How We Really Messed Up Jesus’ Teaching on How To Forgive Others!
Dr. Bill Senyard
Gospel App Ministries
There can be little doubt that we have messed this one up. It is time that we set the Biblical record straight.
In Matthew 18, Jesus clearly says that we are to forgive others 7×70 times. Now, just to be accurate, technically that can be translated either 77 times or 490 times. But, can I be honest? It doesn’t really matter. I can’t humanly do either, nowhere close.
I can say “I forgive.” I can really lean into trying harder to forgive, to work harder to give up my right to justice and payback. I can really, really try, but that’s not what Jesus commanded.
He is very clear what He meant at the end of the section. In verse 35, the only Jesus-standard is that we must “forgive from the heart”. This is not a throwaway line. It is a technical phrase that means that we must actually want to forgive that person who hurt us so badly. So according to the text, there is no room for “faking-it-‘til-we-make-it”.
Forgiving that person who robbed you, abused you, was critical to you, bullied you, disrespected you—because Jesus said to—is not enough, nowhere near. Now, I get it, this may sound like bad news, but stick with me, it really is good news. Yet first things first, we should come clean.
Based upon my study, it makes sense to me how we got to this place. Jesus commanded us to forgive—but, at least in Matthew 18–He didn’t specifically tell us how to forgive. We pastors, teachers and counselors, well-meaningly, really since the mid-80s, just filled in the gap with things that sound very Jesus-like. Certainly, Jesus would have us sacrificially give up our right to justice, apology, and restoration, right?
No, of course not. I say again, no! Just, follow my logic. Jesus, God, would never, ever give up His right to justice. He never waves His holy, holy hands in the air and just lets the perpetrators off. Isn’t that the big point of the Cross?
Among the many other things that Jesus accomplished on the Cross, was perfect justice for all of our crimes against God, humanity and creation—every single sin subjected to perfect justice. God never forgave me until there was a trial for all of my crimes against Him, humanity and creation, every single one. God didn’t forgive me until there was a legit trial, conviction and punishment. Period. It is in His nature. In a later article, I will unpack that more from the Old Testament. But hear this. God shows zero evidence of forgiving others in the way that we have been teaching.
This may be hard to hear, but we have well-meaningly been requiring victims to be more magnanimous than even God. It’s just not going to happen. We can’t do it. It is not in us. This need for justice is part of the image of God in us. Our brains require an experience of justice before they are willing to even begin to forgive, much less to want to forgive.
Maybe that’s why we have found it so hard to forgive. Maybe that’s why Christians don’t appear to be able to forgive each other any more than non-Christians.
There has been a secondary consequence to the unfortunate “How To Forgive Others?” teaching over the last three decades. I am suggesting that we have ended up shaming a generation of well-meaning victims.
Here’s how this worked. They got hurt. Someone took something from them. They came to church for help for the pain and injustice they experienced. There they heard the teacher say that Jesus commanded them to give up any rights to justice and just forgive the son-of-a-gun who hurt them so badly. The implication is that a good Christian would obey such a clear command. And of course, they didn’t want to disappoint Jesus.
The teacher continued, “Here is how to do that. Just make an emotional and rational choice to forgive the perpetrator and give up all of your rights to justice, or apology, or even a confession. That is what Jesus would do and wants you to do.”
And when it didn’t work, the hurt one would of course feel like a disappointment to Jesus. They might even feel ashamed to look up and face Him. “What’s wrong with me?”, they might internally say to themselves. “Everyone else seems to be doing it. Why not me? I am such a disappointment to Jesus.”
I can tell you after 25 years of pastoral counseling, there is a great deal of shame in this area. Will this failure affect their relationship with Jesus? Likely. Will it affect their enthusiasm to pray? Likely. Will it affect their witness? No doubt. If the Gospel is all about forgiving others, who are they to tell others about that?
I recognize that this teaching has helped some, perhaps you. I don’t want to take that away from you. However, I will say that there is a truly Biblical approach to forgiving others that inherently has far more power than anything you could have done on your own.
Why is this important? Nothing is more core to the Gospel than forgiving others. Right? There may be a few other things arguably as important, but nothing more important. I am counting on God forgiving me of all my many crimes against Him, humanity and Creation. We within whom, the Holy Spirit Himself dwells (Eph 3:14-21) should be—not perfect—but noticeably better at forgiving each other as compared to those who do not have the Spirit. Not perfect, of course. That remains for Heaven. But it should be far more obvious to outsiders than it is now.
So, let me take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of all Biblical teachers and counselors to say, “We messed up!” This unanimous teaching on how to forgive others is not what it says in Scripture, anywhere that I can tell. God doesn’t do it. Jesus never says to do it. And yet, virtually 100% of all books, secular and Christian on “How to Forgive?” agree that is what must be done if you want to be free of unforgiveness. I beg to differ.
Don’t get me wrong. What Jesus said still stands. We are supposed to want to forgive each other. We just have to do it the right way. That is why, seven years ago, we created the Forgiving Path. We wanted to give hurting Christians a path that checks all of the Biblical boxes related to forgiving others. It is 100% on-line, confidential, inexpensive and can be done on any computer or smart device. It consists of 9 professionally done video stations, each about 10-minutes long. There are very helpful before- and after- self-assessment surveys. You will find out immediately what changes have occurred according to four scientific metrics.
Hundreds have been helped, not perfectly, that’s relegated to Heaven, but it should be noticeable. You don’t need to leave your brain’s desire for justice at the door. Shame-free. Even if you thought you forgave someone years ago, you may be surprised that there is still much to accomplish. No judgment. It means you are human and made in the image of God.
Check it out now (www.forgivingpath.com). If you are a counselor, therapist or Christian coach, contact us directly. We want to help you help your patients.