The Command to Forgive

by Dr. Gary Smalley

I admit the Bible can sometimes be difficult to interpret and understand. However, when it comes to the command to forgive, the Bible is very obvious in what is expected of Christians.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has something against you leave your gift there in front of the altar.” First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift,” Matthew 5:23-24.

It is next to impossible to have an open heart, receptive to God’s will, if we are in serious conflict with others. God desires a sincere gift, not tarnished with unreconciled differences and past hurts. We are responsible to make sure people we have offended, or been offended by, are freed from the bondage’s of anger, vengeance, or hate.

So is anyone excluded from receiving our forgiveness? According to Matthew 5:44-48, even our enemies are worthy of forgiveness:

“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We need to do for others what we would want done to us.What a verse! Again it touches on the very nature of our incredible God who is merciful and gracious to all. We are called to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Understanding that we cannot be perfect while existing on this planet, the verse is calling us to strive for Christ’s perfection. Christ’s willingness to love those who were unlovable. To care for those who were prostitutes, thieves, and yes, even tax collectors. To forgive those who most offend us. Why our enemies? God knows how much unresolved anger kills the spirit within, and designs this command to help free us from eternal regret.

No one is to be excluded from our forgiveness. Some of the greatest verses exploring the complexity of forgiveness are Romans 12:14-21. We will quote the passage at length because of their foundational quality regarding forgiveness:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live I harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.'”

We are encouraged to bless people who persecute us. To some Christians, and probably many non-Christians, this seems very masochistic. Bless our enemies! Sure, if we were Christ maybe we could pull that off, but we are human. Remember, being human means we are created in God’s image, therefore we have the capacity to pull this off. Trust in God that this humanitarian rule serves to better the human condition rather than defile it. Think of all the hate crimes that never seem to find a resolution. This idea of blessing reminds us of turning the other cheek. Evil begets evil and love begets love.

In the passage we also read, “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”. When I first read this passage I imagined that forgiveness and love toward those who hurt us is painful for the perpetrator. My mind wanted to believe that loving and forgiving made evil people suffer. However, this was not Christ’s message. In further study I learned the custom of placing hot coals on someone’s head was actually a kind gesture. A surprise to me! I’m not sure how I would receive someone placing hot coals on my head. But it was a different time.

Placing coals on someone’s head was helpful because it kept the weary traveler warm throughout the cold desert nights. It was a way of honoring someone. This is why we are commanded to forgive. Remember the “Golden Rule”? We need to do for others what we would want done to us. Would we want someone to refuse to forgive us because we sinned against him or her? © 2008 Smalley Relationship Center. Original article appeared 01/13/03 and is used by permission. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


  • Larry Mauriello

    Forgiveness is a key that unlocks so much more than you might think, healing flows easier, bitterness leaves and joy and can begin to inhabit our lives. Unforgiveness is not holding the other person in chains or prison it is binding us

  • Jae

    Great article.