The concepts of mercy and grace are cornerstones of Christian salvation, but do the spiritual attributes of mercy and grace have anything to do with our personal relationships with others? We know Jesus, “…came to seek and to save what was lost.” Luke 9:10 He did so by becoming the substitutionary sacrifice for our sin; offering forgiveness and heaven in exchange for a recognition of need, acknowledgement of responsibility and repentance of sin. But to what extent does being merciful apply to us? We certainly can’t “forgive” sin, but we are to, “Be imitators of God.” Ephesians 5:1; modeling our lives on the revelation Jesus gives of a righteous life. He being, “…the exact representation…” of God. Hebrews 1:3; we being told – by Him – to, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful!” Luke 6:36

That’s difficult to do as it goes against human nature. And yet, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7 Which often entails realizing the various ways people need us and responding appropriately. (James 2:14-18) In dealing specifically with forgiveness everyone would agree it’s a nice thought – something we ought to do – and there appears to be ample evidence that our own forgiveness and acceptance before God hinges on it. Jesus pointedly discussing the self-righteous attitudes of some with his disciples, warning that their failure to lead by example could keep them from heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

The Lord’s Prayer cites the forgiving nature that should be the hallmark of every Christians prayer, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Luke 11:4 In fact, Mark records Jesus as citing one possible hindrance to answered prayer as being an unforgiving attitude. “…when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25 (See also Matthew 5:23,24) With the assurance that, “…if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14

Some people are hard to put up with. They’re mean, foul-mouthed, self-centered, and spiteful; actually taking pride in their contrariness and sin, making it difficult to forgive what someone isn’t sorry for. Paul going so far as to warn that developing intimate relationships with people living a contrary lifestyle could be harmful in a number of ways, as “Bad company corrupts good character.” 1 Corinthians 15:33 But that doesn’t exempt us from being willing to forgive people who express a genuine desire to be forgiven or even when they don’t fully realize the need. We are to, “Bear with each other (putting up with those we don’t always find agreeable) and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13 And how was that? God’s heart being amply demonstrated in that, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 Before we understood our need, acknowledged our debt, repented of our sin; Christ died for us. Not ignoring intentional sin, but giving us a chance to understand and respond, then giving us room to grow. We must be willing to do the same, for judgment will come to us all (Romans 14:10), our freedom from the punishment of sin being found in Christ alone; but “…judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” James 2:13

Which leads us to the question of holding grudges. Is it a pleasant experience? Does it vindicate us or make us better people? Have you ever had someone hold a grudge against you? Was that pleasant? We feel awkward, uneasy and out-of-sorts regardless of which side of the grudge we’re on. That’s why Paul instructs, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold.” Ephesians 4:27 Don’t let hurt feelings, anger or misunderstanding hang around – sleeping on it usually won’t help – the problem will still be there when you awaken; having disrupted your sleep, leaving you on edge and in no shape to handle the issue any better. Problems should be dealt with, not while in the midst of an argument and still “fighting mad” but in a timely manner. Try to ascertain what was actually said and done, why that was so and resolve the issue if at all possible. If not, simply move on; James instructing us to, “…be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19

On a practical level, what are the consequences of our not developing a forgiving heart? Holding grudges, remembering slights, refusing to forgive, separates US from God. For even the best of us sin, needing forgiveness. (James 2:10) We often carelessly say things we shouldn’t and do things without thinking that are destructive of relationships and damaging to our witness. You may not steal but do you covet? Coveting being defined as greed for gain, wanting something someone else has; which – unchecked – leads to theft. (Exodus 20:17) Have you ever lusted; for things or a person? Lust being an intense desire for and an imagining of possibilities – possessing the object of your desire in your mind – the first step to the accomplishment of such in the physical realm. (Matthew 5:28) Have you ever engaged in name-calling? (How bad can that be?) Jesus equating it with murder when we destroy a person’s self-esteem and drive them away from faith in Christ. (Matthew 5:21,23) We are instructed not to be judgmental, which can be confusing. (Matthew 7:1-5) For we must be discerning – knowing right from wrong; at times holding others accountable but not to a standard we can’t or won’t attempt to honor ourselves.

Jesus was pointedly questioned one day about forgiveness. Specifically – how many times are we responsible to forgive an individual? Seven times? Surely that’s more than enough; as most men, then and now, ascribe to the sentiment of – ‘Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me.’ Really now – how much is enough? What did Jesus say? “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” What?! Am I supposed to be someone’s punching bag, unable to think for myself or stand against wrong? No. That’s not the point at all. (We are, however, challenged to put up with a lot to preserve and extend our witness – see Matthew 5:38-42) But if we begin setting inflexible limits, we may prematurely cut off our contact with people who really need us and what we have. We must also remember that God forgives us –daily – for sins of commission (things done that shouldn’t be) and omission (things not done that should). James 4:17 If God only forgave you seven times in your life-time, what shape would you be in? Jesus told a parable about an unmerciful servant who had been forgiven much but was disinclined to do the same for someone else and was severely punished as a result. Jesus ending this lesson by saying, “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35