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The Threshold of Forgiveness

Just about everyone is willing to forgive, until they’re not.

“…bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Col. 3:13, NKJV) 

Just about everyone is willing to forgive, until they’re not. In principle, forgiveness is a proper thing, part of the DNA of the Christian faith. But when the stark reality of actually granting someone forgiveness sets in on us, the prospect becomes a different story. 

A wife will say, “I could forgive him anything else but not that.” Years after they left a church, people continue to hold tightly to a grudge against their former pastor. In their new congregation they sing of forgiveness and mouth the Lord’s Prayer, but it amounts to little more than lip service. The act of forgiveness is supposed to lance the boil of bitterness but we recoil at the pain and leave it to fester.

If we’re honest with ourselves, where do we draw the line? To what extent are we willing to go? What is the threshold of too great an offense to forgive? 

It’s actually much lower than we might think. People will forgive only if the hurt caused by the other’s offense if not too deep or the wrong not too egregious. Sometimes we forgive only if we discern an acceptable measure of what we deem “repentance.” Or we may forgive but not really let the person off the hook. Like the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35) we place the one in our debt in debtors’ prison, exacting the penalty they deserve. We may temper our forgiveness with a “yes, but” of qualifications, conditions, and consequences. 

But any threshold we set for our granting forgiveness is ultimately derived from our own sense of justice rather than the grace we ourselves have received from the God against whom we have sinned so grievously and profusely. The threshold our heavenly Father holds up for us always rises higher than the sin against us could ever reach. While our sin abounds, God’s grace superabounds. 

One of the common terms for forgiveness in the Greek New Testament is charizomai. That’s the language Paul uses in his admonition to unity in his letter to the Colossians. We are to pursue peace by bearing with one another and forgiving them as we have been forgiven by God in Christ. 

The beating heart of charizomai is grace. In forgiving, we give grace. We give grace as we have received grace, not because those who wrong us deserve forgiveness, nor because they earn it through making amends or trying harder. We give it freely, even eagerly as a testimony to the wonder of how our God has treated us. We unlock the door of debtors’ prison and set them free, knowing full well they may wrong us again. 

Forgiveness gives grace but it also requires grace. We need to be open and honest with our Lord, admitting to Him when we don’t want to forgive someone. We argue our case with God, pouring out our rationale for why we should not forgive them. But in the end, He will point us to Jesus and remind us that on Him our sins were laid, not in part but the whole. The guilt of our transgressions was removed from us, as far as the east is from the west. 

So we take that unnatural, costly, subservient, spectacular step of forgiveness, and we pray: “Lord, I do forgive; help me in my unforgiveness.” 

When we profess in the creeds that we believe in the forgiveness of sin, we revel in the wondrous grace and love of our God found in the giving of His Son for us. But we also commit ourselves to practice forgiveness with those who have wronged us, whose harm has not just inflicted a flesh wound but has cut us to the very core of our being. 

Isn’t that our Lord’s example to us? Isn’t that our calling in Christ? Let us make this mandate both our mission and our prayer.

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:1–3, ESV) 

For more on the principles, practice, and power of forgiveness see my book, Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel (Reformation Heritage Books, 120 pages) 

  1. Is there someone you have not forgiven or have forgiven in name only?
  2. Looking in the mirror of Ephesians 4:1-3, how do you need to change in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to walk worthy of your calling in Christ?

 

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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