Forgiveness is such a difficult concept to grasp and to practice. On the one hand, as selfish people, we tend to believe our rights trump all others, and when offended we want payment not repentance. Christians too, however, struggle with the appropriate practice of forgiveness, for we tend to use the language of forgiveness to ignore the consequences of sin or to remove any responsibility for reconciliation. We can forgive too quickly, naively, and generically. A proper understanding of what forgiveness isn’t, however, can save us from making these mistakes.
In his book Counsel for Couples Jonathan Holmes outlines several common myths about forgiveness and at about repentance. Combined each myth presents us with an opportunity to see just how skewed our perspective on the whole matter is. They’re a particular popular way of communicating the concept which feel right but which fall short of the robust theological picture given in Scripture. Furthermore, each myth dramatically and negatively impacts the nature of our relationships as we seek to offer forgiveness. Understanding these common myths may help us to actually forgive with greater ease and clarity. I have structured the language of these myths to more clearly identify the distinct differences between Biblical forgiveness/repentance and the myth.
Apologizing is NOT the same as Asking for Forgiveness. “This is one of the most common myths,” says Holmes (73). Saying, “I am sorry,” takes less vulnerability than asking for forgiveness. It is a superficial response to our sin against another. Uttering the words, “Will you forgive me,” places us in subjection to the one we have wronged. It grants them the freedom to decide how they will respond. Such language evidences humility that corresponds to genuine repentance. Of course, we can utter these words and not truly be repentant, but they are harder words to utter. Apologizing, says Holmes, “is not a biblical concept.”
Forgiving is NOT Forgetting. This is phase requires some particularly nuanced parsing. It is true, of course, that the Bible speaks of God “remembering our sins no more” (Heb. 8:12). That is not, however, because God technically forgets, He is, after all, omniscient. The language here is designed to reflect God’s intentional choice not to remember them. He takes our sin and purposefully “places them behind” His back (Isa. 38:17). We struggle, sometimes, with forgiveness because we struggle to actually “forget.” If I still remember the sins, then, we reason, how can I forgive them. The goal is to choose to not remember them, which may be a regular practice not a one time event. We are making an intentional choice not to bring the sins up again – not to ourselves, not to someone else, and not to the offender. This is an important distinction in practice that can help us move forward in forgiveness.
Forgiveness does NOT Mean Forgiving Myself. This is another pop-psychology concept that has had some enduring power. The concept deals with actual issues of personal shame, regret, and guilt. Forgiving oneself, in this sense, means I am having difficulty letting things go, growing from my past mistakes, or believing that forgiveness is possible. The concept fails, however, because it places our own moral standard above that of God. If God can forgive me then who am I to disagree! Jesus died for even these sins! My standard of righteousness is not higher than God’s, and if there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), then I need to submit to God. Working through lingering shame and regret is healthy, but this language misconstrues those needs.
Forgiveness is Not Reconciliation. Forgiveness has two dimensions to it. I will explore this later in my second post in this series. The first has to do with the vertical relationship (my relationship to God), the second has to do with my horizontal relationships (my relationship to my offender). I may be in a state of forgiveness, ready to forgive those who repent, and yet not be reconciled to someone who refuses to repent or acknowledge their sin. When deep wounds have been committed, or patterns of hurt have been developed, it can be hard to forgive precisely because we do not see the possibility of reconciliation. This often leaves people stuck and stranded in progress. We may forgive (fulfilling the vertical dimension) but not yet experience reconciliation (the horizontal dimension). Reconciliation takes time, but we do not have to linger in bitterness, resentment, and revenge while that process unfolds.
Forgiveness does NOT Remove Consequences. We are sometimes reluctant to forgive because we think that this means the offending party will “get away with” their sin. That they will be enabled to simply repeat the offense without any accountability. The Bible teaches, however, that ” a man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). And forgiveness may deal with the nature of our relationship, but it does not absolve you of all earthly consequences for your behavior. That may mean that marriages end, legal action is taken, and restrictions are put in place. Repentant people are willing to accept the consequences of their sin. Forgiving people do not have to fear that the granting of forgiveness removes consequences. Consequences may remain, but relationships can be rebuilt in-spite of that.
Forgiveness is NOT a Feeling. If we are waiting until we “feel” like forgiving then we will probably never forgive. Offenses hurt and sting. That sting can linger for a long time, even as we attempt to work out the relationship. In fact, in most cases, the feelings come after the actual offer of forgiveness – sometimes long after. We forgive because we are commanded to do so (Matt. 18:15-35), but that does not erase the emotional complexity of forgiveness. We must forgive, in-spite of our feelings. Brad Hambrick keenly observes:
If we demand the benefits of forgiveness before we take the risk of forgiveness, we become trapped at the crucial point. (Quoted in Holmes, 76)
We forgive and trust that this step will help to rebuild the relationship, and that in time the emotions will follow.
Forgiveness is NOT Easy. As was indicated in the above paragraph, forgiveness is challenging. It goes against our sinful nature, but it also goes against our desire to self-protect. There is always a risk in offering forgiveness; we have, after all, been legitimately hurt. There are some simplistic Christian theologies that suggest that if we have truly experienced forgiveness in Christ then we should have no problem offering forgiveness. Jesus does, after all, teach that this is to be our mentality. Jesus tells a parable of a servant who was forgiven a great debt, but demanded payment of a small debt from his fellow servant. The key to this story comes when Jesus warns us that our Heavenly Father will judge us if we do not forgive as we have been forgiven (Matt. 18:15-35). That story should not be used, however, to erase the emotional complexity of offering forgiveness. What is necessary is not always easy, and in fact the challenge of forgiveness is one of the ways that we know it is a supernatural event! God gives us the grace we need to forgive, because it is so hard to do it.
Forgiveness is an essential part of the Christian life. It reflects the gospel by which we are saved, and it demonstrates the love of God to others. But we must be careful to not muddy the waters of forgiveness with myths and pop-psychology. Knowing the difference between Biblical forgiveness and what is NOT forgiveness is exceedingly important for our practice of forgiveness. If you find yourself stuck, struggling to forgive or ask for forgiveness, perhaps you should evaluate if you are believing any of these myths.