1. We tend to categorize sin, even unconsciously.
In a list from one to ten, what tops your “unforgiveness” list? Murder? Betrayal? Corruption? Brutality? Or what about pride, deceit, neglect, or hypocrisy? Without a doubt, forgiveness is more difficult when that sin action affects us or our loved ones.
I wonder how Jesus would categorize sin.
Can you visualize Him as he observes a group of hypocritical leaders who have thrown an adulterous woman into the center of their circle? Jesus writes something in the dirt and makes one of those piercing statements He’s known for: Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 NIV).
Then, one by one, the men slink away, dropping their stones on the sandy terrain. I wonder what sins those stones represented? Big, little? Unforgivable (according to some)? But Jesus’ accusation answers the dilemma about how He or His Father categorizes sin.
And what about forgiveness? Jesus turns to the woman who stoops, hands covering her head, and He asks her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10 NIV).
Slowly, she looks up and around, shaking her head, no.
Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. And Jesus, who grants her forgiveness, adds this command: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11 NIV). I expect Jesus also implies the action of forgiving herself, as well as others.
2. We don’t understand the human heart.
We don’t understand the old nature of the heart and the one who wants to tempt us, just as he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Even having received the new nature of a Christ-follower, we are still commanded to guard our hearts at all costs. The heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). The one who thinks he can’t fall may inevitably do so.
That even happened to Jesus’ disciples, even though they spent three years of intensive teaching at the feet of Jesus. Like a Jewish Rabbi investing in the lives of his students and followers, He poured His life into them, training them from daylight to dark as disciples who would change the world with His message.
But Judas betrayed the Son of God. He never repented, so he abandoned the opportunity for forgiveness. And Peter wasn’t the only other disciple to turn away. Yes, he denied Jesus three times, contrary to the prideful ignorance of his own heart (Mark 14:72). But on the night of His betrayal, the other disciples ran and left Jesus alone too. No one stayed to help. And the only one of the 12 disciples mentioned at Jesus’ crucifixion was the beloved John, whom Jesus delegated with the care of His mother after His death.
The mind can point, even if our fingers don’t. “I would never…” has probably been spoken silently 70 X 7 times, as innumerable as our command from Jesus to forgive. We think we are above and exempt from a certain sinful behavior, that we would never be guilty of “that.” Pride makes us an easy target for our enemy. But understanding our own tendency to sin can help us see others—and forgiveness—in a new light.
The heart that is honest about its weakness will find power and strength in asking God’s Holy Spirit to stand guard in every temptation. And God can and will make a way. None of us are strong enough in our own power to withstand sin. That’s why Jesus died for us.
And what if we are the ones who can’t forgive ourselves? Who are we to declare “unforgivable” when God has already applied His grace to our sin, once and for all? Expecting perfection from ourselves will keep us in a deep rut of unforgiveness. Our spiritual growth is a process, too. But maybe our problem is, that we don’t really understand God’s heart or His grace.