Recently I’ve been reading a lot of well-intentioned and heart-warming Christmas-themed stories in order to boost my “Christmas spirit,” or really, because my Christmas spirit is just fine, to revel in the warmth and love that defines the season. However, this activity has brought forth, in abundance, the manifestation of this one pet peeve of mine. It is this idea of forgiveness, the common notion of today that forgiveness is not about the other person, the person whom I am forgiving, but instead it is about me, the forgiver. Right away this should ring some alarm bells, but wait. Before we talk about that, there is more to this modern notion of forgiveness. It is commonly said that we should forgive our transgressors even if they do not confess or ask forgiveness, even if they don’t think they did anything wrong because, after all, it’s about me, not them anyway. And finally, and I hear this from more people than not, they say they always forgive, but they don’t forget, meaning of course, that they will forever protect themselves from those who hurt them by never really trusting them again, always expecting the same behavior to someday resurface in the future, and in general, only saying they’ve forgiven them when in fact they haven’t at all. This is my pet peeve because it doesn’t really seem like forgiveness at all. I decided to go to the author of forgiveness, and see what He had to say about it.
First of all, it occurred to me that when God forgives us, it is to save us, not Him. We need it. It is not to help Him in anyway. He does it because 1) He loves us, 2) we need it, 3) He wants to continue in close relationship with us, and 4) we are willing to confess and repent of our sins. It is clear from the word of God that we are to model our forgiveness on His.
1 John 1:9 (ESV) says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Our forgiveness depends on our confession, and we need it to be cleansed. The scripture also says that if we don’t forgive, we will not be forgiven. We do need to forgive in order to be forgiven ourselves, but I believe this means not refusing our forgiveness when someone asks it from us.
In addition, Psalm 103:8-14 (NKJV) states, “8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. 9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. 10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him. 14 For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” I interpret this to mean that God does not hold those sins against us, waiting for us to commit them again, even though we will. He does not distance himself from us to protect himself. He understands that we are dust, but He gives us a completely clean slate, a fresh start with no relational conditions attached to our forgiveness. If we forgive, we have to accept that person, fully allowing him/her to be in a position to hurt us again, or we have set conditions on our love, and harbored the fear that he/she will commit this offense again. Of course, we are only human and cannot fully forget when we’ve been hurt, but to me forgiveness means making a daily, conscious effort to treat those we’ve forgiven as if they’ve never harmed us, expecting the best from them, and not closing off our hearts to them. We can’t continue in a close relationship with someone without consciously “forgetting” his/her transgressions against us. If we don’t consciously try to forget, we are likely suppressing anger, which eventually turns to bitterness and ultimately destroys the relationship.
If they do it again, then once they confess and repent, we are to forgive again, as many times as it takes. Luke 17:3-4 (ESV ) says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” As many times as people repent, we are to forgive them, but I can’t get away from the fact that they must repent. Here’s another example in 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV): “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” I don’t think we are being asked to forgive and forget without true repentance because God will not forgive us when we do not have true repentance. Don’t misunderstand; I believe we should love them anyway, regardless of repentance, and maybe we need to “let go” of the hold someone’s harm to us has on us so that we can move on, but this is not forgiveness.
Of course there are those who do not realize that they’ve done something to harm us. In Luke 23:34 (KJV) it says, “Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’” Sometimes people don’t know they’ve harmed us, but as it says in Matthew 18:15-22 (NKJ) “15 Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’[a] 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” It seems to me that we are to lovingly confront those who have harmed us and give them a chance to ask forgiveness, but if they do not, we leave them alone; we don’t forgive them and deal with them as if nothing happened.
So if we are to model our forgiveness on God’s, it seems we cannot merely pretend to forgive, saying we have, and then expecting them to hurt us again, and protecting our hearts from them until that day. Nor can we just forgive and treat someone as if they’ve never done anything wrong when they refuse to acknowledge that they’ve hurt us, refuse to confess, or to turn away from doing it in the future. Instead, we need to tell them they’ve hurt us honestly, and if they confess and apologize, then we whole-heartedly forgive them, putting the past behind us, entering into an open and vulnerable relationship with them as Christ has done with us. We do this in love for them and God, not for ourselves, although we do receive benefit from it.
I realize that if you do not believe the Bible is the Word of God, then none of these examples matter to you. However, the premise holds true. Ask yourself if you have truly forgiven if you no longer trust those who hurt you, or if you change the way you act around them, or distance yourself from them to protect yourself. Would it be easier to forgive them if you knew they were sorry and meant never to hurt you again? Can you truly forgive someone who is not sorry and has no intention to change?
I’m not sure where this modern interpretation of forgiveness has come from or why it has so invaded our philosophy, but I prefer God’s idea of forgiveness. It is more honest, genuine, requires effort and sacrifice and often help from God, and most of all encourages and preserves genuine relationship.–Christina Knowles