For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
One of our priorities this Lent is recognizing there is some difference between “belief” and “discipleship.” They are most definitely related, but they are not the same. They certainly inform each other, but they are not the same.
Our emphasis right now is more on the discipleship side. That’s the one that’s usually received the short end of the stick in our history, yet it’s also what Jesus emphasized much more.
The difference between belief and discipleship is, in a nutshell, that discipleship is how we live out what we believe. We can believe anything while sitting on our couch, but in discipleship we are compelled to get up and live that belief. So, actually, discipleship reveals what we really believe.
We continue this journey of “Authentic Relationships” as one large category of discipleship.
Specifically this week, forgiveness is our discipleship topic. Forgiveness is more than being forgiven by God. That can too easily fall within the realm of couch-sitting belief. But as a discipleship practice, forgiveness as following Jesus is living forgiveness with one another—both the giving and the receiving of it. Discipleship involves both. As we’re doing through Lent, each Sunday we’ll talk about “why” forgiveness is a discipleship issue and on Wednesday we’ll talk more about “how” we can live it more fully.
I’ve discovered that we can’t really assume we all know what forgiveness actually is. We use the word so much its meaning can get lost.
- Forgiveness is a deliberate action. It’s not automatic and it’s not necessarily easy. Whether it’s God forgiving us or us forgiving each other, it is a conscious choice.
- Forgiveness has nothing to do with whether or not the recipient deserves it. It’s an action taken by the forgiver independent of the forgivee.
- Forgiveness is a conscious release of resentment toward a person or a group who has harmed us.
It’s just as important to know what forgiveness is not, especially when it comes to dangerous situations, like cases of abuse. That’s one way this word gets misused with potentially very serious consequences.
- Forgiveness is not glossing over or denying the seriousness of an offense against you.
- Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses.
- Forgiveness does not obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.
Instead, forgiveness brings us peace of mind and frees us from corrosive anger. Forgiveness means we need to acknowledge the pain we suffered without letting that pain define us. That’s why forgiveness enables us to heal and move on with our life. Forgiveness is much more about the forgiver than the forgivee.
Research at the University of California at Berkeley has found a direct correlation between forgiveness and improvements in happiness, physical health, mental health, productivity, and even generosity (Stewardship campaign?).
Forgiveness as an act of discipleship is more than just being nice. It’s following Jesus in God’s vision—God’s intention—for the world. Our health and well-being certainly are part of that.
Each of these texts approach the topic of forgiveness differently. One is more about receiving it and the other more about giving it. But both are grounded in the same principle of forgiveness from a discipleship perspective.
The first text from Luke, usually called “The Prodigal Son” is pretty well known and is more about God’s willingness to forgive us. The father in the parable is a God-figure, whose attitude of forgiveness is evident. In fact, there’s some speculation as to whether the son actually is repentant. Some scholars believe he was simply playing his father in order to be able to eat.
But forgiveness means that this doesn’t matter because it’s not about whether or not the son deserves it. The father, out of love for his son, runs out to meet him while he’s far off, even cutting off the son’s rehearsed speech of repentance.
The same with the older son who is holding on to his resentment. The father includes him, invites him in, acts of forgiveness. Whether the older son forgives or not isn’t known. But the choice is his: celebrate or cling to his anger.
Forgiveness is God’s way. Therefore it is Christ’s way. Therefore, as disciples, it is the way we follow too.
The other one from Matthew is Jesus postscript to the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. It sounds rather harsh, like, “you better forgive others or else!” More accurately it points out that there is a connection between our ability to give forgiveness and our ability to receive it. If we aren’t able to forgive others (again, a deliberate action of letting go of resentment) it’s likely that we aren’t able to receive forgiveness from God either.
Discipleship involves both. Receiving forgiveness from God and from each other, and also offering it—to ourselves and to others. Receiving forgiveness from God changes us, frees us to live in that very same image of God in which we were created. Receiving forgiveness allows us to offer it. And the more we practice, the more deliberately the image of God in Christ is reflected through us.