Reading Time: 10 minutes
Forgiveness matters. In fact, it’s part of the bedrock of our relationships. Without forgiveness in our relational world, life would actually become unbearable: Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo tells the gripping story of a man who refuses to forgive. [Spoiler alert] Consumed by bitterness, his plans for revenge destroy the lives of guilty and innocent alike. Forgiveness is particularly important for believers in Christ. That’s because believers are forgiven people. In these verses in Ephesians, the apostle Paul says that believers should forgive, as God has forgiven us. But forgiveness isn’t always easy, is it? It’s particularly hard when the hurt is big, or when the person who caused the hurt refuses to acknowledge what they’ve done. Sometimes, we try to pack so much into the idea of forgiveness that we load ourselves and others with a burden that’s impossible to bear. That’s why we need to understand what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t. Even more importantly, we need to understand why forgiveness matters. When we do, we can see that forgiveness is not only possible for believers, it’s also incredibly powerful for our lives and relationships.
All bitterness and rage and anger and shouting and slander should be put away from you, along with all malice. Become kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God also forgave you in Christ.Ephesians 4:31–32
The word Paul chooses to describe forgiveness here is actually a grace word. It’s all about giving. Because God has graciously given us forgiveness, life, and salvation, we are to graciously give to others by forgiving them. What is forgiveness, according to Paul? It’s the gift we give when we erase someone else’s sin against us from our personal ledger of wrongs. What Paul says here about forgiveness helps us to see what this means in practice, and why it matters so much.
First, the other side
In verse 31, Paul talks about things that are opposite to forgiveness: “All bitterness and rage and anger and shouting and slander should be put away from you, along with all malice”. These are ways we often react when people hurt us, aren’t they? If we let the hurt take over, it can create a gnawing resentment or an internal rage that comes out in destructive behaviour and destructive speech. These things can consume us and destroy our relationships. Are you experiencing any of the things Paul describes here? Is there any bitterness poisoning your soul? Is there rage and anger and shouting welling up inside you because of what someone has done to you? Are you talking about them slanderously, lying about them, or deliberately putting them down and undermining them? Is there malice in you: a vicious spirit seeking revenge? God’s word is telling us here that these things are opposed to forgiveness. And these are the things you must put away. They destroy your life, and the lives of others.
So Paul is opposing forgiveness to bitterness, rage, and malice. Understanding this helps us to be clearer about what forgiveness means. For example, forgiveness is not opposed to justice. You can forgive someone and still seek justice. In fact, sometimes you need to seek justice, especially, for example, if the unjust situation is continuing to impact those who need your protection. Also, forgiveness is not opposed to self-protection. You can forgive someone and still act to protect yourself and other vulnerable people. Forgiveness is not opposed to truth. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to make excuses for a person who hurt you. You can forgive someone even as you acknowledge or testify that they were responsible for doing something bad to you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying that what happened was OK. You can forgive a wrong and still insist that it wasn’t OK. Sometimes you have to keep insisting it wasn’t OK. Forgiveness isn’t opposed to remembering. You can forgive, even if you can’t bring yourself to forget. And forgiveness isn’t opposed to broken relationships. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to be responsible to make sure everything is happy between you and the person who hurt you. You can forgive even in a situation where the other person refuses to acknowledge the wrong or to truly repent.
The attitude of forgiveness
Forgiveness is part of what it means to become a new person in Christ. Paul says: “Become kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another”. In Christ, God has made us a new person. He has given us a new life to live. Living that life involves being renewed. It means becoming more and more what God has made us to be (see Ephesians 4:22–24). Here, Paul describes two attitudes that belong to this new life: kindness and compassion.
Being “kind” means being benevolent or good-willed to someone who needs your help. Kindness is the attitude of a person in a position of strength who does something good for somebody in a position of relative weakness. In Paul’s day, the word “kind” was used to describe the action of rulers and patrons and benefactors towards their subjects and clients. It was also often used of God himself: God is able to be kind because he is so strong. So kindness is an attitude you have when you have something to give, and you deliberately choose to give it. Why should believers in Christ be kind? Because we have so much to give! Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have life and salvation and freedom; the riches of God’s grace in abundance. While we might feel weak in ourselves, we are strong in Christ. This enables us to be kind to others. And that means we can forgive them. Forgiveness isn’t a display of weakness. It’s a display of kindness and strength.
We are also to become “compassionate”. This literally means “having healthy guts”. Paul is talking here about our gut reactions, our emotions. He’s saying that believing in Christ can and should make a difference to our feelings. In particular, our feelings of rage and bitterness and malice should be replaced by feelings of compassion and tender-heartedness. While this can be a slow process, we know that God is at work in us, by his Spirit, to make it happen. And that healing of our emotions can indeed go a long way towards enabling us to forgive.
The model of forgiveness
God himself provides us with a model of forgiveness. Paul says we should forgive “as God also forgave you in Christ”. Paul has already described God’s forgiveness in his letter this way: “God has given us this grace in the one he dearly loves. In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of offenses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6–7). This forgiveness is at the heart of our relationship with God. God has erased our sins, removed his wrath from us, and raised us from death to life. He has been incredibly kind and compassionate to us. And we now face a secure and glorious future through Christ. Because God has forgiven us, we have a reason—and the strength—to forgive others. As God has erased our sins and sees us as holy and blameless through Christ, so we can and should seek to do the same to others: to erase the sins of others from our ledger of wrongs.
This is where it’s very important to be clear about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. Forgiveness means erasing the sins of others from your personal ledger of wrongs. That doesn’t depend on other people. It’s something you can do. You have the power to do it, and nobody can stop you. Of course, there are other things that can flow from, and often happen alongside, forgiveness: things like repentance and acknowledgement and reconciliation and human justice and restoration of relationship. These things do depend on others. And these things are certainly good to seek and pray for. But let’s be clear: you can forgive somebody without these other things happening. You can erase somebody’s sins from your personal ledger of wrongs whether or not they repent, and whether or not justice is done, and whether or not the relationship is restored. Forgiveness is something you’re not dependent on others to do. It’s yours to give.
Now you might ask: Isn’t God’s forgiveness also connected to other things like repentance and reconciliation? Yes, it is. But that’s why we need to be precise as we read what Paul says here. We’re told to forgive like God, not to be like God in every possible way that’s connected with forgiveness. Actually, when you think about it, that would be impossible. We don’t, for example, have to act like God by granting our holy spirit to people we forgive, leading them to repentance. We don’t have to act like God by bringing unity and reconciliation to the world all by ourselves. In other words, when we forgive, we don’t also have to act as the omnipotent supreme Lord of creation and salvation. When we forgive, reconciliation and repentance and restoration of relationship don’t always happen. Sometimes they do, which is a great joy. And we can seek them and ask for them and pray for them. But they don’t always happen. And we can’t make them happen. So Paul’s instruction to forgive like God is an instruction to forgive. Our forgiveness doesn’t depend on others. And that’s why it’s so powerful.
Forgiveness in action
So then, if you’re a believer in Christ: How are you going at grace? How are you going at giving? How are you going at forgiving? Do you hold on to hurts? Do you nurse the bitterness and fan the rage and malice into flame? If you do this, even in the little things, turn around and lift your eyes to what God has done for you in Christ. He has forgiven you. So you can forgive.
Maybe you’ve been hurt very, very badly by someone. Maybe someone has sinned hideously against you. Maybe they’ve abused you or used their power against you. Maybe they’ve robbed you of a piece of you. Or maybe you’re even unjustly imprisoned, like Paul who’s writing this letter. If that’s you, then I want you to know I’m not using my words to compel or force you to forgive. I’m not going to keep telling you to forgive until you cave in to my demands (and I hope you never do that to someone who’s been hurt deeply). Instead, I’m going to do what Paul keeps doing in Ephesians. I’m going to remind you of who you are. You are a child of God, dearly loved by him. In the very next verse, Paul says: “So then, become imitators of God, as dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1). God loves you deeply. And he is strong. This is where the power to forgive comes from. Even if you don’t feel it right now, you are, in fact, completely secure in his love for you. God loves you so much. He chose to give to you. He has so much to give, and he gave it. He loves you. You can tell that he loves you because Jesus died for you. And because you’re a dearly loved child of God, you have the power to forgive. You have the power to be kind and compassionate, like your loving heavenly Father is. You can be powerful in this, like God.
And there’s nobody who can take that power of forgiveness away from you.
Yes, there might also be a need for reconciliation which may simply mean seeking human justice (I’m using the word ‘reconciliation’ here in the sense of ‘putting things right’, and may or may not come hand-in-hand with any repentance on the part of the wrongdoer). That process of reconciliation often depends on others. Certainly, if there’s going to be any hope of a restoration of relationship, the person who wronged you will need to repent, and that’s up to them. But even without these things, you yourself have the power to forgive. And that power doesn’t depend on anyone else’s actions or attitudes. They have no power over you in this. With the help of your loving heavenly Father, you can let go of the bitterness, rage, the anger, the shouting, the slander, and the malice. You can let that go, and you can give. You can forgive, because you are forgiven, and you a dearly loved child of God.
How does God’s grace in Christ help you to see you have the power to forgive others?
Is there a situation in your life where you need to let go of malice and forgive someone?
 Alexandre Dumas (Père), The Count of Monte Cristo (trans. Robin Buss; London: Penguin, 1996).
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.