So, let’s get down to brass tax. I’ve got questions. And, if I don’t get them answered, I’m going to keep thinking of forgiveness as a four-letter word! What does the Bible specifically say that will soothe that nagging in my soul? And, when the Bible is not specific, what common sense is consistent with Scripture?
It’s a work in progress, but here is my make-shift “question and answer session”. I hope it will reassure you and also challenge you as it does me.
Q) How do I forgive when I have been hurt so greatly?
A) I recognize that I, too, need forgiveness.
As I have prayed through how to respond to each situation I have faced, what has surprised me most is that I have been made keenly aware of my own sin. I knew I was sinful, but I had no idea I was THAT sinful! It has really shocked me. Who did I think I was anyway? How embarrassing. But, how refreshing! I am free now to let God be God.
I am relieved that God has so tenderly put me in my place. I expect this process to continue, and believe it or not, it is helping me to forgive. It is slowly healing my soul, my marriage, and my world. When my attitude is one of humility, my choices are more loving and forgiving. When I compare myself to other human beings, I have a much harder time responding in kind, self-sacrificing ways.
In order to forgive, we must be willing to look at the darkness in our own hearts. We must confront the prideful thought, “I would never ___________.” When we compare our thoughts, actions, and motivations to those of a holy God, we see our own depravity. Our perspective is skewed if, instead, we compare ourselves to others. We begin to weigh and measure sin by its earthly consequences instead of by the pain it causes a perfect and holy God.
Q) Why do I have to forgive others? What about justice?
A) I am called to forgive because God has first forgiven me. God promises justice in the end, but for now, he wants me to imitate his mercy.
Jesus teaches Peter about forgiveness in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). A servant owes the king money and begs him not to sell his family and all he owns to pay the debt. The servant promises to repay the debt and asks for patience. The king takes pity on him and cancels the debt. But, as soon as the servant leaves the king’s presence, he finds a fellow servant who owes him money. When the fellow servant begs for mercy, he throws him in jail. This angers the king, who scolds the servant for not passing on the mercy he has been shown. The king then turns the servant over to jailers to be tortured until he can repay the debt. Jesus concludes, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (v. 35)
Jesus’ teaching is this: Forgive because you have been forgiven. When we read the simple parable, we can clearly see that begging for mercy, being forgiven, and then turning right around and punishing someone else for the same thing is absurd. However, when we apply it to our own lives, things get fuzzy. Life is more complicated than that, we rationalize. We somehow justify our own unforgiveness by measuring our sin against the sin of others. If we are honest, when we put ourselves in the story, we imagine that our debt to the king is smaller than the other servant’s debt to us. And, therefore we justify holding others’ feet to the fire. But unlike us, the king in the story is not focused on the debt at all. He is concerned with the heart. With God, it is all about the heart.
Jesus’ teaching is also this: If it is fairness you want, then you can spend eternity apart from God trying to pay back what you owe. Ouch! You see, the truth is we would never be able to repay our debt. That is why Jesus came. We think we want justice. But, if we got it, we would be truly sorry. Jerry Sittser, in his book A Grace Disguised, writes, “Forgiving people decide that they would rather live in a merciful universe than in a fair one, for their sake as much as for anyone else’s. Life is mean enough as it is. They choose not to make it any meaner.”(p.141)
Q) How will I ever be strong enough to do what God is asking of me?
A) My ability to forgive will be born of my intimacy with God.
God calls us to a very high standard. But, he doesn’t ask us to live the Christian life and develop Christ-like character by our own strength. He is the power source. 2 Peter 1:3 says that he has given us everything we need for life and godliness. When we are close to him, we hear his voice (John 10:27, Isaiah 30:21). When we are close to him, we are empowered to do things we cannot otherwise do. He promises that his strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
If I want to forgive the way God forgives, to obey him, to imitate Christ, then I must stay on a short leash. In order to do the kinds of things I have been called to do in my life, I have no choice but to cling to God! I absolutely cannot try to do ANYTHING apart from him (John 15:5). I must pray. I must study. I must listen. All the time. Every other method has failed. There is no such thing as being good apart from Christ.
Q) What does forgiveness look like in the “real world”?
A) Forgiveness is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
As far as I can tell, there really isn’t a blueprint. I think it looks different depending on who and what is involved. It is personal. It is sacred. It always involves the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It requires seeking the heart of God, waiting on his timing, and then obeying. Sometimes it feels great, and sometimes it doesn’t. There is no formula.
Q) What if I don’t feel better after I forgive?
A) Forgiveness is a choice. The way we feel about it does not negate the choice we make.
The act of forgiveness can take many forms. It can be blessing someone with kind words. It can also be restraining oneself from speaking if it would remind someone of their mistake. It can mean loving sacrificially with no expectation of return. It can be keeping your distance to avoid causing someone further pain.
Put simply, forgiveness is choosing not to treat others according to the harm they caused. Psalm 103:10 says God “has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our offenses.” The phrase “dealt with us” and the word “repaid” are action-oriented. They refer to God’s response to our sin, not to how he feels about it.
One does not have to “feel” forgiving to offer forgiveness. Feeling angry or hurt does not negate forgiveness. Negative feelings are natural consequences of sin. And, the consequences of sin long outlast the sin itself. Are we to be immune from the consequences of sin simply because we are Christians? No. We cannot be immune. Even God is not. In fact, he is angry at sin! Psalm 90:11 says, “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”
The Bible says that when Jesus suffered he did not sin in response. When he was reviled, he did not revile back. He entrusted himself instead to the One who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:22-23) The emphasis in the passage is on Jesus’ restraint. But, it doesn’t state that the sins committed against him didn’t hurt his feelings or make him mad! Like Jesus did, we can choose to entrust our feelings to a God who is just and who is as mad as we are. But, we don’t have to beat ourselves up for having to work through the process. God knows how he made us.
Q) What if I can’t forget what someone has done to me?
A) Forgiveness does not mean we have to forget the offense.
About a year after Bryan’s infidelity came out, I was talking candidly with close friends about how it still frequently affected our lives. Two of them strongly urged me to try to “forget”. You’ve heard the phrase: “Forgive and forget.” What does that mean, anyway? I knew they meant well, but that did not make practical sense to me. I felt very lonely trying to deal with my pain since even my best friends didn’t seem to understand that I couldn’t really forget. Maybe others could more easily “forget”, but I had to try to rebuild a marriage with the guy.
I read the passage in Exodus when God told the Israelites to remember their bondage in slavery so that they would recall how he had freed them. I had a sense that this awful time in our marriage would hold that kind of significance. It would serve as a reminder of a place we didn’t want to revisit and also a place from which God had rescued us. But, I still needed more Biblical knowledge about this forgiving and forgetting thing.
Then, one day, I found the most amazing encouragement. In his book, If God Is Good—Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, Randy Alcorn discusses two Biblical passages where it is said that God will not “remember” past sin (Isaiah 65:16-17 and Jeremiah 31:34). Alcorn explains, “Remember is a covenant word that includes acting upon what comes to mind. To not remember doesn’t mean to forget. It means that though God could recall our past sins, he will never hold them against us because he sees that we are covered by Christ’s blood and made righteous in him. God doesn’t have a mental lapse; he chooses not to bring up our sins.” (p.297-8)
This makes so much sense to me. To not “remember” doesn’t mean to forget. It means that though I can and will recall past sin, I will choose (with God’s help) not to hold it against people. This is still a tall order, but at least it is possible!
Q) If I am still hurting and I have to choose to forgive all over again, does that mean I have not truly forgiven in the first place? How many times must I face this dilemma?
A) Forgiveness is not a once-and-for-all proposition.
Each time I recall a past sin (because it is not possible, short of amnesia, for me to forget), I have a choice whether or not to forgive. Each time my present reality bumps up against the pain of my past, I have to choose again to forgive. Jerry Sittser says, “In one sense, forgiveness is a lifelong process, for victims of catastrophic wrong may spend a lifetime discovering the many dimensions of their loss.” (A Grace Disguised, p. 144)
The Bible is clear that we are called to forgive as many times as is necessary. “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
I wonder, is Peter saying, “How many times do I have to forgive the same person for hurting me over and over again?” Or, is he asking, “How many times do I have to keep forgiving the same person for what he did to me in the past?” There is a difference. But, I think if it were relevant, the Bible would have discriminated between the two. Either way, Jesus makes his point. Peter, you must forgive a whole lot more than you want to forgive.
I am confronted with this reality daily. It’s not that people keep hurting me as much as it is that I continue to discover the many dimensions of my loss. Maybe as healing occurs, I won’t be called to forgive so often. But, for now, if I don’t stay super-close to God, I can foul things up really quickly. In the moment, sometimes I forgive, and sometimes I don’t. I have made the over-arching choice to forgive. I have taken my stand. But, in the little things, I don’t always do it right. It’s impossible on my own. I just hope that over time, as I draw nearer to my Savior, my record will improve. But, I think the Bible teaches me that I will never be able to say that I am done forgiving.
Q) If my relationship with someone is permanently damaged or even broken, does that mean I have not forgiven him? Must I maintain a relationship at all costs?
A) Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing.
Hear me when I say this: Forgiveness does not necessarily require putting ourselves in situations where we will continue to get hurt. There is always a healthy way to show mercy, to refrain from treating others according to their sin. Forgiveness does not demand that we allow others to abuse us. We must be sure never to confuse forgiveness with reconciliation.
Forgiveness is about our own hearts. It can be offered regardless of what the “offender” chooses to do. It is not dependent upon the condition of the “offender’s” heart. Forgiveness can be a one-way street.
Reconciliation, however, is always a two-way street. The degree to which both parties are willing to humble themselves before God and submit themselves to his Spirit is the degree to which healing can take place in a relationship injured or broken by sin. Sometimes reconciliation can never be complete this side of Heaven. Sometimes reconciliation is not possible this side of Heaven.
I would contend that reconciliation is at the heart of the situation I mentioned in Part 1 where the people who committed genocide are worshipping alongside family members of those they killed. Certainly, forgiveness had to be offered first, or no reconciliation would have taken place. That is a miracle in and of itself. But, in this case, the offenders have also turned their hearts toward Christ. And, that made reconciliation possible.
Reconciliation is beautiful. And, it is astounding. We should note why it is astounding, though. It simply cannot be done without Christ. He is the power that makes it possible. And, as we forgive, I think we must pray for reconciliation that knocks the socks off of people! All we can control, though, with God’s help, is ourselves. We need not feel condemnation if our “story” doesn’t end the way we wanted it to end. We need only take this advice, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
Preparing to write on this topic led me to make a difficult choice about two weeks ago. In Part 1, I mentioned that I am struggling to forgive a friend who was involved with my husband in adultery. Whew, I wish there was a nicer way to say that… Anyway, I prayed intensely, and God flat out told me to take initiative and write her. I didn’t really want to do it. But, he made it clear by Scripture and the Holy Spirit that it was right. So, I just obeyed. I am NOT TRYING TO BE GOOD, just in case anyone is curious. It was just time, and God said so. I meant everything I put in the letter, but it was painful to write. I stuck it in the mail, and then I wanted to throw up. But, there was no turning back.
I planned on posting Part 2 of my forgiveness blog today, and I tell you, God is not done showing off in my life. His timing is impeccable. In the mail TODAY was a letter of response from my friend. It was a sincere apology. And, if not fully satisfying, it brought me peace. More peace than I had before. I don’t feel like throwing a party, but it didn’t make me cry or make me want to scream. I wasn’t sure what to expect from myself. I still have questions to ask her, but I am not sure that finding out the “why’s” will help. A wise person once told me that a better question to ask is, “What next?” So, I suppose we will be negotiating what is next with God’s direction.
No matter what, I am humbled by the way God lovingly led me into this place of obedience. He is already blessing what he began. And, I know that he will be faithful to complete it.
I guess I’ll be writing on the personal benefits of forgiveness before you know it. If forgiveness is a four-letter word, that word is love—love straight from the Father’s heart to ours.