Scripture teaches us value of forgiveness

Published: July 21, 2018

This is the sixth column in a 10-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

Anger and bitterness have become epidemic in our world. Perhaps this is nothing new, but with the advent of social media and around-the-clock broadcasting, it is easier and easier to focus on perceived or real slights. We might allow injuries to fester, as individuals and as communities.

The diseases of grudge-holding and vengeance are so prevalent that health care professionals, personal coaches and religious leaders seem to be in agreement: we are in need of a large dose of appreciating forgiveness. It’s good for our personal psychological health, we are told.

It will lead to a longer and healthier life, we are assured. And there is plenty of data to back up these claims. The fact that science and psychology affirm what the Bible teaches at its core only serves to reinforce its importance.

While it is true that there are wars and grudges and mean-spirited conniving found in the pages of our Bibles, and these same dynamics are sometimes at play in the name of religion today, the God we meet in these pages is much larger than our petty differences and stronger than our fears of our enemies.

The God we meet in our Scriptures is a God who initiates a relationship of love with all that has been created, nurtures a people in the responsibilities of a covenant relationship and demonstrates repeatedly the power of loving forgiveness. As in any relationship, time and attention and continuing renewal are required for the relationship to grow and for each party to truly know and love one another.

Love has always been at the heart of God’s relationship with his people, the kind of love that persists in offering forgiveness over and over again to a sinful people. God’s forgiving nature can be seen throughout the divine relationship with Israel, consistently pursuing his people, forgiving their neglect and sinfulness and giving them opportunities to renew their commitment (e.g., Psalm 103:8-12; 130:7-8). This ongoing relationship provides room for conversion.

Israel’s prophets, in particular, are commissioned to announce God’s desire for the people to exercise justice and mercy. When they falter, as is the case with most of us who are in the process of conversion, the prophets remind them of God’s great love and tender forgiveness (e.g., Isaiah 1:18; 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34). Forgiven by God, Israel is then encouraged to carry on, sharing mercy with others.

Jesus embodies the forgiveness of the Father, demonstrating the power of forgiveness in his teachings and his actions. He often instructed the crowds and his disciples about the necessity of forgiveness. He commanded those who would listen to forgive those who sinned against them (e.g, Mark 11:25), to be reconciled to one another (e.g., Matthew 5:21-26), even to love their enemies (e.g., Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-29). It’s a tall order and we cannot help but wonder how to do it and whether it is worth it.

When pressed about how often he was required to be forgiving, Jesus let Peter know it was too numerous to count by saying he was to forgive “not seven times but 77 times” (Matthew 18:22). Jesus went on to tell him a parable about a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. The king was persuaded by one servant to forgive a huge amount of debt, and yet that servant refused to extend the same mercy to someone else who owed him a debt. He had not fully learned the lesson of forgiveness.

Jesus also taught about the importance of forgiveness by including it in the simple but profound prayer we know as the Our Father (Matthew 6:9-15; Luke 11:2-4). We ask God to forgive us our sins, our debts, as we exercise forgiveness toward others in our own lives. This calls for more than a simple act of the will, though certainly we have to decide to take up the task of forgiveness.

Indeed, true forgiveness requires ongoing conversion, a turning over of the heart to the things of God, asking God to give us the grace to be ready to offer mercy and accept mercy in return. The Scriptures demonstrate that forgiveness is a sign of strength, reflecting the very nature of God. Even from the cross, we are told that Jesus forgave those who crucified him (Luke 23:24). What a testament to the power of forgiveness.

Study Questions

  • In what ways can a lack of forgiveness affect individuals and communities? Are there examples that help you to recognize the need for letting go of hurts?
  • What ideas do you carry with you about forgiveness? Are these challenged or affirmed by Jesus’ call to love our enemies and forgive those who offend us?
  • Can you recall a time when you asked for forgiveness from someone you offended? Why did it matter to you to receive understanding and forgiveness? How did the situation change, or the relationship change, as a result of your expression of sorrow?
  • What Bible stories best demonstrate to you that we have a forgiving God?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic July 21, 2018. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.