People make mistakes. Some of these are mild and relatively innocuous; others are egregious and have enormous repercussions, seemingly beyond the pale. Some are very intentional, and so perhaps the word “mistakes” creates a false impression of innocence.We and other people find ourselves at the center of our various mistakes, and they can hurt a few or a lot of people. For all of these and more, we seek forgiveness, we dispense forgiveness, or we sometimes withhold forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t ignoring something bad that’s been done or calling what is evil “good.” Forgiveness looks sin squarely in the face and calls it like it is, but it is the choice to not hold that sin against the person who has committed it. Forgiveness does not take away the consequences of their actions, but when you forgive someone, you’re choosing to give up the right to hold it against them.
There are several Scriptures on forgiveness, whether it’s about seeking forgiveness from God, how God forgives us, or how we ought to forgive others and the consequences for not doing so. Our daily lives are shaped by the various acts of forgiving (or not forgiving) others – from the people who cut us off in traffic, to the friend who posted a hurtful comment on social media, to the spouse who reneged on a promise, or the neighbor whose dog violated our lawn again – so it makes sense for us to pay heed to what the Bible says on the subject.
Scriptures on Forgiveness
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. – Psalm 19:12
When we’ve done something wrong, we often know it ourselves and we know we ought to make amends. However, have you ever met one of those people who hardly ever admit to having done something wrong? They struggle to see how something could be their fault, and when it is, often they look to see how others could have done better and prevented the situation from arising in the first place!The Bible’s stance on this encourages humility. Not only should we acknowledge when we’ve messed up and wronged another, but we need to carry the awareness that at times our faults are hidden from us. Sometimes we are snappy, but it’s so natural that we just don’t see it.
Angry outbursts can become second nature to the point that the people around us know to avoid us. Psalm 19 is a meditative psalm that calls for self-reflection and in it, the writer asks God to forgive him not only for the things he’s aware of but also for the things that escape his radar.
Sometimes we don’t even know the things we’ve done wrong, but we should soften our hearts by asking for forgiveness even for those “hidden faults.” If someone later comes and tells you that you did something wrong that you weren’t even aware of, your posture might tend towards acknowledging your mistake instead of being defensive.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. – Psalm 51
David was a man after God’s own heart. But he was far from being a perfect man. He is the author of Psalm 51, a poem that feels like a prayer asking God to forgive us when we’ve done the seemingly unforgivable.
David wrote it after he had willfully slept with another man’s wife, and then he used his royal authority to have her husband killed to cover up what he had done. He did something reprehensible, and instead of owning up to it, he wanted to cover it up by doing even more damage.This doesn’t fall in the “oops” category of mistakes. It seems brazen of David to ask for forgiveness after what he’s done. His boldness to ask God for forgiveness comes from his understanding of two things: God is faithful and loving, and God can cleanse us from sin. In his prayer, David calls upon God in his great compassion to forgive him.
It’s not that David deserves to be forgiven, but that God’s love is so expansive and deep that He can forgive even David and what he did. Not only that, but God can cleanse even the most heinous of transgressions. At first, this seems like God is being permissive, but the story of the Bible that unfolds reminds us that Jesus took upon himself all the sins of the world.
Sin such as David’s was not excused or forgotten, nor did he escape the natural consequences of his sin – it’s just that Jesus paid the penalty for that sin, and David was spared and cleansed. This is the gospel, the good news that if we trust in God, our sin is forgiven and does not count against us because Jesus took it upon himself on our behalf (Romans 3:25-26, Hebrews 10:4). We can all find forgiveness from God through Jesus.
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. – Psalm 103:12
Staying with the Psalms, we are reminded of the way that God forgives us. For us, we often make a distinction between forgiving and forgetting. By this, we sometimes mean that while we’ve let this one instance go, if it happens again, we’ll likely bring it up again and payout double the wrath. This can happen despite our best intentions. It’s hard to forget the hurt inflicted upon us.
Psalm 103:12 reminds us of the contrast between how we forgive, and how God forgives us. God casts our sin away from us and forgets it entirely. He doesn’t bring it up again later. When God forgives us, He truly wipes the slate clean and allows us to start afresh. Our challenge is accepting that the slate truly is clean, that we’re not still in the doghouse and we do not have to curry favor to get God back onside.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. – Matthew 6:9-15
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the “Our Father”, is one of the most famous prayers in the world. It is lofty and cosmic, but it also comes down to earth and asks for daily bread, and then it asks God for forgiveness in the same way as we’ve forgiven others. This point is expressed in a statement we normally don’t include in the prayer.
Verses 14 and 15 drop this bombshell: “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”.
In other words, as one paraphrase of these verses says, “In prayer, there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”
In more individualistic cultures, we’re more used to thinking of our relationship with God as “me and God.” But God cares about how we treat and relate to other people. If we are unforgiving toward others, have we truly understood and experienced God’s forgiveness?
How can we withhold from others what has been freely given to us? Matthew 6 challenges us to think of forgiveness as a pattern that must shape our lives – we receive it, and we also extend it toward others in the same spirit it was given to us.
The same point is made elsewhere, in Ephesians 4:32, which says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” It’s a reminder to recall how we’ve been forgiven and to do likewise with our brothers and sisters. The power to live this out surely cannot come from us. We cannot, in our own strength, forgive in this way. We need fresh outpourings of God’s Spirit to help us live these truths out.
“Holy Bible”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Praying to God”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting Alone”, Courtesy of Karsten Winegeart, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Gus Moretta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License