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The Hardest Thing God Makes us Do

Updated: Jul 11, 2021


My son Elliott committed suicide when he was in high school.

After his death, church people told me he was in hell because of the way he died. Others told me I lacked faith because I cried at his funeral. Still others said God was punishing me for my sins. Rumors and slander ripped through the town.

How can I forgive my son for killing himself? How can I forgive the cruel things people said to and about me?

How can an abused child forgive the stepfather who assaulted her?

How does a 62-year-old forgive the corporation that fired him to make room for a younger employee on a lower salary?

Can a survivor of the killing fields forgive the Khmer Rouge?

Can a Native American forgive the illegal immigrants who stole his land and destroyed his nation and culture?

Does anyone have the right to demand that an African-American forgive those who enslaved her ancestors?

How about the victim of human trafficking, the sex slave, the child soldier, or the sweatshop worker?

Can a parent forgive the person who murdered her son?

How does a woman forgive her rapist?

How does the husband forgive his cheating spouse?

Why should a businessperson forgive the people who cheated her out of her intellectual property?

It is both natural and healthy to be angry at injustice.

Must we forgive?

Can we forgive?

Should we even try to forgive?

Are there not some things that are simply unforgivable?

Personally, I don’t think I have any right to demand forgiveness from anyone.

I cannot tell the Jew to forgive the Nazi, or the slave to forgive the overseer, or the abused to forgive the perpetrator.

I am not the Jew, nor the slave, nor the victim of abuse. I can only forgive those who have sinned against me.

As one who is trying to follow Jesus, forgiveness is not an option for me.

Jesus said, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14,15)

I don’t think God wants me to forgive merely to test my obedience.

Instead, because God loves me, God wants what is best for me.

Forgiveness is psychologically healthy. Unforgiveness will eat us alive. It will poison our relationships, dehumanize us, make us unable to be fully human, fully alive. The psychological literature is filled with evidence.

Unforgiveness dumps chemicals into our blood streams that compromise our immune systems and make us vulnerable to illness.

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to forgive others.

Unforgiveness hurts us; it has no effect on the one who hurt us.

The scripture I hold sacred indicates that it is God’s nature to forgive. With unforgiveness in my heart, my fellowship with God is disturbed. Forgiveness joins us to God’s nature, makes us more like God.

God commands me to forgive.

Daily, I pray, “Forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts) as (in the same manner in which) we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Peter, ever the impetuous representative for the apostles, most likely thought himself highly magnanimous when he asked Jesus (in Matthew 18): “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

While secular society, then as now, teaches us to preëmptively strike out and eliminate our enemies before they can harm us, the Hebrew Scriptures teach regulated retaliation. “[Only] an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” thus limiting revenge to justice. Only one eye for an eye, only one tooth for a tooth. That itself contradicts instinct – unbridled human nature would respond to a gouged-out eye by killing the offender, and perhaps his family as well.

Because of the influence of the Hebrew prophets, many of the rabbis of Peter’s time went beyond justice and taught that believers should freely forgive the same offense against them three times.

Few Christians today rise even to the older standard, much less to the rabbinical one.

How many of us would forgive someone who did the same evil thing to us three times?

Having just heard Jesus teach that his followers were to carefully attempt to win back an offending sister, Peter took the rabbinical standard, doubled it and added one, then asked: “Lord, how often shall my brother or sister sin against me, and I forgive them? Up to seven times?”

Rather than praise his magnanimity, however, Jesus responded (I imagine gently and with a smile), “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

Jesus’ obvious point is that forgiveness must be unending and infinite – no one could possibly forgive another person (the same person each time) for the same offense 490 times without completely and eternally forgiving her.

Not only is forgiveness to be never ending, it is essential, and to prove its essential quality, Jesus told a story:

23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” [1]

The lesson is clear and unmistakable – if we want God to forgive us, we must forgive others.

We owe God an enormous debt. God created and redeemed us at great cost. The ten thousand talents of verse 24 was the equivalent of millions of dollars, yet when the man could not pay his obligation, he was not simply given more time, the master discharged the debt entirely – it was forgiven, erased off the books, expunged from the ledger.