Jesus does not turn aside to discuss the case of the unrepentant. His command is clear: If he repents, forgive him. A forgiven person’s record is wiped clean.
The Lord underlined the amazing nature of forgiveness by His words of clarification in Luke 17:4, “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” We can stumble over this if we dwell on how a person could truly repent seven times a day. Jesus was not encouraging cheap words of regret; He was saying that His followers are to imitate the amazing grace of God, which pursues us in the midst of our sinfulness and waywardness. Forgiveness is not earned but given, and it is given generously and graciously.
Notice that only the person who has been wronged can forgive. People have confessed sin to me that was directed against another person or organization and then ask for my forgiveness. But if I’m not a party to the offense, I cannot forgive. Forgiveness must come from those who have been wronged.
Jesus requires us to forgive the repentant. It means to release the desire to get even or the “right” to require him to pay for what he has done. To forgive is to say, “You are free. Your debt is paid.”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting to remember, but remembering to forget. That sounds like a paradox, but it isn’t. We do remember what has happened, possibly every time we meet the offender. But declaring, “I forgive you,” is not engaging in willful amnesia. I am committing myself not to treat you on the basis of what you have done, even though I remember what it was. Time may dull the pain, but it is unlikely ever to be erased completely from memory.
Desmond Tutu, who led the post-apartheid reconciliation efforts for the nation of South Africa, put it well:
Forgiveness and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. 9
Forgiveness looks sin in the eye and speaks the difficult words: “I forgive you.”
At the same time, we must recognize that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily restore the status quo. Forgiveness isn’t the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness clears the ledger; it does not instantly rebuild trust. Forgiveness is given; reconciliation is earned. Forgiveness cancels debts; it does not eliminate all consequences. For example, a wife who has been abused by her husband may forgive him, but she is unwise to allow him to return to her home unless there is clear evidence, over time, of deep change. A husband may genuinely forgive his adulterous wife, but that may not mean that the marriage will automatically be restored. Reconciliation and forgiveness are related, but quite distinct.
In short, forgiveness involves both choice and process. True forgiveness cannot be reduced to a simple formula, but it is useful to consider four steps.
Face the Facts
Authentic forgiveness requires that we identify what has happened and understand its significance. Here are four helpful questions:
•How serious was the offense? Some things require patience more than forgiveness. If I turn every offense into a Luke 17 issue, I will devastate my relationships with my intensity and self-absorption.
•How raw is the wound? This is not an issue of time only. It’s possible that I am “picking the scab” to keep it open.
•How close is the person to me?
•How significant is our relationship?
Feel the Feelings
There’s a danger of “quick forgiveness”—a hasty verbal declaration that keeps us from processing the violation. If we are in a state of emotional numbness or denial as we try to make sense of the violation, we are in no condition to declare the work of forgiveness finished. Quick closure may actually prolong the process.
The other extreme is the temptation to slow forgiveness, an ongoing “I don’t feel ready yet,” which can be a subtle way of inflicting punishment on the offender. Between these two extremes, there’s an appropriate time to grieve the loss of what might have been. This will be a grief mixed with anger over the wrong done to us. But that anger, justified as it may be, must be carefully monitored in view of the command: “‘In your anger do not sin.’ Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (ephesians 4:26).
A Decision and a Declaration
Forgiveness is ultimately an act of the will, not a stirring of the emotions. For a Christ-follower, it is a matter of obedience. Forgiveness is an inward choice that produces a declaration: “I forgive you.” When I speak those words, I declare that the issue between us is dead and buried. I’m saying that I will not rehearse it, review it, or renew it. When it comes to mind, I will take it to the Lord, not to you.
When I was 15 years old, I talked my dad into letting me drive the car home from church one Sunday. Unfortunately, I lost control of the car at a corner and hit a light pole, doing hundreds of dollars worth of damage to the car. I was both ashamed and afraid. As steam hissed out of the radiator, before we even left the car, my father turned to me and said, “It’s okay, Gary. I forgive you.” Never once, for the rest of his life, did my father mention that event, even though it cost him a great deal of money. And he gladly let me use the car when I did get my license.
Forgiveness is not a one-time decision. I remember, after I had forgiven someone who had hurt me deeply, how much I struggled with my feelings over the following days and weeks. I had said, “I forgive you,” and meant it. But I had to remind myself repeatedly that I needed to keep that commitment. The sin certainly wasn’t erased from my memory; in fact, I had a tendency to dwell on it, to rehearse it over and over. So I fought an inner battle, and it was only by continually bringing it to the Lord and relying on His help that I could keep from bringing it out in the open again.
C. S. Lewis observed, “To forgive for the moment is not difficult, but to go on forgiving, to forgive the same offense every time it recurs to the memory—that’s the real tussle.”10
During World War II, Corrie ten Boom’s family had been caught hiding Jews. She and her sister were sent to Ravensbruck, one of the Nazi death camps, where Corrie watched her sister and many others die. In 1947, she went back to Germany to share the gospel.
In one of her talks, Corrie had spoken about the forgiveness of God. After the service, a long line of people waited to talk to her. She saw, standing in line, a terribly familiar face—a man who had been one of the cruelest guards in the prison camp. As she saw him, a score of painful memories flooded her mind. The man came up to her, stuck his hand out, and said, “A fine message, Fraulein. How good it is to know that all our sins are at the bottom of the sea.” Corrie didn’t take his hand but fumbled in her purse. Her blood froze. She knew him, but he obviously didn’t recognize her. That was understandable. After all, she was only one faceless prisoner among tens of thousands. Then he said, “You mentioned Ravensbruck. I was a guard there. But since then, I have become a Christian. I know God has forgiven the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.” Again he stuck out his hand: “Fraulein, will you forgive me?”
How could she, after all that had happened? Her hand wouldn’t move, yet she knew that the Lord wanted her to forgive him. All she could do was cry inwardly: “Jesus, help me. I can lift my hand, but You’ll have to do the rest.” Woodenly, mechanically, she raised her hand to take his. She was acting out of obedience and faith, not out of love. However, even as she did, she experienced God’s transforming grace. She writes:
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. But even then, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit.11