“Pastor, I just can’t forgive him/her.” During my service as a pastor I have heard a statement like this on a number of occasions. This sentiment requires some immediate follow up discussion, because it can be expressing two very different things. If the individual means “I won’t forgive,” then there is a very serious problem.
Our Lord Jesus taught us to pray in the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is a call to confess our sins to God. Yet in teaching us to pray in this manner, Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father wants to forgive. As Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism:
Thus this petition really means that God does not wish to regard our sins and punish us as we daily deserve but to deal graciously with us, to forgive as he has promised, and thus to grant us a joyful and cheerful conscience so that we may stand before him in prayer. For where the heart is not right with God and cannot generate such confidence, it will never dare to pray. But such a confident and joyful heart can never come except when one knows that his or her sins are forgiven” (3.92).
At the same time, this petition clearly indicates that in this request for forgiveness we are committing ourselves to the fact that, “So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us” (Small Catechism, 3.16). In case we are inclined to overlook this fact, the first thing Jesus says after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew is:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.(Matthew 6:14-15 ESV)
Stated in positive and then negative forms, our Lord leaves absolutely no doubt that forgiveness is not an “option” in the Christian life.
This means that we cannot choose to hold something against another person - at least not if we want God to forgive us. Forgiveness here is an act of the will, and Jesus speaks these words to us as Christians who have been born again of water and the Spirit. The regenerated will is both led by the Spirit and enabled by the Spirit to forgive in this way. To refuse to forgive is a very serious thing. It is to reject our Lord’s words and the work of the Spirit within us, and Jesus tells us that this forfeits forgiveness before God. If a person means this, then he or she must be called to repentance and warned about the dire spiritual consequences that are impending if this course is continued.
Thankfully, I don’t think I have ever had a person mean that they won’t forgive. Instead, when people say this sort of thing they usually mean something different altogether. Usually they are saying that they are continuing to experience emotional hurt, turmoil and anger about what the other person did. They are seeking to forgive as our Lord instructs, and rightly they expect that forgiveness leads to reconciliation with the other person and a sense of peace.
However as fallen people who live in the now and not yet, our complexity is quite frustrating. Often our will and our emotions are not on the same page, with our emotions lagging far behind. An action or comment that only took a moment, can prompt emotions that take a very long time to subside. We continue to feel hurt and angry, and we express this as, “I just can’t forgive him/her.” Yet stating it in this way simply produces more angst because we wonder whether we are in danger of losing God’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an act of the will. Though we speak the words, “I forgive you,” only once, often forgiveness involves the continuing refusal to hold something against another person. Though the old man wants to take up the grievance once again, we simply have to respond by saying, “No! I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”
But what are we to do about the emotions? What are we to do with the hurt feelings and the anger that continue to be felt? First and foremost we need to continue to receive Christ’s Means of Grace through which the Spirit forgives our sins, strengthens us in faith and continues to form the mind of Christ in us. Second, we pray to God identifying these emotions as things that we don’t want and ask him alleviate and remove them.
During my time as pastor I have come to realize that there is a third and very specific thing that we can also do. In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus teaches us that anger is in fact a very serious sin that incurs God’s judgment. Then later in this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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 5:43-45 ESV)
If Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, then certainly we are not to be angry with them. Instead, we are to pray for them. I have found this to be an excellent help in dealing with anger – to pray for the person with whom I am angry because he or she has wronged me, etc. It is difficult to hang on to anger and sustain it when I am praying for the individual. The act of praying for them serves to help dissipate hurt feelings and angry emotions.
This has been a valuable tool in pastoral care when people are having trouble dealing with anger at a person and hurt feelings. It is an action that helps to calm the emotional side of forgiveness that can be so vexing. Of course, the decision to pray for someone is an act of the regenerated will, just as is the decision not to hold something against someone because God in Christ has forgiven me. We daily continue to need the reminder to do this. And so we pray, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”