Not often do we consider what forgiveness means in the context of our relationships until we are faced with a situation that requires us to practice it. Forgiveness is one of those things we don’t really take time to prepare our hearts to do, we just sort of respond in the moment to whatever situations arise in which we are wronged.
In those moments many of us might find, if we really stop and think about it, that we don’t have any idea what forgiving someone actually entails.
Typical responses include accepting an “I’m sorry” as enough for us to move forward and let bygone be bygones. We might also respond by doing everything we can to just forget what happened or to pretend it wasn’t real.
We might tell ourselves things like, “Surely my friend didn’t mean to insult my career choice” or “they probably weren’t actually trying to hurt me.” We can allow ourselves to excuse all kinds of actual instances of harm simply because we really may not know how else to practice forgiveness. Just forgetting about it or turning a blind eye to it should be enough to set the scores right, right?
The funny thing about forgiveness is that it will never be without cost. To forgive someone is to pay close attention, to notice, to acknowledge just exactly how you felt wronged, and then in spite of that knowledge, to choose to show that person grace.
Jesus is the ultimate example of what forgiveness – real, grueling, costly forgiveness – looks like. He forfeited pretty much everything you and I would cling to before forgiving someone: identity, security, love, safety, and life itself. How then can we possibly understand what it means to forgive someone if his Cross is the standard of true forgiveness?
One of my favorite quotes from a song goes like this, “I don’t know the first thing about love.” I love that line because it speaks of the reality of love. Love is complex and more than just a feeling. In the same way, forgiveness is complex and takes intentionality and an amount of love we humans know nothing about.
But God through us can give us the strength and ability to forgive one another of even the cruelest of harms. In Matthew 18:21-22 we read: “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
That is a lot of times to forgive someone! I don’t know about you, but in my human, finite mind, I can’t even begin to comprehend forgiving someone that many times, let alone once when I feel wronged badly! So why does the Bible, even Jesus Himself, require this measure of grace from us?
Jesus was willing and able, to look at humankind’s depravity with honesty. He often would rebuke someone for their sin, first naming how they had wronged God Himself through their actions. But He wouldn’t stop there.
He would continue to also name their goodness and give them instructions on how to seek forgiveness saying “go and sin no more.” So, if we are to truly practice forgiveness, we have to also be honest about what we are forgiving someone for.
Some of my favorite stories are about people who have been deeply wronged by another person and yet choose to forgive them anyway. These include stories of inmates who were wrongly accused, charged, and convicted of crimes they actually did not commit, all because the real criminal didn’t want to face the consequences of their actions.
These stories also include persons whose son, or daughter, husband or wife was murdered by someone and they chose to forgive the person despite all the pain and loss it caused.
Again, it seems like such an incomprehensible task, (in my mind) to extend forgiveness to someone who has cost you something as precious as your family or your life. Maybe Scripture can help us understand then how we can forgive one another.
Forgive as you have been forgiven:
In my opinion, you can only practice true forgiveness after being wronged in such a horrible way as these if you first understand how truly forgiven you are by God. Without first understanding the grace, love, and mercy displayed for us on the cross, we can’t possibly understand what debt of our own has been absolved when we deserved it least.
Scripture takes it a step further and actually commands us to ‘forgive as we have been forgiven’. We see this principle spoken of throughout Scripture. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Likewise, Colossians 3:13 says, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Matthew 6:14-15 makes an even bolder reason why we should forgive one another: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” So, Scripture is telling us forgiveness is actually paramount to our own salvation.
Now, I don’t read that verse as saying the motivation for forgiveness is to get our own sins covered. To have a selfish motive like that behind an act of forgiveness contradicts the Scriptural principle of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. What it is saying is that forgiveness is tantamount to understanding the Gospel. It is an act of displaying our gratitude to God and others that God, Himself has chosen to pardon our many sins.
It is also the most significant way, in my opinion, to show God’s love to others and exhibit His kingdom on earth, because as Scripture says in Luke 6:32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” Forgiveness is the ultimate distinction between heavenly father love, and human, self-motivated love.
Prepare your heart now for the next time you might have to exercise forgiveness:
This might sound silly, but I am somewhat fascinated by the prison culture because I have heard so many stories of men and women behind bars coming to faith and then living radically different lives. Accepting Jesus into your heart means you are made new.
You are given a new identity, and with that, if you really possess God’s power in your life, you are given the ability to forgive and love and minister to people like never before because you are operating not out of your own might, but out of God’s might in you. You are operating out of the power of the Holy Spirit, which is a power beyond anything our earthly minds can understand.
So, going back to prison life, I believe it is no wonder that many of the transformational, radical experiences people have of being healed both physically and spiritually happen when we are stripped of everything else.
I believe that in a place like a prison, a person has so much time that they are forced to face their thoughts, their heart, their motives, their passions, and their faith. They are really forced to face the reality of their sins.
In doing that, many of them come to realize that although their depravity was or is great, the grace and forgiveness extended to them through the Cross of Jesus Christ is greater. It is no wonder then that when someone really lets that reality sink into their heart, they are transformed and become made new.
I believe forgiveness is not something we can just choose to do on our own. I believe it is such a difficult, costly act of love that we must first be abiding in God’s love towards us in order to understand and grow in the way we then go out into the world and show mercy towards others. I believe forgiveness is only done when our hearts are prepared to forgive others.
If we believe we can just summon up the willpower and love and grace to forgive someone the instant we are wronged with no prior forethought and prayer on our part, allowing the Father’s love to wash over us, I think we will find we are setting ourselves up to fail, because, again, forgiving those we love is easy, forgiving those we hate or who hate us requires quite literally a supernatural ability to forgive that can only be found in Christ.
Being a Christian means you will have to forgive:
Jesus describes being a Christian, or, a “follower of Christ,” as a lifestyle that will surely cause you to encounter many instances of others wronging you. He says “you will be hated for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22), and if we are, He calls us blessed! He tells us there are many trials we will experience if we are following Christ, and I’m guessing a lot of them are ones we could easily say are “unfair” and believe we don’t deserve.
Personally, this is something I know I struggle with because it’s so easy to feel entitled to the comfy, happy, social life I live. It’s easy to begin to think and feel like anything short of people liking me or accepting me is cruel! But, if we are living in Christ and abiding in Him, the world is not excited about that. Instead, they will likely tear down things like our ego, our identity, our faith just as was done to Jesus Himself.
But we are taught by Jesus how to handle the times that we are wronged when it says in Romans 12:17-19 “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.”
He tells us that the opposite of forgiveness, vengeance, is not even ours to possess, but it is the Lord’s. We can expect to have many experiences, as Christians and even just as humans, where we will be wronged. But to forgive is to practice the mercy that we ourselves have been given from God, on others.
Forgiveness looks a lot like reconciliation. It means you become willing to see the trueness of both another’s depravity but also their goodness. It means spending time in God’s word, in prayer, in community, growing in your faith, and understanding just how deeply you yourself have been forgiven.
Forgiveness is a choice, but it is also birthed out of dependence on the One Who gives us the power and ability to act on such a choice. Forgiveness is hard and painful and feels contrary to our nature, which tells us to even the scores on our own, but it is rewarding and healing because when we forgive, we give to God the circumstances that are out of our control and we trust His wisdom.
The extra cool thing about forgiveness is that it is not only in our enemies’ best interest that we forgive them and thus show them God’s grace, but, it is also in our best interest!
When we forgive, we experience a relief and freedom from pain like never before. God heals us of our wounds by showing us they are His to carry and we can rest in the knowledge that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.
“Dandlion”, Courtesy of Dawid Zawila, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hands and Flower”, Courtesy of Lina Trochez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love Your Neighbour”, Courtesy of Nina Strehl, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Wheat”, Courtesy of Adriel Kloppenburg, Unsplash.com, CC0 License