I’ve been wronged.
Yeah, I know I’m not alone. You, too, have been wronged. Perhaps like me, you’ve struggled with forgiving people who wronged you. Every time I think I have a handle on what it means to forgive, I have trouble fully translating the philosophical into the practical. I think I finally know why.
It occurred to me when I started thinking about how Jesus forgave the people who wronged Him. It dawned on me that He never did.
When Jesus was on earth, He was both human and divine. However, He set aside His divinity; He operated in the role of human, not God. Jesus spoke for, and completely relied on, God the Father, but He asserted only His human role. Simply by being God, He had the authority to forgive (Matthew 9:6), but what did He actually do in His human role?
What Jesus never did
First, let’s establish what He didn’t do; at least it never was recorded: Jesus never said to anyone, “I forgive you.”
In the Gospels, we can divide wrongdoers into two categories: people who did something wrong in their lives (i.e., everyone except Jesus) and people who wronged Jesus personally (e.g., those who falsely accused Him, betrayed Him, or crucified Him).
What did Jesus say to the general wrongdoers who came to Him with a repentant heart?
- “Your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
- “Your sins have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:48)
What did Jesus say to those who wronged Him personally? In order to understand this better, let’s zoom out a bit and look at a bigger picture. Have you noticed how Jesus talked to the Father? He generally didn’t make requests; He used the sentence structure of a command:
- “Glorify Your Son.” (John 17:1)
- “Keep them in Your name … that they may be one.” (John 17:11)
- “Let this cup pass from Me.” Quickly followed by: “Yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39)
Jesus taught us to talk to God in the same way:
- “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” (Matthew 6:10)
- “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)
- “Forgive us our debts.” (Matthew 6:12)
- “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)
Jesus didn’t make requests of the Father; He simply identified His Father’s desires and agreed with them. The one time Jesus reversed Himself was when He knew that what He had just “commanded” was not the Father’s will; there was no agreement.
Jesus knew His limitations
What does all of this have to do with forgiveness? We already looked at how Jesus handled the forgiveness of general wrongdoers — not by forgiving them, but by telling them that they were forgiven. What about those who wronged Him personally?
“Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34)
Jesus didn’t say to them, “I forgive you.” He “commanded” the Father, “Forgive them.”
We can tell from Jesus’s prayers that He was well in tune with the Father’s heart. He knew that the Father wanted to glorify Him at the right time, that He wanted to unify the disciples, and that He did not want to let the cup of suffering pass from Jesus — for our sake. He also knew that the Father wants to forgive every last one of the people who wronged Jesus or anyone, ever. Jesus’s prayers were not requests; they were agreements.
What God needs in order to forgive
To forgive, God must have agreement from the wrongdoer (not the wronged), as He respects each person’s choice. Repentance releases forgiveness.
As Jesus hung on the cross, He knew that not every person He prayed for would receive forgiveness because some would never repent; some would never give their agreement to God’s desire to forgive them. But Jesus — as the wronged party — gave His agreement.
That agreement — “Father, forgive them” — had no power to forgive (that’s between God and the wrongdoer), but it revealed that Jesus’s heart was aligned with His Father’s. It showed that He loved those who hated Him.
Yes, Jesus taught that we should forgive others, but it was always in the context of being forgiven ourselves: If you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. If you don’t, you won’t (see Matthew 6:15; Matthew 18:22,35; Mark 11:25-26). The complete thought is that our attitude toward those who hurt us directly impacts our own forgiveness.
Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). Jesus’s agreement with the Father to forgive His wrongdoers revealed His love for them. The same goes for us. Jesus taught us to forgive others, and He showed us how when He said, “Father, forgive them.”
Why forgiveness is a struggle
Now I think I understand why forgiving those who wronged me has been such a struggle. I’ve been trying to do something that only God can do. Forgiveness isn’t something I do; it’s something I agree to. It’s a shared desire — between God and me, about those who have hurt me.
I’m not saying that it’s a cinch to make that agreement. I still have to ask for, and rely on, the love and grace of God to flow through me, and that’s not easy in the midst of pain. But at least it makes sense to my heart. I want to be like Jesus. I want to share God’s desires. I want to love people the way He loves me. Drawing from that well, I find a way to say, Father, forgive them.
⇒ What is your experience with forgiveness? I invite you to add your thoughts below.