Does the Bible call us to forgive everyone for everything? Yes. Unabashedly, the answer is yes.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” -Luke 17:3b
But it looks different than what a lot of Christians initially think. I grew up with the (mis)understanding (to no one’s fault than my own) that forgiveness was to be offered once an apology had been sought and that I was required to give it to that person no matter if they were sorry or not. Biblical forgiveness though, is ultimately a heart issue. It is a matter of saying to God, “I recognize who I am as a depraved individual, who I would be if You had not called me, what you have saved me from, and I promise to not harbor bitterness to someone who is ultimately no better than I, a sinner; I seek to glorify YOU in all I do and say, and that requires letting go of earthly offenses.” Before you consider your own situation and wonder, “yes, but how can I forgive this person, they did __________ to me”, keep reading as we delve into the real meaning of this command.
Read verses 3-4 now for more context.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” -Luke 17:3b-4
The first thing to remember is that forgiveness is between God and you. Forgiving someone has to occur in your heart first and foremost in order to be genuine. The ability to forgive for some offenses is truly a gift from God as He works in and through you. Sometimes, this takes TIME, so please don’t fall under the illusion that you are not a true Christian or your heart is not right if it takes you time to process the situation and can’t immediately forgive someone an offense–we are wired with emotions for a reason, and He wants us to work through them and grow from every experience–seeking to see His sovereignty in all of life’s occurrences. It’s the old Christian adage, “there’s a reason for everything”; while hearing it may sound callous while you’re in the midst of an emotional upheaval, it is so true. God really does work through every situation for our good; not earthly good with relationships/things/money, but for our spiritual good. He uses every situation, good or bad, for our spiritual good and there is a reason why He brings us into and through EVERY situation we encounter in life. To say otherwise is an affront to who He is in our lives and sets us up for creating a false idol of a god that we selfishly would prefer to serve so as to receive earthly blessings and not spiritual.
To really understand what the author is intending to convey, it is helpful to understand the meanings of the words in the original language. We can utilize our understanding of the words to formulate how we carry this verse out in life today. In Strong’s Concordance, the definition for “forgive” is as follows, in part:
aphiemi. From [the root hiemi], to send forth, in various applications (as follow): cry, forgive, forsake, lay aside, leave, let (alone, be, go, have), omit, put (send) away, remit suffer, yield up.
From [the root] apo, to send. To send forth or away, let go from oneself: …
(II) To let go from one’s power, possession, to let go free, let escape.
It is also important to remember that forgiveness does not necessarily need to occur directly between the offender and the receiver. There are situations where it is not wise to maintain, encourage, continue, and/or open up communication between the two parties. You may not have as much closure as you would directly communicating the freedom of forgiveness to the other party, but that is something you should continue to pray about that God would release any need you feel you have for it, should a face to face meeting not be safe or wise.
Also, tying in with the occasional and unfortunate necessity for separation between parties, we would be wise to note, and I can’t stress this enough, that Biblical reconciliation is NOT the same as what some deem as ‘Biblical forgiveness’. Forgiveness can be granted in full with no contact, love can be offered without any contact; though those relationships will most certainly look different moving forward. Forgiveness in your heart can release the other person from the control you maintain that they owe you (the definition says “to let go from one’s power”, “to let go free”).
However, as in a court of law, the offender must still make restitution (jail, community service, financial judgments, etc.) if reconciliation is to occur before they can re-join society as a functioning member; so, too, with our relationships, it is okay to be cautious during this time if a relationship is something you desire with this person–see that they are making restitution, see that they have accepted natural consequences, see that there is more than just wordly remorse. Trust and relationships are sacred gifts you have to offer those around you; “… [d]o not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6) And now for additional context (emphasis added):
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” -Luke 17:1-4
So. Watch. Yourselves.
Be alert and on your guard; on guard against your own heart. We need to consciously be aware that the enemy is capable and very willing to use whomever is in our lives to further his end goal. Our hearts and minds need to be in a constant state of repentance or we will be unable to truly let go of earthly transgressions.
We know that if the Bible mentions a word more than once, it is to take note of. And we see the word ‘repent’ all throughout its pages. In Strong’s Concordance, it is defined as follows (in part, emphasis added):
metanoeo. to think differently or afterwards, i.e. reconsider (moral feel compunction)–repent.
From [the root] meta, denoting change of place or condition, and [from the root] noeo, to perceive with the mind, think, comprehend. To repent, change the mind, relent; implying the feeling of regret, sorrow. Distinguished from metamelomai, which may mean only to regret to have remorse:
(ii) In a religious sense, implying pious sorrow for unbelief and sin and a turning from them unto God and the gospel of Christ.
There are two verses given as examples after “Generally”, above, and they are Luke 17:3-4 and 2 Corinthians 12:21. If you read the context of 2 Cor. 12:21, it is Paul exhorting the Corinthians and declaring that he is afraid upon his next visit there will not be true repentance among them. I challenge you to read it and let me know if you think it is inferring that Paul is concerned with people merely stating they are sorry or that they are sorry AND are making restitution for their sins while turning a 180 degrees away from who they were.
In the “(ii) religious sense” definition, it is almost synonymous with verses in the Bible with a call to action to turn to God. As in, the people on the receiving end of hearing these words were not looking and heading toward Christ with their actions and choices, but part of true repentance requires that act.
As we go back to re-read Luke 17:1-4, let’s take into account the meaning of repentance. “[I]f they repent, forgive them” comes into a whole different light now. The parables were given to us, in part, as earthly examples to understand how we ought to view ourselves with God; the same is true here. God will forgive us if we repent which requires more than just mere talk; an actual turning away from sin and toward God. My Grandma would share with me the illustration to imagine you are on a freeway headed one way, and when you repent, it’s as though you have zipped around in a U-turn and are now heading in the complete opposite direction than you were before. That is repentance, it is a complete reversal of your heart, mind, soul. Do not deceive yourselves that it is anything less than that… we are to abhor our sins! If your understanding of repentance is merely the acknowledgement of a wrong, you are sadly mistaken, there is an entire new world of promises that are yet to be uncovered if you delve into what the Bible truly says about repentance and His requirements for our sins to be forgiven. I guarantee you the Holy Spirit will not be living in a home (your heart) where sin is allowed to dwell and fester and remain unchallenged; your hearts will be changing as He makes His home there and molds you in preparation for eternity with Him. Nothing short of true repentance will get you to that point as you realize how wretched our true selves are and how deeply we are in need of a Savior.
God promises that the act of repenting wipes away our sin (Acts 3:19); how utterly gracious! This is why, if someone offends us, and they truly repent (are more than just remorseful or scared of consequences–but truly sorry and change their behavior over a period of time for you to verify and willing to reap the natural consequences of their behavior because they know they wronged you), we are called to forgive them and I believe this means we are to enter back into relationship with them with a clear understanding of what new boundaries should surround the relationship to protect yourself and those in your care. Remember that the verse above says to ‘watch yourself’ in relation to those who cause us to stumble; so be aware and be watchful that you don’t automatically fall back into the same destructive routine with that person. (Keep in mind, this does not necessarily mean the same relationship that you had before. It might look very different based on the nature of what has occurred. For instance, a new relationship will have to be earned after a foundation of trust has been re-established–that can and most likely will look vastly different than the relationship before. If there is any form of abuse and especially if little ones are involved, that should mean necessary measures are taken to protect the children and to no longer facilitate a relationship with such person, possibly forever, but possibly until severe counseling has occurred and change has truly been sought out by the offender. Again, you will never hear me advocate going back to an abusive situation, especially when it’s of a physical or sexual nature; it might be helpful to note that sometimes it’s okay and warranted to let a relationship end to no fault of your own as you protect what God gave you to protect. The Bible speaks often about these types of relationships all throughout the Bible.)
However, forgiveness and repentance all come back to a heart issue; if you are living in a continual state of repentance seeking to live according to His Word, you will be looking Heavenward with regard to your relationships on earth which heals some of the sting from our wounds. Having a heart aimed at Heaven will help you understand more clearly why it is okay to forgive that person in your heart and then carefully determine your next steps with that person based on their choices. Just as the verse says, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come”; watch yourselves and your heart that you don’t end up worse off than your offender by harboring feelings God requires us to let go.
[Disclaimer: If you find that I have mis-represented, mis-construed, etc. the Bible in any way, please let me know so I can review and modify if something I have said needs correcting.]