Forgiveness in the Scriptures: What Does the Bible Say?
Relationships hold the potential for life’s greatest joys and heartbreaks. In relationships we experience love and tenderness; we also experience slights and betrayals. Relationships are wonderfully complex.They can also be complicated and tricky. No one gets through life unaffected by the pain inflicted by others, which makes forgiveness an essential emotional skill, one that requires thoughtful practice particularly when we don’t want to wield it.
Most of us have had the childhood experience of being told by an adult to apologize to someone. Perhaps you played too roughly or took the toy someone held or said something inappropriate.
If you’re a parent or someone who works with children, you’ve likely asked the children under your care to do the same. The problem, however, is that when someone doesn’t understand the necessity of their apology then we are asking them to lie.
Rather, we need to help children (and ourselves) understand the other’s point of view about why our actions caused them harm. An apology should never sound like, “I’m sorry, but…” which attempts to excuse the bad behavior.
A true apology should own the action and its consequences and be followed by a request for forgiveness: “I’m sorry for (action) that (harmed you in this way). Will you forgive me?” How can forgiveness truly be offered when the apology is insincere?
Lewis B. Smedes, author of Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, writes: “The act of forgiveness, by itself, is a wonderfully simple act; but it always happens inside a storm of complex emotions. It is the hardest trick in the whole bag of personal relationships.”
For those who believe in God, our understanding of forgiveness is rooted firmly in our relationship with God. God lovingly forgave us before we even knew we needed forgiveness.
Forgiveness in the Scriptures
God’s forgiveness always begins with God’s love. Perhaps the best-known passage where we see forgiveness in the Scriptures assures us that God wants to give us the tremendous gift of life in relationship with Him:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. – John 3:16-17
Jesus didn’t humble Himself and come to earth to condemn us but to save us because of God’s love for us.
Sit with that for a minute and let its truth soak into your whole being: the Creator of the universe loves you so much that He took radical action to demonstrate His love for you. You are loved by a good God who wants you to know Him personally. He doesn’t love you more or less because of anything you’ve done. The Psalmist sings about the blessings of a relationship with God:
Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion… – Psalm 103:2-4
So, you believe in a loving God who forgives, yet ongoing communication is also an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship. When you recognize that you’ve said or done something that negatively affects the relationship, you need to own it.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9
Sometimes, however, we do things we don’t even recognize as problematic. The Psalmist models a helpful prayer: “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).
Wandering in the wilderness, Moses shared a beautiful picture of God with the stubborn and rebellious Israelites: “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion” (Numbers 14:18).
There may still be uncomfortable consequences to our actions, for example, the Israelites whom God saved from slavery in Egypt yet complained mightily about God’s protection in the wilderness never got to enter the Promised Land. God won’t spare you from the logical consequences of your actions, yet those results also won’t nullify the spiritual reality that God loves and forgives you.
What does the Bible say about forgiving others?
If you are a Christian, recognizing that you are loved and forgiven by God can help you extend forgiveness to others. In Colossians 3:13 Paul commands believers: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Just after He taught people to pray what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” Jesus uttered some astounding words: “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” (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgive as the Lord forgave you, but if you don’t you won’t be forgiven? How do we understand that? Two Bible stories can help.
Genesis 37-50 tells the story of Joseph, whose brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery and told his father he’d been attacked and killed by a lion. Many years later, God had brought Joseph out of slavery, and prison, and into a position of power in Egypt.
With God-given wisdom, he made plans that filled Egypt’s storehouses with food in preparation against lean years. When a famine struck the land, Joseph’s brothers prostrated themselves before him to ask for help. They didn’t recognize him because they could never have expected their little brother to occupy such an important position.
When the brothers realized that Joseph held their lives and the lives of their families in his hands, they became afraid that Joseph would pay them back for the wrongs they did to him. They also offered to become his slaves.
Joseph’s gentle response reveals an astounding level of forgiveness: “Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50: 19-21).
When you’ve been hurt, revenge might seem like a good option. Forgiveness might not. Yet God works in mysterious ways. Romans 8:28 promises that “…in all things, God works for the good of those who love him…” As in Joseph’s case, at some later point, God might even allow you to see how that painful situation led to something good.
Forgiveness can sometimes seem complicated and the process is often painful for those involved. Jesus commanded us to: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) In other words, there may be a time when we too need to ask for forgiveness. This same information is also noted in Matthew 7: 12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus told Peter to forgive an offending brother or sister not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). We can all agree that that’s a lot of forgiveness. To illustrate His point, He told a story about an unmerciful servant who owed his master so much money that the master ordered that the servant and his family be sold into slavery to pay the debt. When the servant begged for patience and promised to repay him with time, the master canceled his debt.
However, the servant left the master’s presence and found a co-worker who owed him a mere fraction of what he had formerly owed his master. When his co-worker cried out with the same words, he himself had just spoken, the servant refused to forgive and had the man thrown in prison. Outraged, their other co-workers told the master what had happened. Things do not end well for the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:23-35)
When you understand the magnitude of God’s loving forgiveness for you, it puts into perspective the bumps and bruises you experience in relationships; it helps you be able to forgive those who have hurt you. It also helps to recognize that God loves and forgives the other person with the same love and forgiveness He offers you.
Forgiveness may not be easy. It will likely take time and require additional boundaries. Smedes writes, “When you forgive someone for hurting you, you perform spiritual surgery inside your soul,” and obviously surgery itself requires healing. Yet you will be healthier in the end.
Christian Counseling for Forgiveness Issues
If you’re looking for additional support beyond these verses about forgiveness in the Scriptures, feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the online counselor directory. We would be happy to meet with you to discuss practical techniques from a Christian perspective for forgiving the hurts you’ve experienced.
“Love”, Courtesy of Gordon Johnson, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Scripture”, Courtesy of eliza28diamonds, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Praying Man”, Courtesy of Brenkee, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Make Grace Your Place”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Pexels.com, CC0 License