Unpacking Forgiveness: What if I Won't Forgive?

"I cannot forgive."

"I will not forgive."

Two different statements. Two different implications. The first indicates ability. The second indicates a willful act.

"The implication of the first question is that there are times when forgiveness can be limited by the seriousness of the offense," writes author Chris Brauns in his book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers to Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. The second statement says that while the person could forgive, he or he is for whatever reason unwilling to do so.

Check out this parable from Matthew 18:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

This is a well-known story. The servant whose master forgave him of a huge debt had no mercy on someone who owed him a lesser amount. When his master heard about this deed, he threw him in debtors’ prison to be tortured until he could pay everything in full. The servant owed such a large amount that this would never be possible. Unless something miraculous happened - like the servant's family winning the lottery - he would have died in that prison still in debt up to his eyeballs.

The implication is that those who will not forgive will spend eternity in torment.

In Matthew 6: 12, 14-15 Jesus does not use a parable; he is very direct:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

That is scary stuff. When I was young, and learning about forgiveness, it terrified me. I did not want to spend eternity in hell. I wanted to be in heaven with Jesus. So I really tried to forgive people quickly. Unfortunately, I also found that deep down inside there were times when I was still very angry. I carried that anger around like one carries baggage in an airport.

In my early years, the church taught forgiveness while holding the fear of hell over us. In accordance with Christ's teaching on the subject there is no way around the fact that God forgives those who forgive and does not forgive those who will not forgive. Instead of terrifying us, though, I believe the church would have provided a greater service if they had taught us to be willing to forgive and work through the issues rather than scaring us into skipping over the issues, stuffing our anger into the suitcases of our hearts. I carried many issues around the airport of my life for years. It was wearisome.

Some may be asking if Brauns believes that we earn salvation by forgiving others. He does not. Jesus was not teaching that we must forgive others in order to be saved. Rather, Braun writes that Jesus was teaching that people who have genuinely received grace are characterized by a willingness to give grace to others.

I would also like to add that it's difficult to give grace if you do not understand the sacrifice that God made for us in the person of Jesus. Once we do understand, our hearts will be filled with gratefulness to God and we will forgive others. No one has done anything to us that compares with what humanity has done to God. Jesus was innocent. He died a horrible death - one set aside for the worst of offenders in Roman society.

If you struggle with forgiving people, I suggest praying that God will help you understand and be truly grateful for Jesus' sacrifice. Pray that God will change your heart and help you to forgive. If you will not do this, you should really be concerned for your soul because an unforgiving heart will adversely affect not only your eternal destiny but your life here on earth as well.