Forgiveness: What it is, what it is not
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted,
forgiving one another,
as God in Christ forgave you”
“Most of the ground that Satan gains in the lives of Christians,” wrote Neil Anderson, “is due to unforgiveness” (Bondage Breaker, 194). I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t hard to figure out why, once we realize that unforgiveness breeds bitterness, resentment, anger, unkindness, and even despair. Nothing is more important for us than to know what forgiveness is as well as what it isn’t. So what I propose in this study is to look first at five myths about forgiveness; that is to say, five lies many of us have embraced about what it means to forgive another person. Then I will turn to five truths about forgiveness, or five essential elements apart from which true forgiveness will never take place.
Five Myths about Forgiveness
1. Contrary to what many have been led to believe, forgiveness is not forgetting. “Forgive and forget,” we have been told by so many through the years. It’s a nice saying, but highly misleading. Why?
First of all, God does not forget, notwithstanding what you think Jeremiah 31:34 is saying (“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”). This language of the prophet is metaphor, a word picture, designed to emphasize God’s gracious determination and resolve not to hold us liable for our sin. He has canceled the debt and will never demand payment. If God could literally “forget” it would undermine the truth of his omniscience. God always has and always will know all things, but he has promised never to use our sin against us or treat us as if the reality of our sin were present in his mind.
Second, “forgive and forget”, quite simply, is psychologically impossible. As soon as you make up your mind to forget something you can be assured that, in most instances, it is the one thing that will linger at the forefront of your conscious thinking. We all forget things, but we do it unintentionally over the course of time. Life and experience and old age work to erase certain things from our memory, but that is rarely if ever the case with sins committed against us and the wounds we have suffered.
Third, to think that forgiving demands forgetting can be emotionally devastating. Let’s suppose that Jane succeeds for two months in forgetting Sally’s betrayal of her. She’s getting along well and hasn’t given a second thought to Sally’s sin. Then Jane is told that Sally did the same thing to Mary and she immediately remembers the offense she herself endured. She is suddenly riddled with guilt for having failed to forget. What she thought she had forever put out of her mind now comes rushing back involuntarily and she feels like an utter failure for not having “truly” forgiven her friend. Worse still, she now feels like a hypocrite for having promised to forget only to once again feel anger and resentment toward Sally. Not only is Jane emotionally devastated, she now realizes how impossible it is to literally forget something so painful. This makes her extremely reluctant ever to forgive anyone again, knowing in her heart that she is incapable of forgetting.
2. Forgiving someone does not mean you no longer feel the pain of their offense. In most cases, the only way you can stop hurting is to stop feeling, and the only way you can stop feeling is to die emotionally. But passionless robots can neither truly love God or others. This may be the primary reason people are reluctant to forgive. They know they can’t stop feeling the sting of the sin against them and they don’t want to be insincere by saying they forgive when deep down inside they know they didn’t.
Let’s suppose that Barbara discovers that her husband Bill has had an affair. The agony and deep feelings of betrayal are intense. Although Barbara seeks extensive counseling, she eventually separates from her husband for a season. Upon their reconciliation, she forgives him, but is under the assumption that for her to do so means she must never again feel the pain of his adultery. Then one evening she sees Bill smiling and talking to another woman at church. Although it was nothing more than innocent friendliness, the anguish and suspicion of his betrayal comes rushing back into her soul. She berates herself and questions her own sincerity: “What’s the matter with me that I can’t get over this?” Barbara has to learn that the pain of her husband’s adultery will probably never entirely dissipate, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t truly forgiven him.
3. Forgiving someone who has sinned against you doesn’t mean you cease longing for justice. Be certain of this: vengeance is not a bad thing! If it were, God would himself be in a bit of trouble, for as Paul tells us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). To long for justice is entirely legitimate, but to seek it for yourself is not. Let God deal with the offender in his own way at the appropriate time. He’s much better at it than your or I.
The point is that forgiveness does not mean you are to ignore that a wrong was done or that you deny that a sin was committed. Forgiveness does not mean that you close your eyes to moral atrocity and pretend that it didn’t hurt or that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the offending person is called to account for his/her offense. Neither are you being asked to diminish the gravity of the offense, or to tell others, “Oh, think nothing of it; it really wasn’t that big of a deal after all.” Forgiveness simply means that you determine in your heart to let God be the avenger. He is the judge, not you.
Often we refuse to forgive others because we mistakenly think that to do so is to minimize their sin. “And that’s not fair! He really hurt me. If I forgive, who’s going to care for me and take up my cause and nurse my wounds?” God is. We must never buy into the lie that to forgive means that sin is being whitewashed or ignored or that the perpetrator is not being held accountable for his/her actions. It simply means we consciously choose to let God be the one who determines the appropriate course of action in dealing justly with the offending person.
4. Forgiveness does not mean you are to make it easy for the offender to hurt you again. They may hurt you again. That is their decision. But you must set boundaries on your relationship with them. The fact that you establish rules to govern how and to what extent you interact with this person in the future does not mean you have failed to sincerely and truly forgive them. True love never aids and abets the sin of another. The offender may himself be offended that you set parameters on your friendship to prevent them from doing further harm. They may even say, “How dare you? This just proves that you didn’t mean it when you said you forgave me.” Don’t buy into their manipulation. Forgiveness does not mean you become a helpless and passive doormat for their continual sin.
5. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time, climactic event. It is most often a life-long process. However, forgiveness has to begin somewhere at some point in time. There will undoubtedly be a moment, an act, when you decisively choose to forgive. It may well be highly emotional and spiritually intense and bring immediate relief; a sense of release and freedom. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never need to do it again. You may need every day to reaffirm to yourself your forgiveness of another. Each time you see the person, you may need to say, “Self, remember that you forgave _______!”
There may well be other myths concerning forgiveness, but those are probably the most important ones. Let’s turn our attention now to the essence of true forgiveness.
Five Truths about Forgiveness
The apostle Paul said in our text that we are to forgive “as” God in Christ forgave us. The word “as” points to two things. We are to forgive because God forgave us. But we are also to forgive as or like or in the same manner that he forgave us. So, how did God in Christ forgive us? This leads us to the five truths about forgiveness.
1. God in Christ forgave us by absorbing in himself the destructive and painful consequences of our sin against him.
Jackie Pullinger is a missionary and church-planter in Hong Kong whose remarkable life story is told in her autobiography, Chasing the Dragon. One particular incident occurred in the early years of Jackie’s ministry that illustrates the point I’m making here. A young man named Ah Ping had joined the Triads (gangs that controlled crime in Hong Kong) when he was only twelve years old. He soon came to be supported financially by a fourteen-year-old prostitute. When Jackie showed up and began to reach out in mercy and kindness to Ah Ping and his associates, he told her in no uncertain terms: “You’d better go. Just get out of here. We’re no good. Go find some people who will appreciate what you’re doing and be grateful for your kindness. We will only hurt you and exploit you and kick you around. Why do you stay? Why do you care?” Said Jackie, “I stay because that’s what Jesus did for me. I didn’t want him either. But he didn’t wait until I got good and wanted him. He died for me while I was his hateful enemy. He loved me and forgave me. He loves you, too.”
“No way,” shouted Ah Ping. “Nobody could love us like that. We rape and fight and steal and stab. Nobody could love us.” She explained how Jesus didn’t love what they did, but that he still loved sinners and was willing to forgive them. Ah Ping was shattered. He sat down on the street corner and received Christ as his savior. Not long after his conversion, Ah Ping was attacked by a gang of youths and was beaten mercilessly with bats. When his friends vowed revenge, Ah Ping said “No. I’m a Christian now and I don’t want you to fight back.”
What transformed Ah Ping? What accounted for his readiness to forgive his enemies? It was his realization that Jesus Christ had absorbed in himself the consequences of Ah Ping’s sins.
So what is forgiveness? It is deciding to live with the painful consequences of another person’s sin. You are going to have to live with it anyway, so you might as well do it without the bitterness and rancor and hatred that threaten to destroy your soul.
2. God forgave us in Christ by canceling the debt we owed him. That is to say, we are no longer held liable for our sins or in any way made to pay for them.
The way we cancel the debt of one who has sinned against us is by promising not to bring it up to the offender, to others, or to ourselves. We joyfully resolve never to throw the sin back into the face of the one who committed it. We promise never to hold it over their head, using it to manipulate and shame them. And we promise never to bring it up to others in an attempt to justify ourselves or to undermine their reputation. And lastly, we promise never to bring it up to ourselves as grounds for self-pity or to justify our resentment of the person who hurt us.
3. Forgiving others as God has forgiven us means we resolve to revoke revenge.
As noted earlier, this doesn’t mean you cease desiring that justice be served. It does mean you refuse, by God’s grace, to let the anger and pain energize an agenda to exact payment from that person, whether that payment be emotional, relational, physical, or financial. It also means you refuse to use your past suffering to justify present sin.
4. Forgiving others as God has forgiven us means that we determine to do good to them rather than evil. Read especially Romans 12:17-21.
This may entail doing simple acts of kindness, like greeting them warmly, from the heart, or providing a meal when they are sick, or other routine acts of compassion or mercy. What will it accomplish? It will both surprise and shame them.
Usually a person deliberately sins against you with the expectation that you will respond in like fashion. If you do, it justifies in their mind their initial sin against you. The last thing they expect is sustained kindness and strength. Thus when evil is met with goodness it disarms them; they are stunned with incredulity. “Goodness,” writes Dan Allender, “breaks the spell the enemy tries to cast and renders him powerless” (Bold Love). Hopefully, this will open a door in your relationship that will lead to a genuine life change.
Responding this way also shames him. I’m not talking about a bad sense of shame, as if you are seeking to humiliate him. Rather, your hope is to expose his heart’s condition, to lay bare his motivation, and to enable him to see the wickedness of his deed. Responding to evil with good compels the offender to look at himself rather than at you. When the light of your kindness shines back in the face of his darkness, the latter is exposed for being what it really is. The shame he feels on being “found out” will either harden or soften his heart (depending on how he/she chooses to respond).
5. God forgave us in Christ be reconciling us to himself, by restoring the relationship that our sin had shattered.
Often we avoid forgiveness because we want to avoid conflict. Going to the offender and saying, “I forgive you,” carries the potential for an explosion. They may even deny having sinned against us. But true forgiveness pursues relationship and restoration. True forgiveness is not satisfied with simply canceling the debt. It longs to love again.
It’s important to remember two things here. First, the offending person may refuse your overtures of kindness and resist any efforts on your part to reconcile. But that’s ultimately out of your control. As Paul said in Romans 12:18, your responsibility is to do whatever you can within your power to be at peace. If they refuse to be at peace with you, the fault is theirs. You will at least have fulfilled your responsibility before God. Second, often times when the reconciliation or restoration is successful, the relationship never fully returns to what it was before the offense was committed. Trust and confidence and delight in another person take a long time to fully recover from a serious sin, and sometimes never fully recover at all. But even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you haven’t fully forgiven them.
In conclusion, none of this will make sense to someone who has not experienced and received and tasted the joy of the forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. If we do not forgive as the Scriptures command, perhaps the problem is with our ignorance of what God has done for us in Christ. That is why the key to forgiveness is the cross.
[I was greatly helped in the writing of this article by Jay Adams’ book, From Forgiven to Forgiving. I highly recommend this book.]