Can God ever refuse to forgive?

The Bible is not clear on all things. But it’s absolutely clear on our need to forgive people when they hurt us.

We must forgive

In Matthew’s gospel, the disciple Peter comes to Jesus and says ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ And Jesus says to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ Jesus is telling us that we need to forgive and forgive and go on forgiving until we can no longer count how many times we have forgiven.

Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, ‘Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ And, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul also says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

But why do we need to forgive others?

I was talking about all this in Church recently and how we must forgive others.

But why, you might ask. Why is it so important to forgive?

Well, I would say that it’s important because that is the good and right thing to do, what Jesus tells us to do. But also, because not forgiving is a form of self harm.

Not forgiving is a form of self harm.

And because God loves us, he does not want us to harm ourselves. He doesn’t want the poisonous seeds of anger and indignation to take root in our hearts and grow into bitterness, resentment and hatred.

So we are told to be quick to forgive - as soon as someone hurts us. Before those seeds can get in and grow and be much harder to uproot.

What does this tell us about God?

But what does all this tell us about God?

Of course, there are lots of verses in the Bible that speak of God’s mercy and his willingness to forgive us, come what may.

But then there are also verses about God’s anger. And sometimes about both.

The prophet Micah says,
‘Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over the transgression…?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
because he delights in showing clemency.
He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.’

It seems that God is capable of anger – when he sees injustice and how we hurt each other and creation. But he is quick to forgive.

And I wonder whether this is not only because that’s the good and right thing to do. But, perhaps, also to protect himself from that anger getting lodged in his own heart and taking root there.

In Isaiah 43.25-26 God says ‘I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.’

Do you notice how God says in this verse that He forgives for His own sake? Not just our own sakes.

Must God always forgive?

But does God always forgive?

Well, if we believe the contrary - that God doesn’t always forgive, then are we willing to concede, therefore, that there must be pockets of bitterness and resentment in God’s heart, even hatred?

This seems completely unimaginable if we believe in God as the person we see in Jesus – the person who gives His life on the cross for sinners. And who cries out for God to forgive even the unrepentant religious leaders and Roman soldiers who are nailing him to the cross.

If we truly believe that God is all loving then it seems to me impossible that He is not all forgiving too.