Forgiveness is a central theme in the Gospels. On many occasions Jesus spoke about it and made it a condition of discipleship.

A few of the Biblical passages that deal with forgiveness are:

Jesus said: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you;  but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15 RSV).

Jesus said: And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25 RSV).

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; Luke 6:36-37).

Then Peter came and said to Him, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times? Jesus said to him: I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22 RSV).

Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him;  and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,' you must forgive him." (Luke 17:1-4 RSV).

The Greek term for forgiveness is aphiemi which  literally means “let go off.”

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus taught the importance of forgiveness and linked it to God’s forgiveness of our sins. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” Matthew 6:14-15). This and similar imply that if we withhold forgiveness God will not forgive us. This point is clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ teaching and is one that should not be taken lightly. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

"Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Negatively, Jesus says we should not judge or condemn. Positively, we are to forgive and give generously.

The petition in the Lord’s prayer “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ reinforces the importance of offering forgiveness to persons who do us harm and cause us injury, if we are to be forgiven by God. To recite the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis and yet be unwilling to forgive our neighbour is to engage in a fraudulent exercise of prayer. We who have experienced God’s forgiveness in our personal lives cannot withhold forgiveness from our neighbours.

The offended party must have the courage to make the first move in offering forgiveness to the offending party. We need not wait until the person who has done us wrong repent and ask forgiveness. Forgiveness must be unconditional and without limits. Making the first move comes out in the text:  “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Limits cannot be placed on forgiveness: “Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"  Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Forgiveness is something Christians must be prepared to do over and over again. The question as to whether one deserves forgiveness does not arise. The forgiven must forgive. Our forgiving others is to recognise our forgiveness by God. Christian personal forgiveness is always to take place in the heart regardless of the sin or a lack of confession and repentance.

Christians are forgiving people. Genuine Christians cannot say “I will never forgive.” To make such a statement and live by it is to deny Christ. It is a blatant disregard for the teaching of Christ who challenges with the Christian duty “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

The whole concept of forgiveness has to be understood within the context of love. “"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Forgiveness calls us to embrace a radical form of love. If we love only those who give us love, what is so great about that kind of love? It is like the love sinners give. If we forgive only those who forgive us, what is so special about that? It is like the forgiveness sinners give. It is the ethics sinners have.

The clear implication is that the disciples are not to live and love like sinners. The love of believers is to be different from the love displayed by the culture. As children of the kingdom, Christians are to rise above their culture and model the sacrifice of radical love.

Forgiveness is not condoning of a person’s sins neither does it mean forgetting. It is not seeking justice. It recoginses the past as the past and does not allow it to cast a shadow over the future. Forgiveness is defined as “the act of pardoning an offender; ceasing to feel resentment toward him/her because of his/her offense and giving up all claim to recompense.” “Repay no one evil for evil.” As long as we hold onto the pain, we are choosing to allow that person's past actions to continue to hurt us.

Why do we find it difficult to forgive? Forgiveness is a great challenge and difficulty to many people because it is opposite to normal human behaviour which says that we should seek revenge and retaliate when someone causes us harm or injury. It goes against the norm. For many persons retaliation is a driving force to get even with the offender. Forgives is an ethic of reversal. Throughout our Lord’s ministry we meet this ethic: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is also echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans ‘repay no one evil for evil.”

Forgiveness releases us from revenge which is always negative. It makes real Paul’s advice to the Romans: “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:17-18). It takes a strong person to forgive and not to seek revenge. People who have self confidence, a high self esteem and a strong faith in God, are able to forgive. Weak people have difficulty in offering and in some cases accepting forgiveness.

The late Mahatma Ghandhi  said: "If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge.

Jonathan Sacks writes: “Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by the past.”

Human relationships are vital for community life. Whenever people come together in community there will be occasions when our relationships suffer impairment. This condition will arise in marriages, families, social groupings, the church and other places where people socialise. From time to time relationships experience brokenness. Forgiveness mends and rebuilds broken relationships.

The person who benefits most from forgiveness is the person who forgives. Forgiveness frees us from hate, malice, anger, suspicion and fear. These are negative emotional thoughts which have a negative effect on our emotional and physical lives. They weigh us down. When we fail to forgive we keep the garbage in our minds and we are never at peace. Garbage is not good for our health. It makes us sick.

Psychosomatic illness is said to occur when physical symptoms are caused by psychological factors. This diagnosis is made when all physical causes have been ruled out. It is thought that emotional disturbance or persistent negative thought patterns adversely affect body function to the point of causing significant distress. Some psychosomatic illnesses are hypertension, peptic ulcer, diarrhoea, migraine and chronic lower back pain. Studies suggest that people who are unforgiving are likely to display signs of psychomatic illness.

Our Lord was conscious of the relationship between the mind and one’s health. Jesus emphasised the need to forgive so as to free our minds from spiritual toxins which can have a harmful effect on our bodies. St. Paul was also aware of the way they can affect the body and he encouraged the Philippians to fill their minds with good ideas: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

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