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What Forgiveness Is Not

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When we forgive, we reflect the heart of God. We imitate Him when we relinquish resentment and treat the offending person as one who matters much to God. The stakes are high, and Jesus warned us accordingly: “‘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’” (Matt. 6:14-15).

Forgiveness is a command, meaning that we must make a decision to release a person from our debt even if our feelings haven’t caught up yet. It helps when we remember the debt God has canceled in our lives, bringing to mind Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21–35) “‘Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” (v. 33).

At the same time, it’s vital to remember what forgiveness does not mean. What does it look like for Bill to forgive the man who had an affair with his wife? How should Megan relate to the uncle who molested her two years ago? What will it mean for Sue to forgive her children’s father for refusing to pay child support?

Many people carry unnecessary guilt, beating themselves up over how they’re feeling because they’re trying to do more than what Jesus really asks of us. Forgiveness is:

1. Not minimizing: We don’t have to ignore a person’s hurtful behavior.

Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). It’s okay to say, “What you did really hurt; it stung me deeply.”

If we minimize an offense, we’re like a person who ignores a nasty infection. The only way to find healing is to finally admit, “This is bad; I’ve got to give this some attention.”

Even Jesus confronted unjust behavior that was directed toward Him. At His trial, when He was hit in the face, He declared, “‘If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong . . . But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?’” (John 18:23).

2. Not forgetting: We are not asked to erase the memory.

I’ve seen people get all tied up in knots on this one. They say, “Aren’t you supposed to forgive and forget?” There’s even a book by that name that promotes the myth. The fact is, the Bible never instructs us to forget the wrongs done to us. Deep hurts rarely leave one’s memory. God just didn’t program our minds that way.

Love does decide, however, to keep “no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5). You might not forget the offense, but you don’t hold it against anyone. In time, we find that the Lord can bring into our lives such joy, such healing, that the memories of past hurts actually begin to lose their power over us.

3. Not reconciling: We may seek reconciliation, but we can forgive even if reconciliation doesn’t happen.

Hebrews 12:14 instructs us to “make every effort to live in peace with [everyone].” “Make every effort” means it might not be possible. Reconciliation takes two people—so you do your best to make it happen. But even if the other person doesn’t accept, you can still show them mercy.

And if you do clear the air, reconciliation does not mean you will necessarily have a close friendship, exchanging birthday gifts and doing backyard barbecues. It simply means you’re at peace with that person. It’s not dangerous for them to be in the same room with you.

4. Not dismissing justice: When we forgive, the offender is not necessarily released from the consequences of his or her misdeed.

Does forgiveness mean you let a former spouse fail to pay child support? Or if you’re in a car wreck, you don’t press charges? Not necessarily. You can forgive and still allow consequences to be meted out.

And if people get away with their misdeeds against you, you know that God writes the final chapter. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . 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” (Rom. 12:17,19).

He always writes the end of the story . . . always.

Are these clarifications a veiled excuse for not forgiving? Not at all. We simply want to make sure we’re accurately defining what it means.

And even when a person doesn’t ask us for forgiveness, we may give mercy simply because holding onto bitterness is like holding a hot coal; the longer you hang onto it, the more you get burned.

Let’s be imitators of our Lord Jesus.

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