. He was conflicted and didn’t know what to do with them. He thought that it wouldn’t be Christian to hurt them. But the robbers themselves repented and even joined the monastery there.
At one time another monk had sinned against Moses in some way, and the monks were having a meeting to discuss the appropriate penance for the man. They tried to get Moses to come, but he wouldn’t. Eventually they convinced him to come, but on his way to where they were meeting, he picked up a leaking jar of water and carried it on his shoulder while the water leaked out and ran behind him. By the time he got to the meeting place the jar was empty. The brothers asked Moses why he had done this. He replied something like, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the sins of another.” The monks released the monk who had wronged Moses without punishing him.
The story of Moses the Black is a great example of how the life of the believer is transformed by the forgiveness and love of Jesus. Moses turned away from his life of sin and destruction when he came into contact with the love of God displayed in the Egyptian monks. He struggled with his new life, but eventually he found that he just could not live in the way he used to anymore.
In essence what I’m saying is this: we forgive others because we were first forgiven ourselves. Not as an obligation, but as a necessary result. In the words of the Apostle John, “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). This is why we want to keep our eyes continually fixed on the love and forgiveness that God continually gives us day after day. This is why we return to the promises of God’s Word; this is why we remember our baptisms and what God has done for us there; this is why we receive the sacrament week after week; this is why we live in the community of God’s people. So then, in many and various ways, we have received the transforming and over-flowing abundant love and forgiveness of Jesus. Therefore, you have been equipped to go out and forgive those who have wronged you. So, go and forgive, freely and selflessly.