Why Does Forgiveness Matter?
To understand why forgiveness matters, it is necessary to understand the meaning of love. The predominant definition of love, the definition that you will find in the dictionary, is something along the lines of, “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties: attraction based on sexual desire: affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.”
Except for those who think only in superficial terms and certainly from a Christian perspective, such a definition of love is gravely insufficient. A more substantial definition that goes beyond appetite, passion and kinship—a love that is more reflective of proper filial and spousal love—is, to will the good of the other for the sake of the other regardless of the cost or reward to one’s self.
This love is the kind of love to which Jesus refers when He teaches that there is no greater commandment:
And there came one of the scribes that had heard them reasoning together, and seeing that he had answered them well, asked him which was the first commandment of all. And Jesus answered him: The first commandment of all is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is one God. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:28-31).
So, what does this have to do with forgiveness and what are the implications? The answer is simple: If you do not forgive others then you fail to keep the two greatest commandments that Christ gave us. To love is to forgive and forgiveness is a sign of love not only for the person being forgiven but love of God as well.
Forgiveness is a choice and a sign of love from which it originates. Therefore, if we choose not to forgive, we choose not to love. In so doing, in the best-case scenario, we choose our own will instead of the will of God. In the worst-case scenario, we choose hate. Choosing our own will or choosing hate is to reject God. This is why Christ said that to be angry with your brother or to say, “Raca,” (i.e., to hold your brother in contempt) is to place yourself in danger of condemnation.
You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22).
Choosing God’s will—choosing love and forgiveness—is evident in the prayer that Christ taught us. The common translation of the Our Father or The Lord’s Prayer comes from Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.
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.
We should be mindful every time we offer this prayer that we request, “[…] thy will be done.” God’s will is that we love one another which is synonymous with forgiveness and in offering this prayer we acknowledge that this is what we must do.
Furthermore, we petition God, “[…] forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If we offer this prayer in blind repetition it is easy to overlook the full meaning of this passage and consider only the request for forgiveness. This, however, is only half of the equation. We also must keep in mind what is required of us.
Everyone is familiar with The Golden Rule (i.e., Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) A different translation of The Golden Rule is,
And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them in like manner” (Luke 6:31).
Similar to this translation of The Golden Rule, we should consider that in praying, “[…] as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we are petitioning the Lord to treat us in like manner as we have treated others. We are saying, “Forgive me to the same degree that I have forgiven others.” We are asking not only for His mercy but also for His justice.
The importance of our willingness to forgive—a reflection of our desire to be in communion with the will of God—is emphasized further by the two verses that follow The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel:
For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences (Matthew 6:14-15).
Christ’s mandate is clear: We are to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as our self. Refusal to forgive is a willful rejection of God’s will and thus an act of self-condemnation. Christ has set the example for us and we must follow: Love God, love one another and forgive!