- Someone recklessly cuts in front of you on the highway, almost forcing you off the road.
- Your friend still has not paid back the fifty dollars he “borrowed” a year ago.
- Your family has been criticizing your life-style.
- You find out that your spouse has been unfaithful.
What do you do in situations like these? Can you forgive them? Should you forgive? Or should you “Give them what’s coming to them”?
We all know that the Bible teaches us to forgive others. But sometimes it seems like it is impossible to forgive, because the wrong that has been done is so great. Sometimes it seems like it just wouldn’t be fair to be merciful.
When there seems to be a conflict between mercy and justice, it may be that we do not clearly understand the nature of genuine forgiveness and mercy. The Bible teaches us to show mercy in a way that lets us be both fair and genuinely useful to all involved.
One reason we sometimes get confused about mercy, is that we tend to replace mercy with artificial substitutes. Essentially, mercy is a Divine quality. “To You, O Lord, belongs mercy” (Psalm 62: 12). Divine Mercy has nothing in common with the petty revenge and “get-even” kind of “fairness” that tends to occupy our thoughts. And it has little in common with the superficial pardon or even condoning of evil that is sometimes passed off as mercy. The Lord’s thoughts are far more merciful than ours. It is in speaking of His mercy that the Lord says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are My ways your ways” (Isaiah 55: 7-9).
One of the things that distinguishes true mercy from its substitutes is its constancy. Peter came to the Lord asking, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18: 21, 22). A truly forgiving person will not show mercy one moment and malice the next, because the two cannot mix together. For example, to forgive your friends but not your enemies is not true mercy, because it would be done for the sake of some favor you might get in return. “Love your enemies…. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?” (Matthew 5: 44-46). We can only be truly merciful by completely rejecting any desire for malice or revenge.
This perfectly reflects the way the Lord shows mercy to us. We tend to think that the Lord is changing His mind when He forgives us, as if He decided not to punish us after all. Of course He does not really change His mind at all. He knows and foresees all things. He does not desire to hurt one day and heal the next. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1: 17). He is always a loving and gentle Father. “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear Him” (Psalm 103: 17). “’For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Isaiah 54: 10). Thus forgiveness is not the Lord changing His mind about us. Rather, it is the Lord changing our minds about Him.
Another quality that marks genuine mercy is that it involves helping the person who has wronged us. Sometimes we think that a person should earn our forgiveness. We refuse to give up our bitter feelings unless the other person makes an effort to earn our good will. This gives us an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves and to neglect helping the other person do better. However, the time to help a person is when he needs it. Mercy and forgiveness involve helping a person who has done wrong do better, not waiting until he does better and then helping him. That’s why the Lord said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5: 44, 45).
Another way we sometimes avoid helping those who have hurt us is by misapplying the phrase “forgive and forget.” It is good to forget your own malice. Is is something else to forget that the other person may need our strength or discipline. We might think that forgiving implies forgetting that evil was ever committed. However, the Bible does not tell us simply to forget about the evil in other people. Rather, we are to actively help others face their faults and overcome them. “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him: and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17: 3). “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, your have gained your brother” (Matthew 18: 15). “Brethren, if a person is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6: 1).
Helping others over their faults is not inconsistent with mercy. It is part of mercy. In fact that is exactly how the Lord forgives us. He is always willing to help us do better. “I will cleanse you from all your filthiness…. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36: 25, 26). Notice how the Lord showed mercy to the woman taken in adultery: He said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8: 10, 11). He didn’t forget her sin—He encouraged her to overcome it. In fact, we would never be able to overcome our faults without the Lord’s power. If we had to earn His mercy we would be lost. The Lord says, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes” (Isaiah 1: 16). Yet this is something that is accomplished only by His mercy and forgiveness, because He is the one who can put away our sin and remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 65: 3; Psalm 103: 12).
The Lord asks for us simply to do for others what He does for us. “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6: 36). Our forgiveness should be constant and unconditional because He forgives us that way. Yet in our mercy we may confront others with their evil in order to help them become better people, just as the Lord in His mercy confronts us with our evil so that we may overcome it and accept the love and mercy He offers.