Everyone likes the idea of forgiveness until they actually have to forgive someone.
Being on the receiving end of forgiveness is amazing. To know that someone isn't going to hang an offense or hurt over your head and will move forward in the relationship acting as though it never happened is a fantastic feeling and a huge relief.
For those who are followers of Jesus, this is one of the central claims of our faith. Namely, that through his sacrificial death, Jesus has forgiven our sins.
We read in Ephesians 1, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us." (v7-8)
Even while on the cross in Luke 23, Jesus says to the mocking crowd who has turned him over to be crucified, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (v34)
Jesus isn't stingy with his forgiveness, nor does he makes us work for it, or earn it. He lavishes it on us, even when we don't deserve it.
But forgiveness isn't only something that we believe, nor is it something that we simply receive. It's also something we're expected to practice.
When teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus sets before them an example by saying,
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’” (emphasis added)
Paul writes in Colossians 3, "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." (v3)
In my experience, one of the reasons people leave the church is because they would prefer to hold on to their offense rather than do the work of forgiveness. However, living in a state of unforgiveness is detrimental to your soul.
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew about a man who was on the receiving end of forgiveness, having been forgiven an enormous debt he owed the king. But when encountering someone who owes him something small, especially in comparison to the size of his debt, he aggressively demands that the individual pay it back in full. When word gets back to the king about this man's unwillingness to forgive, even after he had been forgiven, the king throws him in jail. (Matthew 18:21-35)
While this parable teaches us many things about forgiveness, it also alludes to the fact that when we withhold forgiveness from people, we spiritually imprison ourselves. By not letting go of the offense, we relive it daily allowing its pain to affect us continually. Therefore, you could say that forgiveness benefits both the forgiver and the forgiven. It releases the one who caused the hurt, but it also frees us from continuing to carry it around.
It should also be said that forgiveness is a repeated practice, even for the same offense. Before Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving man, Peter asks him how many times we should forgive someone when they offend us. Jesus responds saying basically, "continually." Forgiveness is a process, it doesn't always happen in one fell swoop. Certain offenses are more detrimental than others and require years to work through. However, avoiding, running from, and not dealing with the offense will never lead you to freedom. It keeps you trapped in a spiritual prison.
Because forgiveness is vital, and because it can be really hard, we need the help and support of a community to walk through the process. The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation and restoration. When a church can hang together both through good times and bad, and authentically forgive each other, the world takes notice. Unfortunately, the world knows the body of Christ more for our divisions than for our reconciliation. When they see the church hurt each other, forgive, and continue to walk in unity, it gives a picture of God's healing love for the world.
If you find yourself holding on to an offense toward someone in your church, don't run, don't hide. Know that the Holy Spirit will give you have the power to forgive and find freedom in the process.