Many of us squirm a bit when we read our Lord’s words: “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 NLT).
Over the years I have had many people ask me exactly what these words mean. They wonder, “Is Jesus saying that if I don’t forgive, God won’t forgive me and I’ll lose my salvation?” It helps to remember that because Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins, the forgiveness that provides our salvation is a “done deal,” so to speak. After Christ was resurrected, believers were primarily exhorted to forgive because they have been forgiven rather than exhorted to forgive in order to be forgiven (see Ephesians4:32; Colossians 3:13).
Refusing to forgive someone will not cost you your salvation, but it will disrupt your fellowship with the Lord. In effect, the Lord is saying, “You cannot fellowship with Me and experience My cleansing power until you forgive the person who has wronged you.” God will not damn you for your unforgiveness, but He will enact discipline, which He lovingly does for all waywardness (see Hebrews 12:5-11). This is why people who are bitter and unforgiving do not experience the presence, peace, and power of God. The heavens seem as brass, and God seems far away.
It doesn’t take much to find yourself in the “heavens as brass” mode. Just a little spat will do it, as Sarah and I have discovered. During our first years of marriage, a typical scene would find Sarah angry with me and I with her, and neither of us would forgive or ask forgiveness. Still smoldering with anger I would leave the house and head down to my office at the church to prepare a sermon for the following Sunday. But after I closed by office door and sat down to pray and read the Scriptures, I found that the heavens would not open. God seemed to have something against me. He wasn’t mean about it. In fact, I felt He was just being matter-of-fact.
I heard no audible voice, but He spoke quite clearly nonetheless: “If you do not forgive Sarah and seek her forgiveness, I am not allowing My Spirit to touch your spirit. Things will not be right between us until you call Sarah and reconcile with her.” I would reach for the phone to make that call, and more often than not the phone would ring before I could pick up the receiver. It would be Sarah calling me to reconcile because she had been getting exactly the same kind of message from the Lord.
Our conflicts have been quite tame compared to what some people go through due to adultery, physical abuse, or desertion, to name just a few. But whether the conflict is minor or major, the principle is the same. If a small conflict can result in an unforgiving spirit toward a spouse and the heavens become as brass, consider how much more serious it is when there is a major trespass and the person who was wronged chooses to be bitter and vindictive for years, perhaps for life.
Whether a matter is weighty or light, the path to forgiveness is to realize that this issue that prompted your need to forgive isn’t primarily about your spouse. First and foremost, your communion with God must be the real focus. Suppose Sarah might be 100 percent guilty of wronging me. Her guilt cannot justify my unforgiving heart. I can remain unforgiving toward Sarah as long as I wish, but as long as I do, I forfeit my enjoyment of God’s tender fellowship. While I lick my wounds, I can argue with God or anyone else all day long and explain that I have a right to be unforgiving. But God’s spiritual law does not change. If I don’t forgive, I remain unforgiven by God in the sense that my unforgiving spirit is sinful, and this sin blocks my fellowship with Him. My issue with Sarah is secondary to my relationship to God.
Next time we’ll look at HOW to forgive, based on the One who is our model – Jesus.
Excerpts taken from The Language of Love and Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.