If a check bounces, it’s because you didn’t make sure there were sufficient funds in your bank account. If your chocolate soufflé comes out just right, it’s probably the result of painstakingly following the recipe. (However, if it rains in the middle of the afternoon, it is not because you didn’t grab an umbrella before leaving home, even if it feels that way.)
Causality is the principle that every occurrence is the upshot of some other action—that is to say, there’s a definite relationship between cause and effect. Situations, whether problematic or pleasurable, don’t just randomly create themselves.
Scene on the Loire, 19th century (watercolour on paper), by Joseph Mallord William Turner
This is not the same thing as fatalism, the belief that all events are predetermined and, therefore, we are powerless to change them. On the contrary, causality involves a certain level of responsibility and choice, at least in situations where people are part of the equation. We see this link between cause and effect in human interactions, perhaps not as obviously as the way a carton of milk left out overnight will greet you with an awful smell in the morning, but in the way words and actions tend to provoke various reactions.
Read Matthew 18:21-35
Before opening your Bible, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what He wants you to take away from this passage. Then read the section, jotting down your first impressions: What questions do you have? Is anything confusing? Which verses speak into your present situation, and how?
Scripture shows us that cause-and-effect also plays a role in our relationship and fellowship with the Lord. The last section of Matthew 18 paints a vivid picture of the importance of forgiveness, and in the closing verse, Jesus warns His followers about neglecting this teaching or taking it lightly.
There are several other passages that highlight either promises or warnings in relation to forgiveness. For example:
• If we admit our sins to God without making excuses and are ready to change our ways, then He will forgive and deliver us (2 Chronicles 7:14).
• If we forgive others when they sin against us, then our own prayers of confession will be effective (Matt. 6:14-15).
• If we believe in Jesus Christ, then we will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
• If we place our trust in Jesus and confess Him as Savior and Lord, then we will be saved (Rom. 10:9).
• If we confess our sins, then God will purify us (1 John 1:9).
These verses are not saying our salvation depends on us, but there is an action we have to take in receiving the forgiveness and eternal life God freely offers. And this back-and-forth with God doesn’t end at the moment of redemption. Just as our friendships, marriages and other relationships are regularly affected by actions and words—whether for good or bad—so is our fellowship with God either hindered or enhanced by our deeds, choices, and attitudes.
Our refusal to forgive has an impact not only on our relationship with that person but also on our communion with God.
When we feel hurt or angry because of someone else’s behavior, it can be tempting to let the situation become a dividing wall. What we often don’t recognize is how our refusal to forgive has an impact not only on our relationship with that person but also on our communion with God.
Write your thoughts in a journal.
• In Matthew 18, Jesus tells His disciples to be generous in their willingness to forgive, to the point that they lose count of how many times they forgive someone of a repeated sin. Many Christians hold God to this standard and expect Him to immediately and unconditionally clear their slate whenever they go to Him and confess their sins. It’s probably safe to say that most of us are not quite so prepared to forgive others when they apologize to us.
• The unfortunate effect of unforgiveness is that our spiritual feet get stuck and we can’t move forward in our walk with God. That’s the point of Psalm 66:18: If we harbor bitterness in our hearts, then we are allowing sin to block our prayers. What’s more, if we are unwilling to obey God in one area, it then becomes difficult to obey Him in another. And if we can’t love a brother or sister in Christ, our testimony will have the potential of confusing observers.
• On the other hand, if we remember how much God has forgiven us, then it’s easier to recognize we’re not in a position to lord someone else’s sin over him or her. If we are willing to extend grace to another person, then we can experience joy in that restored relationship. And if we forgive quickly, we can avoid pitfalls that hinder a thriving and effective relationship with God.
In each of the following passages, how is forgiveness demonstrated (or withheld)?
• Genesis 45:1-15
• 2 Samuel 12:1-14
• John 8:1-11
• Luke 15:11-24
• Luke 23:33-34
• Acts 6:8-15; Acts 7:55-60
Ask God to reveal relationships or situations that have become a hindrance to your spiritual growth or a source of bitterness. Consider reasons for your difficulty to forgive, and pray for the courage and humility to overcome those obstacles.
• Theologian Lewis B. Smedes is quoted as saying, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Think back to times people have forgiven you. Make a list of situations that stand out, and note the outcome of receiving grace from the person you hurt or offended. Contrast this with situations that were left unresolved and how they affected you.
• Memorize Ephesians 4:31-32.
• Read Matthew 5:22-24 and then make a list of people you need to forgive. Resolve to make peace with them as soon as possible. Once you do, note the outcome. How did extending grace make you feel? How did it affect your relationship with those people? How did it affect your fellowship with God?