Somewhere in the 1960s, when evangelicals became enamored with psychology, teachings on forgiveness started emphasizing the benefits of forgiveness on the person doing the forgiving. If they had left the discussion at Matthew 6:14-15, that would have been fine.
To their shame, they didn’t leave it there. No, they elaborated that when someone refuses to forgive those who hurt her, she imprisons herself in bitterness. Therefore, they reason, she inflicts far more pain on herself than she could ever inflict on those who wounded her.
Before I explain why this view of unforgiveness is completely untrue and antithetical to Scripture, let me make the observation that it’s also totally selfish. This view demonstrates an absolute disregard for the people seeking forgiveness. The one extending forgiveness does so only in hopes of alleviating her own discomfort; she feels little (if any) concern for anyone asking her to forgive them.
This selfishness leads in to my main point, however. A refusal to forgive primarily imprisons the people seeking forgiveness, not the one withholding the forgiveness. Christ’s most famous parable about unforgiveness, in fact, describes unforgiveness as a way of imprisoning our debtors.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” ~~Matthew 18:23-35 (ESV)
Yes, yes — the unforgiving servant does wind up in jail. But his unforgiveness doesn’t imprison him. His Master does! Similarly, when a Christian deliberately withholds forgiveness, God Himself will personally hold her accountable.
That consequence, however, may not materialize until she stands before the Lord to give account for her life. In this life, she may feel quite comfortable holding others under obligation to her. She may even rationalize (as I sometimes have) that imposing consequences on those who have wronged her will teach them the seriousness of their transgressions.
To a degree, such consequences may be appropriate. But when the unforgiving party frustrates truly repentant people by giving them endless hoops to jump through, by insisting that they confess sins they never actually committed and then by ending the relationship, she forgets the great debt that the Lord has forgiven her. And she leaves people with an incredible weight of guilt that the they can’t make right.
Such unforgiveness is cruel. No Christian woman should treat her debtors so maliciously. No Christian man should either, for that matter. I do believe her debtors have the responsibility to repent of any actual sin, of course. And a real failure to repent should ultimately suspend the relationship. But when debtors have done their best to make things right, the offended party becomes the abuser.
We need to stop thinking that unforgiveness only hurts the person withholding the forgiveness. We need to begin showing mercy to those who, although they definitely hurt us, exhibit a desire to repent. And we need to forgive them for their benefit, not ours.