The answer lies in Jesus’ profound words as He taught us how to pray to our Heavenly Father: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus reveals to us the truth of eternal record keeping: God keeps the books, and only He can truly forgive sins and wipe away transgressions. The Bible instructs us to “forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13, NIV). The steps to our forgiveness of others mirror the steps to God’s forgiveness of us. The same eternal, holy Debt Collector takes responsibility for the forgiveness and the collection of our debt, as well as the debts owed to us by others.
Imagine that you are a business owner, and your customers have run up a heavy load of debt that is keeping you from balancing your books. You may eventually realize that it is a wise business decision to turn the past due amounts over to a debt collector to free yourself to get on with new business. A trustworthy debt collector will assume the responsibility for getting restitution for these debts, so you can turn your attention to more productive opportunities. You have delegated the task, and it no longer occupies a prominent position in your day-to-day operations.
Now imagine that a Debt Collector exists who not only takes over the past due amounts others owe you, but also agrees to let you turn over your own debt as well. What if He says, “Don’t worry about paying all these people you owe. I’ll cover it for you.” Wouldn’t it be great to get out of debt? Can you image how liberating it would feel to be debt free? “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). God is the ultimate Debt Collector. Not only can He free us from our own debt of sin, but if we will let Him, He can also take on the responsibility of collecting the debts others owe to us from past sins against us. We can delegate the job of collecting those debts to God, and free ourselves to focus on more productive pursuits.
If this sounds too good to be true, you might have a few questions:
Do I have to forgive? Is it really necessary?
Unforgiveness can create many problems in our lives, including personal unhappiness, broken relationships with other people, and even distance in our relationship with God. That’s why Jesus instructs us in Mark 11:25 (NIV), “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” We see this message again in Luke 6:37 (NKJV), when Jesus says, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Forgiveness is necessary to have healthy relationships with God and others.
Does this mean I’m letting them off the hook?
Not at all. It means we’re putting them on God’s hook. In Proverbs, we are reminded, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the LORD, and He will deliver you” (Proverbs 20:22, ESV). We have simply relinquished the responsibility for collecting the debt to Someone better equipped to do the job. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:19 (NIV) “Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me. I will pay them back, declares the Lord.’”
Does this mean that what they did doesn’t matter?
Absolutely not. God cares deeply about our pain: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8, NLT). It simply means that we’re putting God in charge of exacting retribution, or choosing to forgive, based on their relationship with Him. And you can be assured that God’s vengeance trumps ours, every time, as does His capacity for forgiveness.
Let’s also consider what forgiveness isn’t:
Forgiveness does not involve denying the gravity of an offense or making light of a transgression.
Minimizing an offense does not take away the hurt; it only compounds the injury by communicating a sense of insignificance to the one who has been harmed. It’s not appropriate simply to say, “That’s ok,” and try to go on as if nothing has happened. The truth is that the sin occurred; it is not ok, and we have been changed by it.
Forgiveness does not mean everything automatically goes back to normal.
Sometimes the damage done is irreversible: A drunk driver who kills someone may be terribly sorry but cannot undo the wrong that has been done, or even begin to atone for it. Lives have been irreversibly altered by the transgression.
Forgiveness does not always mean the relationship will be restored.
It is often wisest to keep a healthy distance from an offender, especially an unrepentant one, for both physical and emotional protection from further harm.
While the concept of forgiveness may sound good in theory, it may seem impossible to enact in real life with real people and real hurts. How can we begin the process of freeing ourselves by forgiving others? As Christians, we already have God’s perfect example of the forgiveness process based on His forgiveness of us. In fact, if we look at them side by side, it’s easy to see that the steps to God’s forgiveness of us parallel the steps to our forgiveness of others.
Steps to God’s Forgiveness of Us:
Acknowledge the sin – we understand that our sin separates us from God and we admit that we need a Savior: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:28, NIV). It is helpful to remember that we don’t have to be perfect to be accepted by God: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, NIV).
Give the debt created by our sin to Christ, and accept His redeeming sacrifice on the cross for us. He has paid our debt by accepting the punishment for our sin, which is now covered by His blood, and through Christ we receive forgiveness and healing. “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV). By accepting Christ’s gift of salvation, we are no longer imprisoned by the debt of our sin. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24, NAS).
Repent – Don’t return to sin. Remove yourself from the influence of temptation: “flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11, NKJV). We can trust God to help us get free from our past: “He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, NLT). God promises multiple times in both the Old and New Testaments not only to clear away our debt of sin, but completely to forget that the sin ever happened! "I--yes, I alone--will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again” (Isaiah 43:25, NLT). “I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget they ever sinned!” (Jeremiah 31:34, MSG). “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12, NKJV). "I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds" (Hebrews 10:17, NLT).
Step into a new life in Christ! “Behold I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5, KJV). “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT). We are made new in Him, and He has an exciting plan for our lives as we follow Him along the path He promises to guide us in. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).
Steps to Our Forgiveness of Others:
Acknowledge the sin – don’t minimize or try to discredit the seriousness of what happened. You have been wronged, and the harm to you is real and worthy of acknowledgment.
Give the offender’s debt to God to be collected. We are no longer responsible for the burden of holding the other person’s account, and we require nothing further from them. It is not our job to demand restitution, or even an apology. If we agree to give that responsibility to the Divine Debt Collector, He will collect or forgive the debt, depending on whether or not the offender is also willing to give the debt to Jesus. God is the judge; we are not, and what a relief that is!
Move forward and claim your freedom in Christ! When that past offense comes to mind and tries to resume its position as a debt that still needs to be paid, simply remember that this debt has been passed on to a Debt Collector who is much more effective than we are at inspiring repentance, and then get back to living a new life, free from the weight of carrying someone else’s debt.
Let God redeem the hurt done to you. God promises in His word to “restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten” (Joel 2:25, KJV). We are “more than conquerors” in Christ Jesus! (Romans 8:37, KJV). We are also “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, KJV), and the suffering we have endured has uniquely equipped us to empathize with the pain of others who may be a few steps behind us on the path to redemption. If God calls you to do so, be willing to share what He has done for you, and reach out to someone who may currently be stuck in unforgiveness. Because you have experienced hurt personally, you may be the best trail guide to help others who are struggling to find their way back onto the right path, just as Jesus fully understands our joys and sorrows because He lived among us and experienced all the facets of humanity personally.
In the same way that God’s forgiveness has freed us from the debt of sin in our own lives, forgiveness of others frees us from the debt of sin owed to us. By allowing God to be the Debt Collector, we can be relieved of the responsibility of settling accounts, both our own with God, and others’ with us. For those struggling to get free, a trained, professional counselor can help facilitate this process. Our counselors at Christian Counseling Connection are ready to journey with you along the path to healing and wholeness.
Blessings to you!
M. Catherine (Cathy) Downen, MA, MA, LPC, NCC
Founder, Christian Counseling Connection, LLC