What is Forgiveness?

It has become apparent to me that we really have no concept of what forgiveness really means.  Of course it’s not a surprise that the non-Christian world cannot understand the concept of absolute forgiveness, but I’ve been rather shocked that the church doesn’t seem to grasp the concept either.  As a pastor I’ve perhaps foolishly assumed that since forgiveness is something I spend a lot of time preaching about, that the church would actually understand it.

Theologically every Christian should understand the idea that sins are forgiven through Jesus and the cross.  This is not the stumbling block for forgiveness.  The real stumbling block becomes in how it is applied in everyday life.

When we ask God for forgiveness, there are no strings attached and it is instantaneous and complete.  Forgiveness from other people is a much more complicated venture even though it shouldn’t be.  Make no mistake about it, sin carries consequences and just because forgiveness is granted, it doesn’t mean that the consequences don’t still exist.  A criminal is not released from prison just because he is sorry for his actions or even if the person he has wronged has forgiven him.  Likewise, if a sin occurs within a relationship, that offense can easily be forgiven but that does not mean that there has not been damage done to that relationship.

The trouble with forgiveness from a human perspective is two-fold.  The first is whether the forgiveness we offer is truly unconditional.  There can be no forgiveness unless it is unconditional.  Our tendency is to attach strings to our forgiveness.  We’ll forgive someone so long as they make up for their wrongdoing.  We’ll forgive someone so long as they never do it again.

The second problem with forgiveness is that we place limits on the number of times we will offer it.  Matthew 18:21-22 has a telling example of forgiveness.

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Peter thought he was being gracious by being willing to forgive someone seven times but Jesus responded by saying “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  The number is not meant to be literal but rather as a statement that forgiveness does not have a limit.

This certainly goes against our human nature.  There is a saying, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  In other words, if we’ve been wronged more than once, it’s partly our own fault for forgiving and trusting a person again.  But this isn’t the way that forgiveness works.  Yes, we can forgive but the relationship remains damaged.  However, our forgiveness should not be contingent on whether a person may or may not wrong us again.

It’s easy to forgive when we believe a person made a solitary mistake.  Whether it was an out of character burst of anger or a momentary lapse in judgment, we find it easier to forgive when we think it’s not going to happen again.

However, when a person continually disappoints us, whether it’s through continual drug relapses or through repeated infidelity, that’s where forgiveness really matters.  Can you forgive someone when they’ve done the same thing to you a fifth time?  The Bible not only says that we should, it is demanded of us.

If we refuse to forgive someone because they’ve hurt us for the fifth or tenth or twentieth time, do we want God to hold us to the same standard?  How many times have we hurt God?  How many times have we placed something at a higher value than God?  How many times have we felt God calling us to do something but instead said “no thanks, I’ll do it my way”?

As I’ve said, sin has consequences and this isn’t in any way to imply that forgiveness means that a person should continue to stay with an abusive partner or to endure whatever other things sin brings about.  But it does still mean that we’re called to forgive.  In some cases the hurt is so great and the damage done is so terrible that it will take years in order to unconditionally forgive someone.  That’s possible but it is not an excuse to not forgive.

If there is no sin so great that God can’t forgive, there should be no sin so terrible that we are not willing to forgive it.  If the pain is too terrible right now, at least begin by acknowledging that there can be a time in the future when you can forgive unconditionally.

When we forgive, we open ourselves up for the possibility of future hurt.  We expose ourselves and take down our guard.  Our nature and perhaps even common sense says that this is foolish because we naturally seek to protect ourselves.  But the reality is that if we refuse to forgive unconditionally, we don’t need anyone else to hurt us.  Instead we’re just continually hurting ourselves.

Common sense as well as scientific research tells us that when we hold on to grudges and do not forgive, we cause ourselves harm.  Not only do we find ourselves filled with anger and bitterness, our health suffers when we won’t forgive.  We suffer from high blood pressure, stress, tension, and all other manner of problems.

In the end, there can only be one kind of forgiveness and it has to be the same kind of forgiveness that God grants us.  That kind of forgiveness is unconditional and without limit.  There is no sin so great that God will not forgive us when we repent and God will continually forgive us no matter how many times we fail Him.

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