In the final ten years of my life in law enforcement, I investigated more then a 1000 situations ranging from drug dealers, to murder, to grand larceny, to domestic violence, to traffic accidents: None of them had any innocent parties. Everyone involved in each situation owned part of the cause and blame.
Two New Testament words we translate “to forgive” mean literally “to let go” and “to cancel” a wrong.
Paul said; “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18 (ESV)
This study will seek to answer the important and vital questions concerning forgiveness.
What is forgiveness?
Simply put, forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge and releasing the negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment towards a person, institution, or situation. Is it easy to do? No! However, it is easy to see where in a person’s life they have not actually or honestly forgiven others.
- Lack of forgiveness can be readily seen in our demeanor towards the people we have not forgiven.
- Lack of forgiveness can be readily seen in our speech about or towards the people we have not forgiven.
- Lack of forgiveness cannot be hidden very long due to the prevailing attitude’s that not forgiving manifests’ within our hearts and our lives.
- Lack of forgiveness hinders our effectiveness for the cause of Christ.
Is forgiveness that important to the Christian?
Jesus on many occasions commanded His followers to forgive. Therefore, the best reason to forgive is that Jesus commanded us to forgive. We learn from Scripture, if we do not forgive, neither will we be forgiven. Three of these commands are:
Matthew 6:14-16 (NIV) “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Mark 11:25 (NIV) “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Luke 6:37 (NIV) “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
How do we forgive when we do not feel like it?
We forgive by faith, not by our own ability, but out of our obedience to God through Jesus. Since forgiveness goes against our nature, we must forgive by faith, whether we feel like it or not. We must trust God to do the work in us that needs to be done so that the forgiveness will be complete.
What is natural to “the flesh” (the carnal nature of humans) when we have been hurt, abused, or insulted – is to strike back, to plot revenge, or to simmer in bitterness. This is our nature.
However, God requires forgiveness, or He will NOT forgive us. If we are unwilling – unable – to forgive, then there is no use in asking God for what He has already told us He will not give.
Therefore, to all Christians, struggling with the sin of not forgiving is a first priority.
What Forgiveness Is Not:
1) Play Acting for Show –
Remember the times as a child you were forced to “forgive” someone who was also forced to say “I’m sorry” to you. Was this really repentance? Was this really forgiveness? Let us be honest and acknowledge that this charade by children is more often a temporary fix of hostilities for the sake of the grown-ups, with the full intent to do more of the same (and not get caught) later – when beyond the adult’s watchful eye.
Adults force children through this ritual because strife in a family or group is an unbearable pain. Play – acting does give a temporary reprieve. This childish pretense of “forgiveness” often carries into adulthood as a superficial substitute for the real thing. We think by “saying so,” it is so. However, is God fooled? Is there ever a place where we can escape His penetrating gaze? Does He not see the secret thoughts of revenge or the bitter hatred behind the fake smile? Since when is He impressed with mere words when hearts do not match?
Nevertheless, God’s pain is more acute when He sees our wars of anger with each other. God’s commanded solution aims a little deeper than mere words or delay or coating over. God’s command is aiming not at hypocritical play-acting, but at truth from the inside out.
Mark 7:6 “And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.“ (ESV)
2) Is Denial Forgiveness?
The inability to really forgive is often due to a false concept that “forgetting is forgiving.” Forgetting is NOT forgiving. If we forgive we will forget as a result. However, the reverse is not true: forgetting is not forgiving – it is denial.
Ps 51:6 (ESV) “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”
If we attempt to achieve a bogus forgiveness by deliberately putting “out of mind” the offense, we might be fooling ourselves into thinking we have “forgiven.” Nevertheless, all of the emotions and hurt are still there – only held back by our force of will in our deliberate denial. When we see “that person” again – all the bitterness and pain rise up again. On the other hand, in the off moment – when such mental gymnastics cannot be maintained – we catch ourselves in elaborate thoughts of revenge or fit of rage and anger. Then we see just how deep and ineffective this sort of “forgiveness” is.
1 John 2:9-11 (ESV) “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him, there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
Denial is merely a delusion: flimsy, fake, and shallow. Forgiveness is real: alive, solid, and lives deep in our hearts. It is not avoiding of the truth, but a dealing with it squarely, however painful.
Consider God’s perspective. Nothing is hidden from His sight: the evil intent, the hidden lust, the damage done, the choosing of that which is wrong, etc. Yet, He is the author and originator of forgiveness. If we are going to really forgive, we are going to have to do it His way: with our eyes open.
For those God forgives, He will “forget” their sins, “remembering them no more.” Let us not accuse God of being ignorant of any fact. He has told us that nothing is beyond His sight. Let us understand the spiritual dynamic of how God forgives.
Hebrews 8:12 (NIV) “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The order here is essential. Forgiveness first, forgetting second. Until real forgiveness takes place, the offense is always “in our face” with regards to the person, and it is the same with God. The sin comes between us, and cannot be “forgotten” until dealt with. If we seek true forgiveness, we can then regard the person without the “offense” looming always between us.
Isa 43:25 (NIV) “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Forgiveness is really for us: For our sake.
3) Road Block to Forgiveness:
A major road block to forgiveness is that bitterness; revenge, hatred, etc. have a sick sort of appeal. Who has not felt the intoxicating lure of grandiose thoughts of scorching retribution? While we know this is wrong, it sure is a great feeling in the moment to fondle such resentments. But God does not like this.
Eph 4:26-27,31 (NIV) “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold… Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
4) Vengeance Is the Lord’s… Only If I Allow Him To Act As My Agent?
Rom 12:19 (NIV) “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
Surely, God has more power to pour wrath on our enemies than we do, and He surely sees the evil done all to clearly. Therefore, the thought may strike us to let Him do the dirty work. Nevertheless, when we think this through, it may not turn out as we might like. Let us face the plain truth that God has a habit of forgiving people and extending great mercy. So we may not see fire from heaven come down to consume those we wish would receive God’s vengeance. It is not that He is letting them off by some magic: It is just that He may take the painful punishment Himself. Remember God did that at least once before just for you.
Prov 24:17 (NAS) “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
Mat 5:44-45 “But what I tell you is this: love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be like children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest. If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Surely the tax-gatherers do as much as that. And if you greet only your brothers, what is there extraordinary about that? Even the heathen do as much. There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.”
Let us “count the cost” of letting God deal with our “enemies.” He may bless them, prosper them, and save their eternal souls, rather than strike them dead with a lightning bolt. Moreover, this may not satisfy our sense of what should happen. If we “let go and let God”, He may well forgive and bless and love those we have plotted against and smoldered in hatred for.
Luke 17:3-5 (ESV) “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.”
Remember What You Have Been Forgiven From!
Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV) “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. “ Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘ Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred Denair. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow-servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ In anger, his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Where this servant failed, was in FORGETTING the free merciful treatment His master gave him. He FORGOT the great sin he was forgiven of.
2 Peter 1:9 (NAS) “…For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.”
Let us not make the same mistake. Let us make sure to remember our salvation from former sins. Think about Peter’s statement:
2 Peter 1:9 (NAS) “…For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.”
Various people and teachers will have various opinions and advice about forgiveness. However, by Biblical revelation, not remembering appears to be the MAJOR reason for “kinking” the supernatural flow of forgiveness in our lives.
Are we each less in need of forgiveness than those we are judging and not forgiving? Really? Have we so quickly forgotten the great mercy God has shown us when we needed it?
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: Luke 18:9-14 (NIV) “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God…”
Matthew 5:21-22 (NIV) “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…”
Concerning God’s command for us to forgive, remember what was written in 1 Sam 16:7 (NIV) “…The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Christian Forgiveness Has Two Parts: Willingness to be forgiven and willingness to forgive.
Over the last 20+ years, I have learned what forgiveness looks like.
The first thing I must always remember is true forgiveness always starts with me and the attitude of my heart. I cannot forgive others unless I am willing to allow others to forgive me. But how can I really do this?
Twice Paul tells Christians to examine themselves. In 1 Cor 11:28 concerning our attitudes towards others as we observe the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of all that Jesus unselfishly did for us in God’s forgiveness of our sin’s towards Him. The second place Paul commands Christians to examine themselves is in 2 Cor 13:5 so that we can know we are living as Jesus would have us live.
Before I ask forgiveness, I actually do look at myself as commanded:
- I get a journal. (a new one not an old one)
- In this book, I make three different sections with at least 30 pages between sections.
In the first section, I make six columns.
- The first column is “I am resentful at”
- The second column is “The cause of the resentment”
- The third column is “This effects my”
- The forth column is “What did I do”
- The fifth column is “Where am I to blame”
- The sixth column is “What is my wrong I caused”
In the second section, I make two columns.
- The first columns is “What am I afraid of?”
- The second column is “Have I honestly asked God to remove them?”
In the third section, I make five columns.
- The first column is “Where have I been selfish, dishonest, inconsiderate?”
- The second column is “Where have I aroused jealousy, suspicion, bitterness?”
- The third column is “All my relationships”
- The forth column is “Were my actions, words, attitudes selfish, self-seeking?”
- The fifth column is “What should I have done instead?”
These three reviews of self are vital to making a proper positive amends for forgiveness. These reviews of self absolutely must be made with an honest heart. Without first doing these self-appraisals, more harm is almost always done when seeking to make amends and asking for forgiveness.
Before I set out to make any amends to anyone, I review my part in the situation. I normally share my personal inventory with another person who has experience in this VITAL step of putting life back together. To not review my entire list with another person before making amends is just another act of selfishness and is not an honest attempt at setting things right.
The purpose of this independent review is to ensure nothing has been left out and the correct request for forgiveness will be made.
I must always remember, it was my self-will and my own thinking that got me into the trouble in the first place. A self-directed mind cannot heal a self-directed mind.
Once the review with another person is completed, we two ask God together to mold my ideals and help me live up to them in the future as I now can honestly set out to make a honest and proper amends for forgiveness.
One last point that is vital to understand. The response of the person whom I make amends is not important. Time will heal them of their resentments towards me as they see by my future actions and future words that I was honest with them at the time I made my (face to face) amends for forgiveness. It is not reasonable to expect people to be 100% forgiving at the very moment the amends is made even if they say they accept the amends or not.
How I forgive and forget:
Before I accept amends for forgiveness, I actually do the following:
I listen to the person seeking forgiveness. I hear what they have to say.
Are they trying to divert blame? Are they justifying their conduct? Are they sincere?
If a person is sincere then they will not attempt to divert blame.
If a person is sincere then they will address only their part of the wrong and request forgiveness without justification for their actions.
I always try to remember that God through Jesus offered free forgiveness to me long before I could see in my heart that I was in need of His forgiveness.
Then I pray that God will open my heart to forgive and forget even if I do not believe 100% the amends being offered at that time. I actively try my best to obey God and forgive and leave the results up to God.
I would like to leave with one final thought. Paul advised the early Christians to; “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13 (NIV)
Guy Lewis, Payson, Arizona
October 23, 2010