“For if you forgive others 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.” (Matt. 6:14-15)
This verse always struck a chord of fear in me: Can I really cause God to not forgive me? God is full of love and mercy—how could he not forgive me, his child? These questions led me to new understanding about God and his forgiveness, but I had to take an honest look at myself first.
When a person wrongs us, we have a decision to make about the offensive action. We can forgive or withhold forgiveness. To forgive is to set aside offense that it might not impede relationship or cause one to ungraciously judge another. This is significant for a reason you may already understand.
Jesus’s teaching abounds with one major theme, the love of God and neighbor and the interrelationship between the two. One can love man and hate God, but one cannot love God without genuine love for his neighbor. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart…your soul…your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:34-40).
What weighs in the balance with our decision to forgive is what Christ claims is the core of all life and faith: our love for God. We risk the damage of diminished love for God when we hold offense against our neighbor (cf. 1 John 4:20), especially when unforgiveness becomes a pattern. This is contrary to the portrait the apostle Paul paints in Ephesians of the divine plan to transform a world of cultural diversity and complexity into one spiritual tribe having all its new diversity dominated by one operative principle, love. It is a monumental lesson with many implications.
God will not forgive me when I do not forgive others. Said differently: God will not remove the hindrance between him and me when I do not remove the hindrance between neighbor and myself. It is to offend God that I should hold the knife to my equal’s neck when God, far more my superior, chooses mercy when he has every right to destroy me (cf. Matt. 18:23-35). Thus, God will not forgive me because he cannot—I have become the offense stranding the relationship with him. The real disappointment is that I have failed to understand his good nature.
God is not like us. He does not hold grudges or seek injury as we do in our hearts. He is not vengeful. Hear the scripture: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). So it is not his nature to withhold mercy, but he is constrained by our actions and hopes for our spiritual maturity.
We often hear that God forgives our sins and tosses them into a “sea of forgetfulness.” Perhaps the closest thing in the Bible to this sea is Micah 7:19: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” Marvelous, yet no sea of forgetfulness. Can God forget? He’s God, so no he cannot. The moment we maintain such a position, we create a critical limitation in God’s sovereignty; then his perfections can be challenged. Deep theology it is, but now let me show you amazing grace.
When I sin, humble myself, and ask God for his mercy, that offense—the scandal of immorality it is—God chooses to remember no more. Now he tells you and me to go do likewise.