What is True Forgiveness?

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Forgiveness has been a topic that I God has really been showing me about over the past year and a half or so.  I have already discussed many aspects of forgiveness in previous blogs about what the Bible teaches us about relationships and forgiveness.  Going to International House of Prayer did not necessarily bring any new insights to me on this topic, however, it did confirm several musings that have already been stirring in my heart for quite some time.  Through spending extended time with God in prayer Christ reminded me of His ultimate forgiveness not only to me personally but also to the world.  He also reminded me of my duty to forgive others and to extend His love and peace regardless of the circumstances I may find myself in.  I would like to highlight in this blog a few of the things that I have been musing about since my time at IHOP.

Maybe you struggle with forgiveness… many Christians do.  Maybe someone has hurt you deeply and you have tried to forgive but simply don’t know if you really have forgiven.  It’s so easy for pastors to tell us to “forgive”, but it’s something entirely different to actually really know how to put it into practice.  Saying the words “I forgive you” are relatively meaningless unless it’s also accompanied by a shift in the attitudes of your heart and the way that you will now choose to interact with the person.  Forgiveness does not necessarily mean restored trust or restored friendship. It also may not mean reconciliation for reconciliation is one step after forgiveness has already taken root in your heart.  It’s the product of forgiveness… not the same thing.  And reconciliation often involves two people which means that if the other person is not willing it may not be able to be achieved.  Here are some questions that I often find myself pondering about which you may also be asking as you skim this blog:

* What does it mean for God to forgive me?  To forgive the world?

* What does it mean for me to forgive others?

* What does it mean for me to forgive myself? (often forgiving yourself is more difficult than forgiving others… we tend to be harder on ourselves than anyone else is, we tend to be our own worst enemies)

* How do I know when I have truly forgiven someone?

* What does forgiveness look like? (How do I put it into practice?)

* Why do we forgive? (What does the Bible say about forgiveness)

WHAT FORGIVENESS LOOKS LIKE: Christians tend to be afraid of anger and often when someone is angry we tend to avoid them and not take their complaints seriously.  There’s something about anger which is frightening.  However, anger is a normal human emotion!  The Bible NEVER tells us NOT to feel angry, however, it deeply cautions us about what we do with that emotion.  With how we choose to respond to it.  Paul writes, “Be angry, but do not sin.”[1]  We read, “don’t let the sun go down while you’re still angry.”  Don’t let anger consume your entire person, but yes, by all means – BE ANGRY!!  You see, anger is not always a bad thing.  Throughout history, righteous anger has propelled many individuals to channel their energies into creatively coming up with solutions which bring about restoration and hope.  Some examples of this righteous anger include women being able to vote, slavery being ended, and a fight for stopping the sex trade.  Had people not been angry about these injustices, our world would have continued down a slippery path of sinful living.  Even God Himself was angry when He looked over the entire world and saw that everyone was sinning and men were going their own way.  It resulted in a catastrophic flood… but also in a new beginning for humanity and a restoration of hope.[2] 

The difficulty is that it’s so easy to lose that vision of righteous anger in a blaze of anger.  The emotion of anger is perhaps one of the most intense emotions that humans feel.  It can be even more intense than sadness or depression… perhaps that is why it is one of the very first stages of Grief.[3]  Anger has caused many people to lose the creative energy which anger produces and instead has led them to harm others.[4]  That’s why I recommend that rather than focussing on your anger you begin to focus on your grief.[5]  In my second year at Tyndale we had a very well known speaker, Hans Peter Royer, come to us and share about the topic of forgiveness.  What he said still stays very close to my heart 2.5 years later, “YOU CAN ONLY BE ANGRY SO LONG AS YOU ARE GRIEVED.”  Grief is not a passive depression which immobilizes us, it’s a passionate display of our heart being intertwined with God’s.  As His heart is grieved so is ours.

HOW DO I TRULY FORGIVE? Maybe it’s your best friend who just snatched that handsome crush away from you, maybe it’s a relative who always gossips about you, maybe it’s a co-worker who hasn’t been treating you fairly… how do you forgive in these situations?

You forgive because Christ first forgave you.[6]  You forgive because you see the person’s brokenness and in that you see your own brokenness.  It’s this strange dichotomy between mercy and justice that the Bible calls us to and which is hard to grasp.  Yes, justice must take place.  That means that if someone hurts you there are rightfully consequences.  You don’t need to feel bad if someone who harmed you is punished in some way.  However, as Obadiah says, you don’t rejoice in the day of your enemy’s downfall.[7]  That means that when he or she is punished you don’t point fingers, laugh about it, or tell all your friends about how they deserved it.  You can truly feel compassion even for the person who has hurt you because to you it doesn’t feel good for them to have to undergo the punishment.  We’re also called to mercy.  This means that even though you DON’T accept their actions that you begin to pray for them.[8]  You cry out to God so that they will be able to receive Him into their hearts and come to know Him fuller.  It’s hard, especially when the person who harmed you claims to be a Christian, but as you pray to God you will begin to feel differently about them and the situation.  Your heart will break as you recognize that their actions flowed out of their own sense of loss or their own confusion and pain.  You can also pray for their families and for anyone else who may have been affected.  This is a great way for you to take your mind off of your own troubles and focus on someone else.

It may help to begin by praying the Lord’s Prayer.  This is a prayer that has held great significance for me over the past year and a half especially during my time at L’Arche where we pray it daily.  In that prayer it says, “forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”[9]  This prayer reminds us that we ARE able to forgive even when it’s really hard because we remember our own sins and all the pain we have caused to other people.  You have no idea of the effects your sins have had on another.  What if someone were to say, “how can I forgive Deborah?  She violated me?”… How would I feel?  I who had the idea of sheer hurt as far away from me as possible?  But the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end with forgiveness.  It teaches us to not be led into temptation.  When someone harms you there are so many temptations – the temptation to be bitter, to be envious or jealous of others who haven’t been through the same situation, to want revenge, or to play the victim pretending like it’s either 100% our responsibility for what happened or 0% our responsibility.[10]  In the end of the day, as one of my best friend’s Dad says, “even if you think the other person is 90% responsible for the situation, you are still 10% responsible and you are 100% responsible for your 10%”. 

WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES ABOUT FORGIVENESS: The Bible has several key teachings on forgiveness.  In the end of the day, though, you don’t forgive for the sake of the other person, you forgive for YOURSELF.  You forgive because you recognize that the longer you hold that pain in your heart, the longer it will consume you.  As one of my professors at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary taught us, “we build ourselves cages and then blame the other for their construction.”[11]

The Bible also tells us that if we forgive others of their sins then God will forgive us, but if we choose to harbour hate and bitterness in our hearts, then God will not forgive us![12]  That’s pretty harsh language, but it does bring a certain reality out – the reality that we can’t expect someone to give us something which we are not willing to give to another.  How can we be so judgmental as to think that one’s sin is better or worse than ours?[13]  Not only that, but the Bible says that we are to forgive constantly.[14]  We are to forgive without number and without remembrance of any other pain the person has caused in the past. We need to take each apology as a new and fresh one.  This DOES NOT imply that we put ourselves into abusive situations and it doesn’t mean we don’t leave abusive friendships or relationships.  But what it DOES imply is that for the sake of ourselves we don’t keep heaping sin upon sin, but we choose forgiveness, love, and mercy instead.

Think about what Jesus taught concerning how we should treat our enemies.  There’s been much research done on this but here is the mindset I cling to: if someone takes your coat, you give him your cloak as well.  You make him see the nakedness of his deeds.  Think about it – who is the one ashamed if you are naked?  Him or you?  More often than not it is the one who sees us naked who begins to blush and feel awkward – it’s not us.  We are okay.  It’s our body.[15]

If someone slaps you on the cheek, you let him slap the other one.  This is not about being a doormat.  Generally when someone slaps you they do it with the back of their hand, not the front.  Well, make them have a real confrontation with you!  Make them own up to their action.

If someone makes you walk a mile, make them walk two miles with you.[16]  In Biblical times Roman soldiers could stop any civilian at any time and force them to carry their bags.  However, there was a limit to the abuse.  They were only allowed to force the person to walk one mile, if they made the person walk more than one mile they would be in trouble with their superiors.  So basically, what Scripture tells us is that we should show so much kindness to our enemies that it ends up getting them in trouble!

We read in the Scripture that when we speak well of an enemy we are heaping burning coal upon their heads![17]  What a metaphor.  How many of you would want someone you immensely dislike to say really nice things about you and be sincere about them?  That would be kind of awkward wouldn’t it?  Well, make it awkward for your enemy!

Finally, know that their deeds WILL be exposed.[18]  You might not see it right away… or even ever, but the more I read the Bible the more I see how in the end of the day everything gets sorted out.  The Psalms talk about how people pervert justice[19] and Lamentations raises this question: DO THEY THINK GOD DID NOT SEE IT?[20]  Know that in the end of the day it isn’t you who the offender is accountable to, it’s God.  And really, be grateful it’s God and not you… because I guarantee that on judgement day God who is holy and without sin will do a better job of weighing the case than we would.[21]

WHY FORGIVE? We are taught in Scriptures that if someone says with their mouth that they love God, but inwardly they are full of bitter poison (also known as hatred) towards their brother or sister then they are lying and not truly walking with God.[22]  They aren’t inwardly living what they are outwardly proclaiming.  They are hypocrites!  Only in half-way, not fully.  That’s not cool!  No, instead what you’ve got to do is leave whatever you’re planning to offer to God – your ministry, your praise, your worship, right there. Forgive your brother.  Reconcile with your sister.  Abolish the poison of bitterness. Then and only THEN are you fit to offer your whole self and your whole offering to Christ.[23]

So that’s why we forgive.  We forgive so that our lives and our offerings can be acceptable in Christ’s sight.  If we are living for Christ, we want to give Him all that we’ve got, but He only accepts the best – that which is spotless and pure.[24]

We forgive because it is our Christian duty to forgive, and not only that, but because it is an honour, a privilege, to forgive.  It helps us become more Christ like.  It exemplifies His character to the world.  It is the ultimate testimony of love.  When our non-Christian peers see us forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us, they will wonder what it is that we have which they do not and I guarantee that they will WANT it.

HOW DO I KNOW I HAVE TRULY FORGIVEN? As my roomate once said, “we forgive to the extent that it is possible to forgive and sometimes we just give it to God because we have forgiven to the extent that we can and don’t know how to forgive any further.”

Forgiveness is tough and it won’t come overnight.  It’s a process.  Often we need that process, that period of anger, before we can truly forgive.  Forgiveness is like the spring thaw after a long winter.  It’s a gradual process.  Each day we will begin to feel better and better about the situation.  If we’re walking with Christ our attitudes may change.  We likely will never be THANKFUL for the hurt inflicted upon us, but we may begin to see that there was a purpose to it or that there is some way we can minister to others because of it.  We may even begin to see how our lives have become so much more spiritually mature as a result and be grateful for the positive effects it has had in our lives.  Although we won’t be THANKFUL, we may even begin to see it as a PRIVILEGE sent by God to undergo for the sake of other people.  It helps us to become more Christ-like when we forgive, remembering that just like Christ took on all of our sin and death, so too, we have become the scape goat for others.[25]  We may never truly know the impact we have had on others or the amount of people who were spared because we took the brunt for them.[26]

When you are able to think of the situation and your anger (however justified) is replaced with grief THEN you have truly forgiven.  Grief because of the fact that sin taints a beautiful earth, that violence ravishes our environment, that we are imperfect beings.  Grief that until Christ comes, they are broken and we are broken.  Imperfect.

As Henri Nouwen once wrote, “We have very little control over what happens in our lives, but we have a lot of control over how we integrate and remember what happens.”  This is the attitude that we are talking about.  Two people can have the exact same thing happen to them, but one chooses to grow from the experience and move on, and the other stays stuck in their grief and anger.  Completely paralyzed.[27]  In the end of the day, the offender doesn’t see the outcome of what they have done, so it’s up to you and only you to choose to walk away from it victoriously!

I think the ultimate revenge is being able to see that what someone meant to harm you, God has used to bless and edify.[28]  It’s the ultimate vengeance to say in your heart that the person’s plan didn’t work.  That they meant to paralyze you, but that you are walking in glory.  When you adopt this mindset it just gives you a whole new understanding that vengeance is God’s and that our sense of justice and revenge totally pales in comparison!

CONCLUSION: Forgiving ourselves, others, or even God is difficult.  Keep reminding yourself of the ultimate love of Christ which covers a multitude of sins and be sure that He is walking with you through the long and often painful process.[29] “He makes beautiful things out of the dust.  He makes beautiful things out of us.”[30]


[5] Genesis 34:7 gives an example of how grief comes before anger (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%2034:7&version=NASB)

[11] God’s Shalom and the Church’s Witness class with David B. Miller

[15] From a sermon I heard as a highschooler by Sergeant Drummer (Matthew Bailey-Dick)

[20] http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2094:7&version=NASB (I borrowed a Bible from Tyndale once unfortunately I don’t remember the version but it Reads Lam. 3:34 this way: “But the leaders of the people trampled prisoners underfoot.  They deprived the people of their God-given rights in defiance of the Most High.  They perverted justice in the courts.  Do THEY THINK THE LORD DIDN’T SEE IT?)

[26] This notion came from a L’Arche Assistant’s Bible Study where someone shared how people with disabilities suffer for the rest of us because when they are born with an immense disability they have pure thoughts and minds

[27] Henri Nouwen “Spiritual Choices” – Daily Devotional for January 6, 2014

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