As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us. -Psalm 103:12
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity, overlooking the sin of the few remaining for his inheritance? He doesn’t hold on to his anger forever; he delights in faithful love. -Micah 7:18
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” -Matthew 18:21-22
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
Forgiveness is at the core of Christian life. We begin our worship with confession and forgiveness because we need it. We need to recognize our sin, confess it, and hear that in God’s holy name, our sin is forgiven. We can’t be Christians without forgiveness any more than we could breathe without air. Forgiveness is life.
Most Christians I know have two hangups where forgiveness is concerned. The first is that God doesn’t really, completely forgive them. The second is that they don’t want to really, completely forgive others.
More than any other single subject, more than relationship issues or addiction or parents worried about their kids or kids worried about their parents or Bible interpretation, the concern that is most often raised to me as a pastor is a version of this: “I think I’m too bad for God to forgive me” or “I’m worried that if I screw up again, I’ll hit God’s forgiveness limit.” If you have ever thought that about yourself, you are not alone.
That’s not how the Bible talks about forgiveness, though. Forgiveness is not a checking account from which you can overdraft your credit. Forgiveness is not a layer of fresh paint covering up over that awful color you chose last time. Forgiveness is not even a second or third or fourth chance to get it right with God. Forgiveness is more.
Forgiveness is more like the dermatologist who slices away warts and cancer, discarding them to never come back. Forgiveness is more like the organizations that buy up medical debt from collections companies and promptly shred all the records. Forgiveness is more like stripping off the tacky wallpaper and burning it, never to be spoken of again.
God takes our sin away as far as the East is from the West, remember? For the Israelites, the east was a desert that stretched on and on, and the west was the Mediterranean Sea, water too great for them to ever dare crossing it. God takes our sin away from us as far as the desert is from the sea. What’s more, God delights in this. God thinks forgiving you is just a fabulous way to spend God’s time. God’s love is faithful. God keeps loving and forgiving us forever. This is God’s character.
Which brings me to the second forgiveness hangup. It’s usually connected to the first one. People who don’t quite trust that God would completely forgive them tend not to be very willing to forgive others. There’s a fear that too much forgiveness is just plain naive. There’s a judgment that people who have messed up don’t deserve forgiveness, at least not until they get their noses clean. But remember how God forgiving us was about God’s character, not ours?
Well, I have news for you: you forgiving someone else says nothing about whether or not they deserve it. Of course they don’t deserve it. No one deserves forgiveness. That’s the point. It’s a gift. But are you really interested in setting yourself up in opposition to God’s character by refusing to forgive because somebody hurt you too many times? Or because you’re disappointed in them?
Dear people of God, you have been forgiven. Completely. You owe God nothing for your sin. Breathe in your freedom from guilt and shame. Ahhhhhh. Doesn’t it feel good?
You can give that freedom away without losing it yourself. All it takes is these three words: “I forgive you.”
God, I trust that you have forgiven me completely. I believe that you love to forgive me and all people. Give me faith to believe that forgiveness, and give me grace to forgive all who hurt me. Amen.