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. (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV)
The Common Approach to Forgiveness
When it comes to forgiveness, we’re tough negotiators. We open with an offer like, “I’ll forgive you, IF…”
Then, we follow with a subtle concession that sounds like a confession: “I can’t forgive her until she learns her lesson…”
When we think the other side is stonewalling, we take off the gloves: “If I forgive him, he’ll just think he got away with it!”
We might think we’re negotiating for God. We might think we’re negotiating for their souls. We might think we’re negotiating for justice. But all we’re really doing is negotiating for CONTROL over the situation.
It’s important to recognize that our concept of forgiveness is extremely shallow here. In this vein, “forgiveness” is nothing more than a promise not to bring up the wrong done against us, to use as ammunition in future negotiations.
Forgiveness Can NOT Be a Negotiation
I think that people who deal with forgiveness in the ways described above, don’t really know what forgiveness is all about.
The Truth says we can not conduct negotiations after someone has hurt us. Why not?
It’s because we are ambassadors for God, the King, and we represent, not our own, but the King’s intentions, as well as his character. The King says to forgive, and that means we forgive!
There is no IF, AND or BUT… We simply forgive.
The Lord’s instructions are clear and unambiguous: If you forgive those who sin against you, then the Lord will forgive you for your sins against Him. If you don’t forgive those who sin against you, then the Lord won’t forgive you for your sins against Him. This is a conditional statement, and there is no room for negotiation here.
Any other response, such as saying, “I’ll forgive him, IF…” isn’t really forgiveness. It’s just negotiating, and God’s court of justice will not recognize contracts made without His authority or permission.
The question is not “SHOULD, IF, or CAN someone be forgiven? The true question is…
WILL YOU MAKE THE CHOICE TO FORGIVE?
The Choice of Forgiveness is a PATHWAY, and Not Simply a Decision
Choosing to forgive is not an easy thing. Perhaps it is not even a one-time thing. Let me explain.
My parents divorced in 1994 after 28 years of marriage, and they both got remarried to other people within a year after they divorced. I have struggled with the effects of my parents divorce for years. It is a “living death”. I made a choice to forgive them, but my heart was crushed, and my life refused to comply with my choice to forgive. Believing in God did not help me either. I did not understand why it was so hard for me to forgive them, except that I knew their sin took away my confidence and hope, and made me self-conscious and fearful. In that way, therefore, it destroyed some of my CAPABILITY to forgive.
Then, about 10 years ago, I learned something about forgiveness that changed my whole perspective. I read a book by a Christian author (The Inner Voice of Love, by Henry Nouwen) who offered me a new perspective by redefining forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is when you take responsibility for the consequences of another person’s sin”.
This statement didn’t make sense to me at first, because I still had the popular concept of forgiveness as being a “let it go and forget it” kind of thing. But eventually, I came to see how Jesus forgave me, by taking responsibility for my own sins through His death on the cross, thereby bearing the penalty for my sin, and through His resurrection, which set me free to pursue a new life.
Jesus truly forgave me by taking responsibility for the consequences of my sin.
The more I pondered this new concept of “taking responsibility”, not for the sin itself, but for the CONSEQUENCES, or the effects, of the sin in my own life, the more I was able to face the truth of my situation:
“My parents are divorced. They are now married to others. They will never reunite. I will never be able to change that, or get back the family I had for the first 22 years of my life. The past is gone. All I can do now, is accept this loss, and carry on with my own life. I must now find for myself all the things that my parents promised, but failed to give me. And perhaps no one will ever help me or even understand.”
Ever since I gave up those old hopes, faced these facts, and accepted responsibility for the consequences, I’ve been able to apprehend a real forgiveness, and I’ve gradually been able to deal with my life much better.
The toughest thing I’ve learned about forgiveness is not in the difficulty of shouldering the burden, but in realizing that forgiveness does not necessarily restore the relationships that were broken by the sin, and it does not necessarily restore the opportunities in life that were lost as a result of the sin.
True Forgiveness Restores Lives (but not necessarily Relationships)
The one good thing that has come out of my experience is how it has prepared me to help others who have come from broken homes, which is a very valuable quality to have as a teacher.
I’ve found that the best way I can forgive my parents is to help others who have suffered through a divorce, just as I have. So that is what I do with myself now, and I’ve helped a lot of my students in this way. This is described in 2nd Corinthians 1:3-7 (NKJV).
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. 6 Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. 7 And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.
In effect, the Lord’s will is for us to take the things we’ve learned from the experience, and help others who are going through the same experience. So I’ve learned that real forgiveness must be as life-changing as the sin which made the forgiveness necessary.
That is not an easy choice at all, but there is no other (better) choice. We must forgive.
For additional readings on this subject, the following books may be useful.
- “Forgiving & Not Forgiving: A New Approach to Resolving Intimate Betrayal”, by Jeanne Safer, Ph.D.
- “Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness”, by Johann Christoph Arnold.