The Christian Life: What Does Forgiveness Look Like?
I Forgive You...I Think
"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors..." (Matt 6:12).
What does it mean to forgive another person? I don't think we really know. We hear about forgiveness in our churches all the time, and yet the term itself somehow escapes being defined. As a result, we call a lot of things "forgiveness" which have nothing to do with what the Bible actually says.
For example, forgiveness is not:
1. Forgetting a wrong
We often banter about the phrase "forgive and forget." It's catchy and sounds like a good idea, but can you ever really forget? Is it realistic, especially when the other person has hurt you deeply?
Supporters of "forgive and forget" sometimes go to Jer 31:34, where the Bible says that God forgives us and no longer remembers our sins. But what does that mean? To borrow from Paul Tripp and Tim Lane's excellent book Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, does that mean that God gets amnesia when he looks at you? (pg. 97) Can the all-knowing God forget the past? Or act like it didn't happen?
When God says he won't remember our sins, he's saying that he will never count them against us. In other words, God doesn't hold grudges. Rather, "when we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn 1:9). He's using covenantal language, not psychological language.
2. Saying, "It's all right," or "Don't worry about it"
My dad taught me when I was young to never say, "It's OK," when someone apologized to me. I think we say these things to try to make the person apologizing feel better, but honestly...is sin ever all right? Do we really want them to "not worry about it"? Do we wish the other person hadn't apologized at all?
3. Absolving the offender from facing the consequences of his or her sin
There are not many passages in the Bible more sobering than 2 Sam 12:13-14, which chronicles the consequences of David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah.
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die."
This passage gives me the shivers. On the one hand, God forgave David's absolutely despicable actions, testifying to the immensity of God's grace. However, that didn't excuse what David did or remove the consequences of his sin. David's son died and his family was ravaged by jealousy, war, and rape. David experienced God's fatherly discipline for his sin (Heb 12:7).
In order to understand real forgiveness, we first have to understand what it means for God to forgive us. One of the clearest passages in the Bible about this issue is Col 2:13-14.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
God forgave us by "canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands." That's a tangible description; we understand what it means to have our debts canceled. It means you don't have to pay the debt anymore.
But here's the deal: even if your debt is canceled, someone still has to eat the loss. Debt doesn't just magically go away (no matter how much we wish it would)! Money has been spent that needs to be repaid. If your credit card company cancels your debt, they eat the loss—they absorb the outstanding fines and fees.
Our situation with God is similar. Even though God loves us, he cannot ignore our sin. It's real and must be punished. The solution: bear the cost himself. The Father sent his only Son to be nailed to the cross, bearing our debt and the corresponding punishment. God absorbed our debt and will never punish us for it. When Jesus cried out on the cross, "It is finished," he announced to the world that our debt had been paid in full (John 19:30).
I Forgive You...For Real
In the same way, when you and I forgive someone, we are absorbing the hurt that has been done to us. It means that you won't seek revenge or try to inflict on the offender the same kind of hurt he or she has caused you. You’re setting that person free; there's no payment required (although restitution may be an appropriate consequence).
No other kind of forgiveness is worth offering! I started this post by quoting from the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Would you want God to forgive you in the same way that you forgive others? Do you hide the hurts and crimes of others deep in the recesses of your mind, allowing them to turn to bitterness? Do you bring up those old wounds in conversation, using them as weapons against the offender? What would happen to us if God acted like that?
Needless to say, real forgiveness is hard. In fact, it's impossible unless you're forgiving others out of a sense of the forgiveness you've received from God. That's why Paul wrote in Col 3:13,
"As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
Peacemaker Ministries has a helpful summary of what real forgiveness looks like in action. There are four promises involved:
- I will not think about this incident
- I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you
- I will not talk about this incident to others
- I will not allow this incident to stand between us and hinder our friendship
May God give us grace to forgive as he has forgiven us.
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