Forgiveness, we hear about it in church, we constantly read about it in the Bible as well as all around us. Forgiveness however, is probably one of the most misunderstood topics in the Bible. Especially today, when forgiveness has become no more than a therapeutic way in which we can detach ourselves from those who have harmed us in one way or another. But the root and the true heart of forgiveness is a lot deeper and richer than what most of us may realize.
There are also so many questions that can be asked about forgiveness and here are just a few of them:
- Do we forgive God?
- How do we forgive ourselves?
- Should we wait for the one who has hurt us to say they are sorry before we forgive them?
- How can we forgive those who seem to be unrepentant?
- What does real and genuine repentance actually look like?
So, what does forgiveness look like? Is it seen as a single act or is it a process? Is it something we wait for until we feel ready to forgive? Do we require that the other person repent or is it something that is personal and internal, something we do just for ourselves? If we forgive, does this actually mean that we have to immediately return to a persistently abusive relationship? These and a ton of other questions require very careful answers and the best way to find those answers is by carefully listening to the man we call Jesus, who is the master of forgiveness.
What is Forgiveness?
One of Jesus’ most compressed and succinct statements about forgiveness was recorded in Luke 17:3-4. Jesus said to his disciples about forgiveness:
“Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tired around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Jesus set some pretty high values for His followers and those values came with a warning about causing others to sin. This means that we all need to be on guard against causing others to sin. We also need to resist the temptation to keep those who have sinned against us to an emotional penalty box, which means making them serve endless time for their offenses. The apostles cried out to Jesus after hearing his words by saying “Increase our faith!” They said this because they knew they needed His help in order to be as forgiving as He asked them to be.
Forgiveness Starts With Being Honest
Jesus’ words were quite deceptively simple when He said: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them” But they also show foundational aspects to the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
By using the terms brother and sister puts this comment in the context of relationship and serves as a reminder for us that the main place forgiveness needs to be expressed is in the community of faith. His words carry a lot of wisdom for everyone who hears them, but originally they were first meant for the church. Christians, more than any other people on earth are to forgive one another.
We also need to remember that Jesus is talking about sin, especially about a person who “sins against you”. Many things may irritate, annoy or even upset us about someone. These things may require patience and endurance but they do not involve forgiveness.
Often we may believe that someone may have wronged us, however the truth be known it may be jealousy, insecurity or even ambition that is distorting our perspective. A person who may disagree with us or who hurts our feelings doesn’t necessarily need our forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that actually operates in the realm of sin, or when God’s standards of behavior are violated. This then, is what requires forgiveness.
Forgiveness shouldn’t and actually cannot be our very first response to something, it also cannot ignore the reality of evil. If an act can be excused then it needs to be understood rather than forgiven. Forgiveness in reality is more about the inexcusable and it does not ignore or deny sin, nor does it turn a blind eye. Such a response would indulge sin instead of dealing with it through the extremely hard work of forgiveness.
We also need to understand that forgiveness doesn’t trivialize sin by trying to put it in the best possible light. C.S. Lewis once said:
“Real forgiveness, means steadily looking at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice.”
Jesus did not mean to bury the sin under the naive assumption that “time heals all wounds”. Time can heal clean wounds. However, soiled wounds will fester and infect a person. If we try to suppress the sins done to us will pump poison into our lives.
Jesus doesn’t want us to simply forget the sin as suggested in the old cliche “forgive and forget.” This often gets credence by quoting the biblical idea that God “forgets” our sins. “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” (Heb. 10:17)
So, does this really mean that our sins are erased from God’s memory? Well, if that were really true then He wouldn’t be the all knowing God we believe Him to be. He didn’t really forget His people’s sins, but they were recorded for future generations so they could learn from them.
When God forgives us of our sins what He is doing is no longer holding them against us. What is key here is not that we forget but what we do when we remember that someone has done wrong to us. Gregory Jones once said:
“It is largely a mistake to say, ‘Forgive and forget.’ Rather, the judgment of grace enables us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to remember well. When God promises to ‘blot out transgressions’ and ‘not remember sins’, Bod is not simply letting bygones be bygones. Rather, God is testifying to God’s own gracious faithfulness.”
In truth, the only way to really forgive is by remembering. We simply can’t make a simplistic connection between forgiving and forgetting. True forgiveness requires a very careful look at what has actually happened.
Sometimes we may need to come to terms with what God has allowed to happen in our lives. Sometimes we need to vent our anger about this and our disappointment with how He is working in our lives. This OK, He has broad shoulders, however, we cannot forgive God because God does not sin, so, we need to remember this when it comes to forgiveness. We also need to understand how we can forgive ourselves and that there are times that we need to do so. If a person has sinned, then they are the offender but sometimes don’t believe they are also the victim. But when we sin, we are both the offender and the victim because sin is something that always boomerangs back to us. Because of this sin we will often feel shame, anger and disappointment in ourselves and want to get rid of these feelings. In order to do so, we need to forgive ourselves. However, there is the danger that we may turn this self forgiveness inward so that our focus is only on our feelings instead of what we have done to cause these feelings. Instead, we need to experience deep repentance and a character transformation in order to have a true emotional release.
It is through the grace of God and genuine repentance along with the forgiveness of God that will restore our joy!
We Must Confront the Sin Courageously
Jesus tell us that we must confront the sin courageously when he says “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them” Jesus is saying that we need to hold people accountable for their behavior. This means that we need to carefully and prayerfully determine the nature of their behavior. So, if it is truly sinful then we cannot and must not ignore it.
Jesus is telling us that we must speak directly to the person you feel has sinned against you and not about them to other people. He is also saying we should not criticize others or hold grudges. Instead, He wants us to honestly confront the offender with the sin in his behavior. Forgiveness is not just an internal process that we engage in for our own sake but it is also an interpersonal process for the benefit of the other person and the community as a whole. Forgiveness without confrontation could short circuit the whole process. The main goal of this kind of encounter is not to express the anger we may have but to actually encourage repentance, restoration and reconciliation.
When we’ve been mistreated, confronting them is probably the last thing we want to do. It is far more comfortable to just complain about them to someone else or just bear it on our own in silence while we avoid and withdraw from that person and the situation. However, we really are not given that option by God, in fact Jesus calls us to that difficult business of challenging the person about their sin. For true forgiveness to happen, it is going to require honesty with ourselves and an honest confrontation with sin.
We Must Confront Sin Properly
There is no denying that forgiveness can be therapeutic however, we cannot reduce forgiveness to something that is just internal and for own own personal process. It’s not just about me, me, me. In fact, Jesus did not forgive us for HIS sake, but instead He forgave us for OUR sake! Sure, forgiveness benefits us in a variety of different ways, but it is not primarily just about us an our feelings. It needs to be about our brother or sister who wronged us and to bring them back to spiritual health and about the bigger good, protection of others and promoting the well-being of the entire community.
Here are a few passages that instruct us on how to confront sin properly:
We should do it in private and not in public – “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Mat 18:15).
We should do it humbly and repentantly, not arrogantly and self-righteously – “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Mat. 7:3-5).
We should do it spiritually, not carnally – “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Gal 6:1).
Forgiveness Does Require the Offender to Own Sin Repentantly
There needs to be the right response coming from the person who is doing the confrontation but there also needs to be a right response from the offender as well. The way a person responds to the confrontation of someone who actually cares enough to challenge their sinful behavior is going to reveal their true character as a person. In Proverbs it is clear that the way a person responds to the appropriate kind of rebuke is the measure of their wisdom.
True and genuine repentance is something that goes way beyond a mere apology or an expression of regret. It is a change of mind that will produce a change of action in the person.
Repentance is the way we deal with sin. It is far deeper than regret, because it involves a true determination to change. It can even be genuine even if it doesn’t instantly produce change. After all, in Luke 17:4 Jesus suggests that someone could repent seven times in a day! But, without repentance then the process of forgiveness is broken. Jesus tells us “If they repent, forgive them.” With true forgiveness it will flow toward true repentance.
We must remember that sin contaminates everything an unfortunately sometimes, the offender will not admit to their sin, no matter how evident and clear it might be. Sometimes there is no regret and they may even celebrate the evil of it. Also the person may have died before they could repent or they are too ill to now respond. What happens then? What do we do in situations such as this? Do we still forgive? It seems that forgiveness is not cut and dry or simple
Forgiveness is Given Generously and Graciously
The command of Jesus is quite clear when it comes to forgiveness. He tells us if he repents then you must forgive him an the forgiven person’s record is then wiped clean. Jesus emphasizes the amazing nature of forgiveness when He says “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day an seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” This one can be a hard one for us to swallow and we often stumble over this command. Because we find it hard to forgive someone who keeps doing it over and over again. However, Jesus is not encouraging us to accept cheap words of regret, but He was saying that all of His followers are to try and imitate the amazing grace of God. He wants us to realize that forgiveness is not earned but it is given and it is given both generously and graciously.
True forgiveness when it involves you and someone else can only come from the one who has been wronged. Jesus requires that we forgive the one who is repentant. This means that we need to release the desire we might have to get even or the “right” to require the person to pay for what they have done. Forgiving is saying “You are free. Your debt is paid.”
One thing we must always remember however, is that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting to remember the offense, but instead it means remembering to forget. We most of the time will an do remember what happened, especially if we see the offender. But when we truly forgive and say “I forgive you,” we are not willingly allowing ourselves to have amnesia. Instead we are committing ourselves to not treat the person in a manner that is based on what they have done in the past, even though we do remember what they did. Time may dull the pain, but it is rare that a person every truly forgets.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation and restoring the “status quo”. What forgiveness does is clean the slate and it does not always rebuild trust. Forgiveness is something that is given, however, reconciliation is something that is earned. Forgiveness is something that cancels debts, but it doesn’t eliminate all of the consequences of the sin. For example a man might forgive his wife for having an affair, but this does not mean that their marriage is going to automatically be restored to the way it was. Forgiveness and reconciliation are related however, they are quite distinct.
Real forgiveness requires that we are able to identify what has happened an understand the significance of it. Here are four good questions to always ask when it comes to forgiveness:
- How serious was the offense? Sometimes there are things that need patience more than they actually need forgiveness for. If you turn every offense against you into a Luke 17 issue then you will devastate your relationships with your intensity and self-absorption.
- How raw is the wound? It’s not just an issue of time. Maybe you are “picking the scab” to keep the wound open yourself.
- How close is this person to you?
- How significant is your relationship with them?
Also, it is not always wise to be too hasty in your forgiveness. Sometimes if you are too quick to forgive you may be kept from processing the actual violation. Also, if you are in a state of emotional numbness or even denial you may not be able to make any sense out of the violation and this can hamper you from expressing true forgiveness and it will just prolong the overall process.
The other extreme of course is being too slow to forgive. If you go around saying “I don’t feel ready yet,” this can be just a subtle way of inflicting a type of punishment on the offender. Between these two different extremes, there will be an appropriate time to grieve the loss of what might have been. This grief will often be mixed with anger over the wrong that was done. But this anger, justified as it might be, needs to be carefully monitored as the Bible tells us: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (Eph. 4:26)
Forgiveness is a Decision
Forgiveness is actually an act of the will and should not be a stirring of the emotions. For those who follow Christ, it really needs to be a matter of obedience. Forgiveness is an inward choice that produces a declaration of “I forgive you.” When you speak those words, you are declaring that the issue between you and the offender is dead and buried and if it comes into your mind in the future that you will take it to the Lord and not to the person. Forgiveness is also not a one time thing. There will be times in our lives when even after we have forgiven someone that the hurt is still sometimes felt and we may struggle with these feelings. Often we need to remind ourselves that we have forgiven this person and we must keep to that commitment of forgiveness.
As C.S. Lewis once said:
“To forgive for the moment is not difficult, but to go on forgiving, to forgive the same offense every time it recurs to the memory – that’s the real tussle.”