I want to see if you can help me with my problem with someone who has hurt me more than anyone really understands. I agree with forgiveness and I WANT to forgive and move on. But here’s the one thing I can’t wrap my head around: If you forgive somebody for something, isn’t there some implicit idea that the person would of course not continue to do what it was you were forgiving them for in the first place?
– G. from California
What forgiveness is NOT (Part 1)
I realize from your question that you are in a real dilemma. You are probably going around in circles in your head. How can forgiveness be extended for behavior that is not repented of? If a husband cheats on his wife and wants the wife’s forgiveness, does she have to give it even though the cheating continues?
So — the first thing I’m going to handle in answering you is to tell you what forgiveness is NOT. Let’s get this out of the way up front because it may help to handle some of the hesitancy you feel in forgiving.
- Extending forgiveness does not mean that what the person did was okay. It is not a free pass for the offender’s continued behavior.
- Forgiveness does not glibly ignore your feelings and say they don’t matter.
- Forgiveness does not mean you are letting someone off the hook; it just means you are passing the hook to someone else. (More on that later.)
- Forgiveness does not always wipe away all your feelings about the offense – at least at first. With God’s help that may change.
When we have been wronged something deep inside of us wants justice. That’s not misguided because God feels the same way. The Bible tells us this about him: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Thy throne.” (Psalm 89:14) It is not inconsistent that God is both perfectly merciful and perfectly just.
Which would you rather know intimately about God – his mercy or his justice? Mercy for yourself and justice for the next guy? That’s how I often feel. So, it’s an important question to ponder as you consider the issue of forgiveness. Remember: “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes but the Lord weighs the hearts.” (Proverbs 21:2) With that thought, we will next talk about what forgiveness is.
What forgiveness IS (Part 2)
The first thing I have to say about forgiveness is that it is HARD. I’m sorry to have to say it but I personally consider it one of the thornier commands of Jesus. How in the world could he be thinking of requiring it of us? Well here’s how: he did it first and he had the least reason to forgive – being God and being perfect and all.
Romans 5:8 says; “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”Every single one of us has sinned and offended God. When Christ hung on the cross he offered forgiveness for every sin that had ever been or would ever be committed. Now the important part: he did it before anyone ever repented and even if they never did. How many millions down through history never took Christ up on his offer to be reconciled to God?
That concept gets us closer to the core of forgiveness practically speaking when faced with trying to forgive someone ourselves. Forgiveness is not based on the offender’s side of things; it is a decision on our side. Admittedly hard, yes, but now I will get back to the “hook” I mentioned previously.
When we forgive someone we pass the “hook” to God. They are not getting away with any injustice done to us but we are allowing that it is not us in charge of administering justice. We release them from owing us anything. That’s between them and God, the one who “weights the hearts.”
Remember that he weighs our heart too. And if we want forgiveness we have to give forgiveness. God feels so strongly about it that he says: “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14) It’s easier to give forgiveness away by remembering you’ll be in need of receiving it over and over in your lifetime.
Deciding to forgive does not come out of either your head or your emotions because both of those may fail you. You can decide to forgive even if feelings are still raw. You can decide to forgive even when your head says it is not a very smart move. Forgiveness is a decision of your heart – your deepest self, the real you, your spirit and the part of you that is eternal.
Okay, but how?
How to forgive (Part 3)
Because forgiveness is so difficult depending on the greatness of the offense, the best practical advice is to get some help. Realize that you are in over your head the same way you would if you were trying to build a house with no construction skills. In that case you’d go to someone who knows the construction business.
Ask God for help – he knows the forgiveness business like nobody else. Would he require that we forgive and not provide a way to do it? Just the fact that he tells us to forgive means it is possible. Pray to God and admit with all honesty how you feel. Pour your grievances out to him in full but end with this: “Lord, I don’t know how to forgive but I’m willing to do it with your help. Please help me.”
It is in the end your “willingness” that will turn the tide. Once you have genuine willingness, the way will come. That is often the sticking point and it may in fact be the root of your difficulty. None of us wants to give up having things our own way. That’s why we often want the other person to do something to deserve our forgiveness but that has to be discarded.
Now take the step of voicing your forgiveness out loud to God. “God, I hereby choose to forgive ______ for ________.” After you do this you may or may not feel a release. Even if you do feel better, expect that there will be times when the feelings will back up on you. That does not mean the forgiveness is voided. You simply go back and point to the decision you made out loud to God on that important date.
Depending on the circumstances, work toward reconciliation. If possible, open communication with the other party. (This of course is not possible in some cases, for instance, forgiving someone who is now dead.) “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Romans 12:18)
No grudges. No retaliation. No continuing to harbor the offense. What do you get for all this hard work? You get something better than holding onto your grievance. You get freedom. You are free before God regardless of the condition of the other person.
Go ahead now; you can do it. With God all things are possible!