If we long to receive mercy, why is it so painful to give it?

If one of the sweetest words in the Bible is forgiveness, why do many Christians find it so bitter?

The answer is plain, brief, and painful: The kind of forgiveness we love to sing about—that flows down from God to us through Christ—is not the only forgiveness that matters. We are called to another forgiveness that often tastes bitter, the kind that flows from us to other people, especially other Christians.

God forgives us because of what Jesus has done for us; but then he obliges us to forgive others because of what Jesus is doing in us. The proper match to Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them,” is Jesus’ imperative, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).

When forgiveness is hard work

The first and most obvious reason Christians need to be forgivers is the simple command of Jesus himself. Not only are we told to forgive anyone who has provoked us; we also learn we cannot enjoy forgiveness ourselves if we are not exercising it toward others.

In the most universal prayer Jesus gave his disciples (Matt. 6:9–15), he makes it clear that we can pray for forgiveness only as we forgive those who trespass against us.

But consider a second reason why we should forgive: When we refuse to do so, we in effect try to keep God from forgiving someone else. When we withhold forgiveness, we are really saying that the person who has offended us is no proper object of God’s forgiveness. After all, if that person is not worthy of our forgiveness, how could he or she possibly merit God’s forgiveness?

Or worse, we say (in effect) that the other person ...

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