For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)
Thinking about families and fathers, as I have been for the last week, I began to think about all the stories I hear of grudges that go too far. In my profession, you hear a lot about family. True, you get to hear all the joys—all the births and graduations and marriages, as well as all the makeups and returns to God—but you also get more than enough of the ugly side of things. Sometimes, it’s petty; it’s a child or spouse who refuses to do the chores or it’s a forgotten birthday or anniversary. Sometimes, it’s an off-the-cuff comment that stung a little harder than expected. And sometimes, it’s serious. Sometimes, it’s the stuff we need to ask God about, the stuff we truly need guidance on.
I can tell you, all families have these sorts of dynamics. Every couple bickers and every child goes through growing pains. Most of us sulk for a bit when these things happen and then move on, forgiving our spouse or parent or child, perhaps discussing the problem or just shrugging it off when we realize it wasn’t actually that big a deal.
But we all know families where that isn’t the case, where grudges run on not for hours or days but for years, where hatred is allowed to “stir up strife” but love is never given the chance to “cover all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). Grudges, we all know, can destroy a family. Consider how torn apart David and Saul were over a grudge of who should be king. Consider how far Joseph’s brothers were willing to go because they begrudged their father’s preference.
Now, those are quite big issues, and these are tough challenges—and some of the families around us have these sorts of difficulties—but not every family needs such a consequential issue to see itself destroyed. I’ve witnessed families break apart for the tiniest little thing, for insults said in the heat of the moment and mistakes made decades before. I tell all these families the same thing: you have to learn to stop holding on. You’ve got to let go and forgive.
We talk a lot about forgiveness in Christianity. God’s act of forgiveness in His Son Jesus Christ has made all the difference for humanity. We weren’t deserving, maybe we weren’t even ready, but Christ was there all the same, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, to show that God was capable of forgiving anything.
And I mean anything. Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done. He can forgive it. Think of the worst thing you blame on your spouse or your parent or your neighbor. He can forgive that, too.
We know that. We know that awesome power. And we talk about it all the time; we praise God for it every day. What we don’t talk enough about is the need for us to extend that privilege to those we know and love. We have been forgiven, but the flip side is that we need to forgive. We are, in fact, required to forgive.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Jesus lays it out right there. You’ve got to do some forgiving before you deserve that forgiveness yourself.
And think about the weight of that burden. On the one hand, you’ve got some old family grudges going around, perhaps a sibling who stole a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past or a parent who never rose to the challenge of that role. I’m not saying either of those are easy to let go of, but before you continue to brush that person aside, think for a moment about all of your sins, all the sins you’ve committed in your life. Every last little mistake you’ve made, every last act against God. When you sum all that up, is it more or less than what this sibling or parent did to you? No matter what, God is willing to forgive you for all that. But you’ve got to forgive first.
I wrote last week about what fathers need to teach their children. They need to teach them to be strong and moral, and to have the strength to let go when the time is right. But they also need to teach them to have the strength to stop holding on to what holds us back, to have the strength to forgive.
We often learn our strongest lessons from our parents, and if we are an example of forgiveness to our children, they will learn how powerful that act is, both for personal relationships and for faith. When we storm about and sulk because of a little slight or mistake, we teach our children to nurse these petty hurts; we teach that it is right to hold on to any offense and that forgiveness is only for others and only for God.
And forgiveness is for others, and it is for God. But it is for each of us as well. When Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, He didn’t just mean specifically about slaps. He meant we have to be generous in our hearts, to be ready to forgive any grudge no matter how painful.
It’s that sort of commitment that keeps a family together, and that makes a father so important to that family.