The Price of Unforgiven
Matthew 6:12,15 …forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors… but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
I have always found these verses to be a little disconcerting. Why is it that Jesus said we are to daily ask forgiveness if we have already been forgiven? What if I forget to repent for something? Is it possible that God could withhold his mercy if I fail to forgive another? Exactly how much trouble am I in if I forget to ask forgiveness or if I refuse to forgive someone?
I know that when I come to faith, I am forgiven (Colossians 2:13) for all time. So, why is it that Jesus said that I need to continue to ask for forgiveness? This one stumped me as a child and led me to much concern about whether or not I was in danger of losing out on heaven. If I did something wrong and forgot about it, was I going to hell?
The reality is that when I come to Christ, I am forgiven once and for all eternity, never to lose that gift. I still, however, live in this imperfect flesh, where I continue to struggle. I still have very real need that keeps me dependent on God. The daily Christian walk is to daily turn from self and follow Christ in an intimate, personal relationship.
When I sin, I do not lose my status as God’s child, but I do injure my relationship with him. Just as I do not lose my status as a husband when I do something hurtful to my wife, I still need to ask forgiveness when I do that thing. So, Jesus insisted that when we wander from God, we need to return to him and ask forgiveness, not so we can earn back our salvation, but so we can return to right relation to him.
The second issue, I think, is best understood in this light. Does God really withhold my forgiveness if I do not forgive another? If I remain bitter against another and refuse to forgive him or her am I eternally lost? No. God does not withhold salvation from me if I fail to forgive but I do damage my communion with him when I do this.
Failing to forgive is not in itself the unforgivable sin, but I put my bitterness between God and me when I insist on indulging in it. When I withhold forgiveness, I am focused on me, my pride, and my resentment. In this condition, I cannot focus on God. Bitterness may or may not hurt the one I am bitter at, but it always damages my relationship with God, creating distance and injuring that relationship.
If I do not regularly go to God and ask forgiveness, I am either quite perfect, or I do not, in fact, have a very good relationship with him. Likewise, if I indulge in bitterness against others, I distance myself from God. Both conditions are focused on me and my right to do what I want. Both conditions are destructive to my relationship with the father. When I fail to ask forgiveness or fail to forgive others, I am focused on me and I remain outside of an intimate relationship with God. If I find God distant, I may need to start here.