Although we cannot properly forgive others without understanding the concept of forgiveness and its importance, that intellectual knowledge is not, of course, forgiveness itself.
If we are to move from understanding forgiveness to granting it, we must move from the mind to the “heart” – from simply accepting the idea of forgiveness to embracing it and making it truly a part of us. In other words, we must move beyond an understanding of forgiveness to an attitude of forgiveness.
This is what Jesus meant when he warned that we will not be forgiven “…unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). The Greek expression “from the heart” used in this verse and others (1 Peter 1:22) means exactly what it means in English: to truly and deeply forgive. But how exactly do we know if we measure up to that standard – how do we know if we really are forgiving someone “from the heart”?
The answer is relatively simple. Jesus spoke of forgiveness “from the heart” in concluding his parable of the ungrateful servant who did not forgive others as his king forgave him, so his point was obviously that we must forgive as our King forgives us. The Scriptures contain many verses showing the manner in which God forgives us – far too many to include here – but we will simply look at three examples from the Old Testament prophets.
The Book of Micah contains some wonderful words revealing God’s attitude in forgiving: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18, emphasis added). This is the very opposite of reluctant forgiveness. We delight to do something we enjoy, that we love to do, and although humanly we may not look at forgiving as an enjoyable activity, this is exactly the attitude we need to have if we are to forgive from the heart.
The prophet Isaiah helps us to expand on this understanding: “let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7 ESV, emphasis added). Other translations convey the word Isaiah used of God’s forgiveness with “freely,” “generously,” “richly,” and “bountifully.” This is clearly the opposite of forgiveness that is limited in any way.
Another prophet, Hosea, recorded a prayer God commanded ancient Israel to pray that claims a specific attribute of God’s forgiveness: “Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously’…” (Hosea 14:2, emphasis added). God invites us to receive his gracious pardon and this is the opposite of grudging forgiveness. Humanly it is all too possible to reach “surface forgiveness,” but because it is not from the heart it is expressed ungraciously and sometimes even unkindly. Hosea shows us that God does not do that, and if we want to forgive from the heart, neither must we.
These three passages only begin to cover the many ways in which God expresses his forgiveness, and it can make for an extensive and very profitable study to look at other examples found in the Scriptures. Even without in-depth study of such verses, it is worthwhile to keep the principle in mind and look for the key descriptive word whenever we read biblical verses that speak of God forgiving or pardoning.
However, the three examples given above make the point. God delights to forgive and he forgives abundantly and graciously. These qualities, and many more, show us what it means to “forgive from the heart.” Combined with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:35, they show that just as God himself forgives from the heart, he expects us to do no less!
* Excerpted from our new free e-book How to Forgive. You can download a copy here.