One of the most widely misunderstood biblical concepts is forgiveness. Many have automatically equated forgiveness with the passivity and tolerance so prevalent within our modern culture. In so doing, forgiveness has been misshapen into a response where we are to somehow ignore the truth about what has happened, its consequences, and its effect on the persons involved and the relationship overall in an effort to simply move on as if nothing ever happened. To the world, this is what it means to be compassionate and mature. The fact however is, there is nothing passive nor tolerant about true forgiveness. Jesus never commanded us to tolerate our neighbors, He admonished us to love them.
True love is much more powerful than tolerance. Tolerance has never changed anything, genuine love changes everything. When all we do is tolerate people, we aren’t loving them at all. All we are doing is selfishly assuming a posture of relating that makes us feel better about ourselves and justifies our lack of true love. To the world, the highest form of love is tolerance… you stay on your lawn I’ll stay on mine, you do your thing I will do mine, you think one way, I will think another. For Jesus, the highest form of love is Truth.
Because love and Truth are so important to God and the relationships He created us for, God created forgiveness. Forgiveness is the repair solution God created for when the system of our relationships with God, self, and others breaks down. Forgiveness is the spiritual mechanism through which truth, and the healing and freedom it brings, can be re-established for the persons involved in the offended relationship.
Thus, when understood and used properly, forgiveness is a supernaturally powerful tool. It’s power is best found in what it does and in what it doesn’t do.
What Forgiveness Does…
o.o1 Forgiveness emotionally releases you from the debt that the offender owes you.
When people wrong us, something is taken from us in the process… emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Their wrong creates a debt in the system of the relationship. In other words, they owe you something. Maybe the owe you an apology, your job back, your innocence, your childhood, respect, an opportunity, the truth, time, money, and the list can go on and on. With every wrong committed against us, there is a debt created.
The ideal situation is when the person who wrongs us is able and willing to pay the debt in full. The apology that is owed is given, the money that was taken is repaid, the trust that was eroded is re-earned and the relationship becomes restored. Forgiveness is relatively easy yet still necessary when the ideal response is given by the one who committed the wrong against us.
Unfortunately, this ideal response rarely what occurs. Rather, we find ourselves in situations where the person who wrongs us is either unwilling or unable to pay the debt that is owed us. They can’t give us our childhood back, they can’t rewind the hurtful words that were said, they can’t fix what was broken, at the very least not completely. Or, they simply refuse to apologize, do the work of rebuilding trust, nor attempt to pay back what is owed us. In short, they cannot or will not repay the debt.
So, what do we do? That’s where the power of forgiveness comes in. The Bible says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” In other words, when we are hoping for or looking for something to happen that just isn’t going to happen, it pollutes our lives. We become discourage, depressed, and ultimately defeated inside. The same is true when, because of a wrong committed against us, we have something owed us that a person refuses or is unable to pay. This creates a hole in our lives that we fill with bitterness, frustration, anger, and a desire for revenge. Why? Because the debt is unpaid and we long for the payment to be satisfied. Our anger, bitterness, frustration etc. all seem to be an emotional way to repair the damage. We think that unforgiveness will somehow even the score and repay the debt, or least make us feel better. Yet, unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. We may even have righteous anger about the whole situation, but even that has no ability to right the wrong committed against us and repair what has been lost. Therefore, the hope and longing we have for that debt to be paid in reality is simply not going to happen, no matter how angry, upset, or vengeful we become. Even giving it time and punching pillows cannot repay the debts that people owe us. Don’t be fooled, when it comes to the wrongs people do against us, time doesn’t heal a thing.
What’s the solution? To cancel the debt. It’s called forgiveness. It doesn’t mean what the person is done is now o.k. or the relationship is magically restored, it simply means you are emotionally releasing yourself from looking for or longing for repayment. You are letting the payment for the debt go. You are no longer harboring the bitterness, frustration, and anger because of what they took from you, because you have canceled the debt. What they did can no longer hurt you because you are letting it go.
See, interestingly enough, the debt they owe you doesn’t hurt or burden them, it only hurts and burdens you. Which begs the questions, why are you killing yourself carrying the debt when they aren’t? Let it go.
No, it doesn’t mean you are now best friends with your perpetrator. It doesn’t mean you need be happy or at peace with what they did. The Bible says, “Hate what is evil, love what it is good.” It does however mean, you are no longer going to waste your emotional energy by harboring frustration, anger, and bitterness towards the situation or person because you are hoping for or looking for a payment for a debt they owe you that chances are they will not or cannot repay. You can conclude and even assert that something is wrong or was done wrongly without giving harbor to negative emotions within yourself towards that person or situation.
Therefore, forgiveness is emotionally releasing a person(s) (and yourself) of a debt that they owe you that they cannot or will not repay so that the hurt that hurt you can no longer keep on hurting, stealing, killing, and destroying you from the inside out. Forgiveness flushes your emotional system of the poison their wrong infected you with and replaces it with a healing of, not necessarily the relationship, but more importantly and more assuredly your heart.
0.02 Forgiveness is NOT conditioned on repentance or circumstance.
Often we think forgiveness happens only after we are given an apology. Probably because we have confused forgiveness with reconciliation and restoration. Forgiveness resets the status of a relationship to a condition where the relationship can potentially be renegotiated onto a path towards possible reconciliation and restoration.
Forgiveness is to be given unconditionally because we are never to close the door on a person with a conclusion of condemnation. In other words, without going through the process of potential reconciliation and restoration with a person, we cannot predetermine the outcome in our hearts and therefore write the person or the relationship off before God has a chance to work. We may need to take time to decompress and get our bearings before we go down the road of potential reconciliation and restoration with the person who wronged us, but we cannot close the door. This is the issue Jesus addresses with Peter when He is asked, “How many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me?” Jesus essentially says to Peter through picturesque words, “There is never a time you can close the door on a person and completely write them off” Jesus is NOT saying that we are to throw away healthy boundaries, deny sin, pretend we aren’t hurt, and re-enter the relationship as if nothing has happened! No, if anybody knew there are times when you have to love people from a distance and re-negotiate the status of a relationship, it was Jesus. As Jesus experienced, some people will refuse to repent, own their issues, deal with the truth, and do the hard work of reconciliation and repentance. Some will insist on living in denial, casting blame, remaining unhealthy, and even walk away. Beyond waiting, praying, and loving from a distance, in certain relationships there is not much else you and I can do or even should do. That’s why Paul writes, “As far as it depends on you, live it peace with everyone” In relationships, we can only do so much, especially when it comes to moving from forgiveness to reconciliation and repentance.
That’s why forgiveness is 1) an instant gift you give to yourself that also 2) plants the seed to potentially become a gift to the person who wronged you and the relationship between the two of you.
o.o3 Forgiveness confronts the offender with responsibility.
The moment I communicate to a person that “I forgive you” or “I have forgiven you” there is a power that places a certain amount of responsibility on them. Forgiveness never releases the wrong-doer of responsibility. Where forgiveness is a one way street, reconciliation and restoration of the relationship is a two-way street. It only takes one person to forgive, it takes two people to reconcile and restore a relationship. Once you announce that forgiveness has been granted, both parties reach a crossroads in the relationship. Either the relationship gets worse and erodes, or the relationship gets better and moves forward. The one thing it can’t do, is remain the same. That’s why conflict and offense can actually be a relationship strengthener and transformer if forgiveness is moved to reconciliation and restoration by both parties. Though this process often takes much time and hard work, I have seen marriages that have encountered an affair be transformed into becoming stronger and more centered on Christ than ever before. I have seen family relationships that have been severely offended become whole and closer than ever before. The key is what happens in the relationship once forgiveness has been granted. Unfortunately, most people assume that once forgiveness has been granted, the work is over. And then they wonder why weeks and months later the relationship isn’t any better. They play nice on the surface, but underneath nothing has been truly resolved and healed. The truth is, when forgiveness is granted, the work isn’t over, instead it has just begun. In fact, forgiveness is often the easy part, reconciliation and restoration is where the men are separated from the boys, the women from the girls.
What Forgiveness Doesn’t Do…
0.01 Forgiveness doesn’t magically heal our relationships.
Forgiveness will automatically heal you, but it will not automatically heal the relationship. The concept that we have adopted in our culture towards forgiveness that asserts it can and should instantly heal relationships is false and unhealthy. Can reconciliation and restoration happen quickly in some circumstances? I sure hope so. But this is often not the case. When Peter wronged Jesus by denying Him three times, did Jesus immediately forgive him? Yes. Was their relationship immediately reconciled and restored? Not in the earthly sense. Rather, some time after the offense, Jesus had some pointed questions of Peter. Peter’s response determined the level of reconciliation and restoration given. Furthermore, Jesus described specific actions for Peter to take that would show his apology to be genuine, “Feed my sheep.”
Charles Spurgeon once said that a person is ready for reconciliation and restoration when their repentance is louder than their sin. Repentance is a change of heart and mind that is seen by our actions. We say sorry with words, we say repentance with actions. There truly is little point in trying to reconcile and restore a relationship where repentance has to be chased out of the shadows. If you have to ask and beg for repentance, you can be sure repentance is not what you will be given. Repentance comes from the heart and quickly moves into our actions. Furthermore, the people who have been truly repentive in my relationships, I often have to push them to stop saying sorry instead of trying to pull it out of them. You can hear that same plea from the heart of Peter, “Jesus, you know I love you.” Yet, in the end, what Jesus was looking for to move the relationship forward wasn’t just tearful words but transformed actions.
There is nothing wrong with looking for the fruits of repentance (as John the Baptist declared) in another to help us discern the level of trust and closeness we should re-establish with another. In fact, this discernment is not only necessary and healthy, it will be critical in reforming the relationship back together. We can love unconditionally without giving unlimited access to our heart. We can love unconditionally without allowing a person unlimited closeness to our lives.
0.02 Forgiveness does not mean what the person did is now o.k
When the Bible says, “Love covers a multitude of sins” or it is wise to “overlook an offense,” it is important to note that it is not speaking of redefining or denying sin. To cover over a sin is different than redefining it. It’s to be a cover over, not a cover up. Furthermore, covering over sin does not necessarily mean removing consequences.
God always calls sin a sin. Yet, He covers over it with His blood so that reconciliation and restoration can be received through faith. If God doesn’t first cover over sin through Jesus, we could not come to Him through faith. God never denies sin, He rather denies its potential power through the cross.
Forgiveness is never to be a cover up job, but rather a covering over. I can hate what a person has done while looking over it towards what God can do through the two of us to move past/over the offense towards reconciliation. In order to see past the shrapnel of sin from a relationship explosion to what God can do to transform and heal it, we must be first be willing to cover over the offense with forgiveness. We must emotionally look away from offense so that we can look towards the possibilities of what God can do. Thus, indeed, love does covers a multitude of sins. It’s not denial, it’s not permission to sin or to be hurt again, nor a guaranteed removal of consequences. Rather, it’s a covering over in order to reveal a path available to both parties of potential reconciliation and restoration. It is a turning down on the volume of sin in order be able to hear and listen for the voice of a repentant heart and the possibility of reconciliation and restoration to occur.
No doubt, relationships can be messy, but they are still a mess worth making, thanks to what true forgiveness can do and lead to.
Forgiveness is God’s way of enabling us to “Motel 6” people. We must always be willing to “keep the light on” and be willing to see what God can do in our relationships. Forgiveness doesn’t guarantee anything, but it makes possible everything. And the best part is, when forgiveness is done right, we can keep our wholeness and holiness in the process. With true forgiveness, you have nothing to lose and everything to potentially gain.