I am feeling pressure from my particular faith. It seems to me that if I do not forgive, I am in trouble. Can you help me?

It is not unusual for me to hear this kind of worry: “Uh-oh, I had better forgive or else I will not be forgiven by God and so I am eternally condemned.”  Yet, as I have studied this particular belief system to see if I can alleviate that worry, I find that many people misunderstand these issues coming from faith.  In reflecting on the religious exhortation to forgive, I am convinced that the kind of thinking described here is incorrect.

Take, for instance, the Lord’s Prayer in the Christian faith, in which people ask to be forgiven only as they forgive.  Taken out of context by focusing exclusively on this one theme in the prayer, this idea seems to be a grim and perhaps scary command.

Yet, in its broader context, it is all about love.  After all, the one who is praying begins with one of the most intimate and loving set of words by saying, “Our Father.” In other words, the one who prays is saying, “I am in a loving relationship.  My loving Father values forgiving. I, too, out of love, want to do the same.  As I love my Father, I will forgive and be forgiven.”  This is a petition of love to uplift, not a grim obligation to bring a person down.  The motivation here is to love God and to show it by forgiving.

For more information, listen to Dr. Enright discuss forgiveness from a religious perspective as a guest on The Drew Mariani Show, a production of Relevant Radio.

I have noticed that in both Hebrew and Christian scripture the central stories of person-to-person forgiveness focus on family issues only. Does this imply that we are to forgive only family members because of the love we share? Maybe it is too hard to forgive strangers.

While the story of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers in the Hebrew scriptures and the story of the father forgiving his Prodigal Son in the Christian scriptures center on family issues, there are other passages showing the importance of forgiving people who are not family. Consider the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew chapter 18. In this story, the king forgives a servant who owes a large debt. That servant then refuses to forgive the debt of another servant, who is not a family member. The king is very unhappy about this lack of forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in Matthew chapter 6, people are exhorted to forgive and this is not centered on family members only. Thus, it appears that scripture does not focus on family only when teaching us about the importance of forgiving others.

For additional information, see the “Faith and Religion” page on this website.