The Pattern and Power to Forgive (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. ³² Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. —Ephesians 4:31-32
Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice are words that describe the tone of worldly discourse. Stated differently, they are resentments fueling distorted and damaging accusations blurted out with extreme anger in order to do others harm. This is the everyday stuff of social media. And Christians aren’t immune.
But in Christ, we have a new nature. He calls us out of our old worldly ways and into new life in Him. And yet, are we not still prone to flashes of anger, hasty responses, jumping to conclusions, and believing the worst, especially after all the disagreements of the past two years?
Instead of That, This
I have felt my blood pressure rising in the midst of conversations with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s at this moment that I need God’s help to turn from my natural response, the one that rises seemingly on its own. This is why Paul writes—to show us a better way. There’s an implied instead between verses 31 and 32. Instead of bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, we who are in Christ are to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving of the very offenses that, without Christ, would give rise to all those sinful responses.
Pattern and Power
But how? How can I stop doing what feels so natural and instead do what is foreign to me? This is where the as comes in. Paul says stop doing that, and instead, do this “as God in Christ forgave you.” He says it more strongly in Colossians 3:13, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” This as phrase is both our pattern to follow and the power to do it.
Forgive as God forgave you. How did He forgive us? Generously, willingly, graciously, lovingly, sacrificially. Jesus went to the cross and took upon Himself the full burden of all of our sin, and for that, He received the full blow of God’s wrath—the punishment that should have landed on us.
In light of what it cost Jesus to forgive us, how can we indulge our own wrath and be stingy in forgiving others? To do that is like me receiving a pardon for burning down an entire forest, then turning in rage against someone who burned down my favorite candle.
The sacrificial death of God’s sinless Son is also the means to obedience. We can put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice when we are redeemed by Christ because He gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26), gives us His mind (1 Corinthians 2:16), and fills us with His Spirit who empowers us to obey (Ephesians 3:16-21, Romans 1:5).
Strive in His Strength
But we must make an effort. Meditating on these truths is one of the means God uses to motivate our obedience. Rehearsing what is true about me—I have a new nature, I have the mind of Christ, I can take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ, sin’s power has been broken, I don’t have to respond in anger—knowing these truths deeply in my inner being helps me to live them out.
In a moment of frustration, when I want to respond harshly with a sharp word of disagreement, the Holy Spirit reminds me that I am to put away wrath. When I’m tempted to bitterness over a past hurt or offense, He whispers to my heart, “Think what it cost God to forgive your infinite offense against Him. This slight you’re so agitated about is a trifle, it is nothing in comparison.”
Having a new nature won’t mean that we never feel a surge of anger or the weight of bitterness in this life. But how we respond to those emotional urges matters. Do we strive to be holy as God is holy? Do we work to forgive others, to be tenderhearted and kind? Jesus said we would be known by our fruit. What is the flavor of our emotional lives, of the responses that most often flow out of our mouths?
John Piper puts it like this:
If the forgiveness that we received at the cost of the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is so ineffective in our hearts that we are bent on holding unforgiving grudges and bitterness against someone, we are not a good tree. We are not saved. We don’t cherish this forgiveness. We don’t trust in this forgiveness. We don’t embrace and treasure this forgiveness. ("If I Fail to Forgive Others, Will God Not Forgive Me?")
As God in Christ Jesus forgave you, forgive others because “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).
May we run to Jesus for the help to forgive others as God has forgiven us, clinging in hope to His promise that, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
What, or who, tempts you to hold onto grudges and withhold forgiveness?
Ask God to forgive your unforgiveness and help you to grasp the depths of what you've been forgiven by God in Christ Jesus.
Pray for the person, or people, you need to forgive. Ask God to bless them and help you to love them.
Candice Watters is the Fighter Verses blog editor. She is a wife and mom, and author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, and co-author with her husband Steve of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. The Watterses have four children and are passionate about encouraging moms and dads to disciple their children.