My good friend died recently. She told me she never wanted to see or speak to her two sisters. One sister had an affair with my friend’s husband, and the other sister defended her actions. I guess my friend never forgave her sisters. Does God take you to heaven when you persist in unforgiveness?
Even a quick reading of the Gospels is sufficient for the reader to realize how important forgiveness is to the Christian life. The spiritual life of every believer begins with an act of divine forgiveness. All sins are washed away. Having said this, however, how are we to understand those who do not want to forgive, or can’t seem to forgive? There are two directions one can take. First, an unwillingness to forgive is a sign that one is not walking in the light of God’s continual grace. Such an individual will not experience intimacy with God where His peace and rest fill the heart. But since God has already forgiven all of their sins, and since the act of not forgiving another is a sin, people caught in the grip of unforgiveness will still experience the full eschatological promises of God.
The second direction is to argue that an inability or an unwillingness to forgive, when it becomes a defining aspect of one’s spiritual life, can be a sign that one has not truly embraced the forgiveness of God in the first place. Forgiveness has a transformative quality. It is not merely passive, where your debts are no longer charged against you. The very act of being forgiven transforms people’s heart to such a degree that they forgive others who have sinned against them. They have been gifted with a new heart and spirit. In this view, an inability to forgive is a sign of a dead spirit. See Matthew 18:23–35 for Jesus’ parable that explores the relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others.
As for your friend, God knows her heart. His mercy is great. And this very fact is one reason each of us should be careful of persisting in unforgiveness. We have been forgiven much, and should follow the example of Christ in forgiving those who sin against us.