A grudge was apparently held by Mark Twain when he wrote about someone who died: “I did not attend the funeral, but I wrote a nice note saying I approved of it.” Twain’s words remind us it is easy to “nurse a grudge.” But nursing a grudge is never easy on us. As Ken Kesey said, “The man [or woman] who seeks revenge digs two graves.” English poet Alexander Pope [died 1744], in his “Essay On Criticism” (1711), reminds us there is a better way with the familiar saying, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” The saying echoes the Bible’s teaching that all accountable human beings sin (even Christians – Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8-10), and that God forgives when people meet the conditions He laid out in the Gospel (Acts 2:37-38; Colossians 2:10-13). Pope’s saying hints at something Jesus taught clearly and forcefully – if we want forgiveness, we must work at having a forgiving spirit. The Lord said in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.” That’s blunt stuff. Jesus didn’t qualify what kind of trespasses. He didn’t say, “You have to forgive other people of the easy and lightweight stuff or the stuff that’s easy to get over.” Instead, He jars us with one the toughest demands He ever laid out for those who would genuinely follow Him – if we forgive, God forgives us. If we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us. That’s how you forfeit forgiveness. And before you decide God will let you off the hook for being unwilling to forgive, recall the cross where God’s beaten, bloodied, battered, blasphemed Son, with not a single sustainable charge of sin against His pure and innocent soul, prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). A few weeks later the Father did forgive many of them who complied with Gospel conditions (see Acts 2:36-41). Does what you see at the cross suggest to you there was anything easy as God, through His Son, brought to completion His ages-long plan to be able to righteously and justly forgive your sins and my sins and everyone else’s sins? I think not.
Elizabeth O’ Connor reminds us, “Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon ever made it out to be.” One clear message from the cross is that forgiveness is horribly difficult and costly. To forgive us cost God His Son, and cost the Son excruciating physical torment and agony, let alone the unimaginable spiritual pain and torture He suffered there in His soul. If it proved that costly to God and His Son to forgive our sins, why would we expect it to be easy to forgive others who have trespassed against us? By the way, before I forget to say this, can you imagine how costly it would have turned out for us if God and His Son had been unwilling to pay the price to forgive us? Yes, to forgive is sometimes very, very difficult. As some sage noted, “To err is human, to forgive is unusual.” It may be unusual for those who don’t know Christ to offer forgiveness. But the call for those who claim to follow Jesus could not be more plain or direct – “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Burton Coffman’s commentary on this verse provides a succinct if sobering summary of the New Testament’s teaching on God’s demand that we be forgiving – “The watchword for Christians, and for all people, is, ‘Forgive or forfeit forgiveness.’” The sure way to forfeit forgiveness is to refuse forgive.