The Bible never gives a “dictionary” definition of forgiveness, but it shows us many examples of it. The greatest of all examples is the forgiveness of God. Psalm 103:8–12 describes the concept of God’s forgiveness perfectly: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will He harbor His anger forever; He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
God forgives sin, yet this does not mean that He simply “looks the other way” or “sweeps it under the rug.” The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23), and that penalty must be paid. In the Old Testament, God allowed for a sacrificial animal to take the place of the sinner. Leviticus 5:15–16 says, “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering. They must make restitution for what they have failed to do in regard to the holy things, pay an additional penalty of a fifth of its value and give it all to the priest. The priest will make atonement for them with the ram as a guilt offering, and they will be forgiven.”
So that God could forgive us, Jesus gave Himself as the sacrifice for sin. Jesus alluded to that sacrifice at the Last Supper when He told His disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). After the resurrection, the apostles carried the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ throughout the world, preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. In Ephesians 1:7 it says: “In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”
God forgives people on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. The only requirement is that sinful people confess their sin, turn from it, and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior. Once a person has experienced the forgiveness of God, he or she is then able to forgive others. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). In fact, those who refuse to forgive betray the fact that they do not understand how much of their own sin they need to have forgiven. Christians should be willing to forgive people who have sinned against them. Every person has wronged God far more than they have been wronged by other people.
Forgiving others is important, but sometimes it can be difficult to do. Why should I forgive, and how can I do it? In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks the same question. It says: “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’”
Forgiving others who have wronged you, whether for a relatively small thing, or for a seriously damaging act against you, can sometimes seem like an insurmountably difficult thing to do. In some cases it’s a process that really takes time. Yet, the Bible is crystal clear on the necessity of it. When you know that it is not in you to forgive, then you have to find it in Christ. Philippians 4:12-13 reminds us that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Does forgiving negate the pain you have suffered? Does it reverse the things that have happened to you? Does it mean the person who wronged you does not have to take responsibility for their actions? No, but you will be free from the thoughts of hatred, bitterness, and the burden they are. Forgiveness is not only done for the sake of the one you are forgiving, but for your own sake, so that you do not have to live with the burden. The fact that you forgive someone does not condone what they have done, nor does it by any means make it all right. Trust is not implicit in forgiveness, nor is forgetting obligatory.
Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a choice. Choosing forgiveness will mean that you must go to God on your knees for the power to forgive. It is choosing not to let thoughts of hatred rule in your heart. It is choosing to go to God to find help and comfort instead of dwelling on the past, even when our feelings would rather do anything but.