Forgiveness and Religious Faith
“The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.” ~William Blake
Christians generally understand that forgiveness is a fundamental principle of the spiritual life as taught and practiced by Jesus Christ. He demonstrated its importance not only in His astonishing prayer during the crucifixion — “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) — but also in the teaching now known as The Lord’s Prayer:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)
Jesus teaches that our relationship with God is as children to their father, thus making all of us brothers and sisters in this world . Our job here is to serve as agents of God’s will — and that includes becoming as forgiving toward others as we hope a loving father would be toward us. Our trespasses (or “wrongs” or “sins” or “karmic debts”) will be forgiven only to the extent that we forgive others’ wrongs. And lest we miss the significance of this, Jesus highlights it in the teaching immediately following:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Notice that in this context Jesus offers no judgmental moralizing in connection with forgiveness. He doesn’t say that we should forgive or that we’re bad if we don’t forgive, but rather he states the principle of forgiveness as a simple matter of fact: If we forgive others, then we will be forgiven . . . and if we don’t, we won’t.
This straightforward cause-and-effect approach to forgiveness coincides with His teaching about reconciling with God and others, also given in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says that before placing a gift on the altar—in other words, before approaching God—we must first reconcile our differences with others. Not surprisingly, this teaching is perfectly consistent with Jewish tradition regarding forgiveness and repentance.¹
As described later in Matthew, in the famous parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus further emphasizes the importance of forgiveness. The disciple Peter asks if we must forgive others up to seven times for their transgressions against us. Jesus replies, “not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” This is not to be taken literally, as if we’re to forgive exactly 490 times and no more, but rather means we should forgive countless times, as many as it takes—and if we refuse heartfelt forgiveness to others, then we have no right to expect forgiveness for our own mistakes.
Other rabbis had long taught similarly about forgiveness. For instance, in the book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, Jesus, son of Sirach (two centuries before Christ), writes, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” (Sirach 28:2)² And despite frequent Old Testament characterizations of God as if he were a petty and vengeful desert patriarch, the Hebrew Bible also depicts his nature as essentially merciful and forgiving, perhaps nowhere more eloquently than in Micah:
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)
The Qur’an of Islam likewise describes God’s forgiving nature. In Surah 3:31, for instance, Mohammed writes, “If you love God, follow me, and God will love you, and forgive you all your sins; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.” And in Surah 42:40, he writes, “Let harm be recompensed by an equal harm, though anyone who forgives and puts things right will have his reward from God Himself, for He does not like those who do wrong.”
Finally, although seldom addressed so explicitly, forgiveness is nonetheless an essential principle of Buddhism that’s implicitly connected with compassion, the fundamental Buddhist virtue. As Steven Goodheart notes, “the more one learns about compassion in Buddhism, the more one sees how powerfully linked it is to forgiveness of ourselves and of those who have wronged us.”³
Consistent with the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering, and reflecting the understanding that holding resentments instead of forgiving causes our own unnecessary suffering, note the Buddha’s teaching in the very first chapter of the scriptures collected in the Dhammapada:
“He abused me and hurt me, threw me down and robbed me.” In those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease.
“He abused me and hurt me, threw me down and robbed me.” In those who abandon such thoughts, hatred will cease.
Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.
Some don’t know that in our quarrels we perish. But those who do realize this, settle their quarrels. (Dhammapada 1:3-6)
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¹See Jean Graubart, “A Jewish Perspective on Forgiveness,” at thepowerofforgiveness.com
²Apocryphal in most Protestant Bibles, the Book of Sirach dates from two centuries before Christ and is included in the Greek Septuagint as well as the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.
³Steven Goodheart, “Yes, Buddhism Teaches Forgiveness”
Quotes about Forgiveness:
Ephesians 4:32 “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.”
Matthew 5:24 “Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 18:21-22 “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I tell you not seven times, but, until seventy times seven.'”
Dhammapada 1:6 “Some don’t know that in our quarrels we perish. But those who do realize this, settle their quarrels.”
Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Qur’an 42:40 “He who forgiveth, and is reconciled unto his enemy, shall receive his reward from God; for He loveth not the unjust doers.”
“Forgiveness is choosing to love. It is the first skill of self-giving love.” ~Mohandas Gandhi
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ~Mohandas Gandhi
“Gandhi was right: if we all live by ‘an eye for an eye’ the whole world will be blind. The only way out is forgiveness.” ~Lewis B. Smedes
“A Christian will find it cheaper to pardon than to resent. Forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, and the waste of spirit.” ~Hannah More
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” ~Lewis B. Smedes
“Not to forgive is to be imprisoned by the past, by old grievances that do not permit life to proceed with new business. Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control… Forgiveness frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” ~Lance Morrow
“He that cannot forgive others, breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.” ~George Herbert
“Without deep humility, true forgiveness is impossible . . . and will never happen.” ~Martha Kilpatrick
“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.” ~Lewis B. Smedes
“The rule is: we cannot really forgive ourselves unless we look at the failure in our past and call it by its right name.” ~Lewis B. Smedes
“When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” ~Catherine Ponder
“Always forgive your enemies–nothing annoys them so much.” ~Oscar Wilde
Links to more information about Forgiveness:
“What Is Christian Forgiveness?” an article from AllAboutPrayer.org
From JoyfulHeart.com, Ralph F. Wilson on “Don’t Pay the Price of Counterfeit Forgiveness”
Joseph S. O’Leary, “Buddhism and Forgiveness”
From BuddhaNet, a meditation on forgiveness
An article about “Forgiveness in Islam” from IslamForToday.com
Rabbi David Rosen writes about “The Concept of Forgiveness in Judaism”
“Forgiving Yourself-An Important Choice,” from AllAboutGod.com
A collection of 41 articles on Christian forgiveness
R. T. Kendall, Total Forgiveness
Kendall writes about the corrosive influence of resentment in our lives and the healing power of forgiving others, as well as the importance of God’s forgiveness from a Christian perspective.
Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving
A simple, practical, and inspirational book about learning how to forgive, by a noted professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds
Drawing on New Testament sources, Pastor Brauns addresses difficult questions about forgiveness and reconciliation.
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace
Yale Divinity School Professor Volf writes about the Christian virtues of generosity and forgiveness as the means of growing away from self-centeredness and toward God and others.