The Key to True Forgiveness

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:7

There was some strange news in the news this week.

  • A man built a pyramid from 1,030,315 pennies, setting a Guinness record. It took him three years. I’m not sure how he makes a living, but he has $10,303.15 in cash on hand.
  • A man in Spain sold a block of blue cheese for $16,142.41.
  • Another man fit 146 blueberries in his mouth, setting a Guinness record.
  • And veterinarians removed nineteen pacifiers from the stomach of a bulldog named Mortimer. Following surgery, Mortimer is fully recovered.

Much of what makes headlines this week will be forgotten next week. If you want to do something unforgettable and life-changing, put today’s beatitude into practice in your life.

Jesus declared: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Giving and receiving mercy leads to blessing we will never forget, on earth or in heaven.

Who is the person who has hurt you most deeply or recently? Who is the person you think of first when I ask you for someone you need to forgive? Let’s ask Jesus to help us do just that.

What is mercy?

Let’s begin with the question: What is “mercy”?

Here’s the short answer: grace is getting what you don’t deserve—mercy is not getting what you do deserve. It’s mercy to be forgiven. It’s mercy to forgive. That’s what mercy is; now, what is mercy not?

Ethicist Lewis Smedes offers these answers:

  • Forgiving is not forgetting. God can forgive our confessed sins and forget them. In fact, he does: Isaiah 43.25 promises that he “will not remember your sins.” But you and I cannot do this. Human beings cannot simply reformat the disk or erase the tape. You can pull the nail out of your soul, but the hole remains.
  • Forgiving is not excusing the behavior which hurt you. The person chose to do that which hurts you today.
  • Forgiving is not pretending that you’re not hurt. You can carry on, but the pain remains and often grows.
  • Forgiving is not tolerating. You may have to tolerate your employer, or your sibling, or your son-in-law. That doesn’t mean that you’ve forgiven him.

To forgive is to pardon. It is to refuse to punish, even though you have every right to do so. It is the governor pardoning the criminal—he doesn’t forget about the crime, or excuse it, or pretend it didn’t occur, or tolerate the behavior. He simply chooses not to punish, though he could.

So who needs your pardon this morning?

As Smedes observes, you may need today to pardon a parent who died and left you. The birth mother who gave you away. The “invisible ghost” in the organization who fired you, or mismanaged your investments, or cut your son from the squad or your daughter from the drill team. Someone who appears not to care if you forgive them or not. God. Yourself.

Who most needs your pardon today?

Why should you be merciful?

Why issue it?

First, to stop your personal cycle of pain.

This beatitude promises the merciful will be “blessed” by God. This “blessing” transcends your pain. God offers you a ticket off the roller coaster of hurt. But you must extend mercy to receive it.

You see, if you give back what others give to you, you are constantly their victim. They pitch—you catch. You’re trapped by your circumstances. Your soul is a genie in their bottle—how they rub it determines who you are.

If you refuse to pardon the person who hurt you, he hurts you still. Every time you plot your revenge you feel again your pain. Every time you nurse your pain you increase it. The person who hurt you may not even know you’re harboring your grudge and wounding your soul. He or she may have gone on with life. You’re hurting no one more than yourself. But you can stop today.

The second reason follows the first: pardon to receive mercy.

Jesus promises the merciful that they will be shown mercy.

This is not a transaction, a legal arrangement, as though my mercy obligates you and God to be merciful to me. Mercy is not a means to your end, but a free gift you choose to give.

But when you give it, a miraculous thing happens: You put yourself in position to receive mercy from God and others. Not because you earned it, but simply because now you’re willing to receive it. The most legalistic people with others are equally legalistic with themselves. If I won’t forgive you until you’re punished, I won’t forgive myself until I’m punished. If I won’t show mercy to you, I won’t receive it myself.

I was once hurt by a deacon and his family in a church I pastored. The pain was real and deep. Every time I saw him in worship, I felt my anger well up in my soul. I became short, irritated, on edge with others—and especially with myself. Intolerant of my own mistakes and failures. But the day I released my anger and chose to pardon that man, I found a new freedom with myself. A new willingness to be loved and forgiven by God.

If life must be fair, every injustice punished, we cannot forgive others. Or ourselves.

Here’s a third reason: pardon to break the circle of revenge.

If I must return your hurt, then you must return mine. And I must return yours. It has been truly said: You can no more win a war than win a fire.

But when you pardon me, the cycle stops. There’s nothing left for me to do but to receive or reject your pardon. I have no cause to hurt you, and abundant reason to love you and learn to love myself as well.

Here’s a fourth reason: to show others the love of Christ.

Jesus identified one characteristic as a guarantee that others will know we love him: “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Forgiving, pardoning, releasing love proves that God’s love in us is real.

During the depths of the Cold War, people in a particular East German town began throwing their trash over the Berlin Wall into the West German town on the other side. The West Germans, for their part, responded by tossing food and clothes to the East Germans. With this note: “Each gives what he has.”

How can you be merciful?

Let’s close with the practical question I hope you’re now asking: how can you be merciful? How can you do as Jesus teaches here, so that you stop your pain, experience mercy, break the cycle of revenge, and show others his love? What practical steps can you take this morning to offer mercy to the person who most needs it from you?

First, admit the reality of your hurt.

Name it honestly and specifically. Describe in words how you feel about it and the person who caused it. Describe even what you would like to do in revenge. Get your feelings out, as openly and transparently as possible.

You may want to put them on paper. Write a letter to the one who hurt you, then tear it up. You may want to talk to a friend you trust, or a Christian counselor. Most of all, admit it to God. As someone said, “Tell God on them.” Pour out your pain and hurt. You must admit the cancer exists before the surgeon can help you.

Second, ask God to help you pardon the one who hurt you.

You are not expected to be “merciful” without Jesus’ help. That’s why these Beatitudes are addressed to believers, followers of Christ. And why they are sequential. If we admit our need of God and mourn for our own sins, living under the control of the Spirit and seeking to be righteous in every relationship, then we can be empowered to extend to others the mercy we have received.

Turn to the Holy Spirit who dwells in your heart and soul. Ask him for the power and pardon of God. Ask him for the ability to see this person as he does. And to see yourself as he does—both of you redeemed sinners. Ask him to help you give to your enemy the mercy God has given to you.

And act as though he has. Don’t feel yourself into a new way of acting—act yourself into a new way of feeling. Step out by faith. Every time the pain wells up inside your heart again, tell yourself again that you have released this person from the prison of their sin. That the ink on the pardon is dry, the deed is done, the forgiveness made.

Third, initiate restoration.

With God’s help, act in courage. Jesus taught us to go directly to the person who sins against us (Matthew 18:15). Tell the person honestly what he or she did to you, and how much this pain has hurt you. They may not even know their injustice or comprehend its severity. If I hurt you, I want to know it. I want you to talk to me, not about me. And I to you. Go to the person in question, with honesty.

Tell this person that you have pardoned him. He may not understand what you mean, or believe it, or accept it. She may never reciprocate what you have done. This is not yours to decide. You must begin the process of healing the relationship, whatever your partner in restoration decides to do.

And find an honest way to a new relationship. To forgive is not to be naïve. It is not to allow an unrepentant, unchanged person to hurt you yet again. Neither is it to assume that they will never change. Seek a wise balance with the wisdom God gives to know what and where you can trust. You may never have the old relationship, but you can have a new one by the mercy of God.

Last, be realistic. We humans forgive slowly, a little at a time, usually with anger left over. One day at a time. Remind yourself that you have forgiven as many times as the pain comes back. And over time, it will come back less. And one day, perhaps, not at all.


To forgive, you must first be forgiven. You cannot give what you have never received. Have you asked Jesus to forgive your sins, to pardon your failures, to be your Savior and Lord? He’s waiting to do just that for you, right now. And to help you give his forgiveness to the person most in need of this gift from you.

Take a little quiz with me. Name the wealthiest person in the world. Name the last Heisman trophy winner, or last winner of the Miss America pageant, or last recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

When you forgive someone for what they did to you, you will never forget it. Neither will they.

This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.