Sometimes, we must crawl our way to the question (…how can I ever forgive so-and-so…).  Other times, we face them out of exacerbation (…how many times must I forgive so-and-so…).

Perhaps you’ve been there.  You’ve been betrayed in ways you’ve never thought possible so thinking about forgiveness seems too distant in the future, if you ever get there….

Or in other cases, the wounds inflicted against you dwell with such repetition that you feel a certain indignation as to suggest that they’ve certainly run out of room for forgiveness…because you have surely forgiven them enough…

Two weeks ago, a friend asked me what I thought about forgiveness.  The question was posed something like this: How exactly we do go about forgiving someone?

I attempted to explain something like this

Responding to Sin

Firstly, as a guiding principle…

Our response to someone’s sin against us matters just as much as the sin against us.

This is to say, we never have exclusive rights to sin against a person who has hurt us even in those unimaginable ways.  If someone slaps us on the cheek, we do not have a right to slap them back.  Rather, we have a command to turn the other cheek so it too can be slapped. [Luke 6:29 NIV] 29 “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.”

When people sin against us…even in those unimaginable ways, it would it seem reasonable to me to conclude that those are moments of hatred toward us.  Again, think of unimaginable moments…rape, murder, decades of lies, (fill in the blank) …I think hate looks like all these things.

And when someone hates you, we are to do good to them…[Luke 6:27 NIV] 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you..

I point out these passages not to suggest there are easy pathways to turning the cheek or doing good; rather, only to illustrate the profound importance of paying attention to our response when someone sins against us.

Our response matters…it matters just as much as the sin, and I think Jesus is telling us as much when he calls to respond in ways that seem not only absolutely impossible, but are going to feel profoundly counter-intuitive and unnatural in every respect.

The Heart Response

The second thing I attempted to suggest to my friend was that the response of the heart matters just as much if not more than the response of our hands.  That is to say, we will mostly likely not actually slap someone back, or murder them, tell lies, etc. 

Rather, much (if not all) of the struggle will take place in our heart.  You will likely struggle to do something akin in your heart what was done to you with their hands and lips.  That is, they hated you so you will be tempted to hate them.  Our heart will be the battle ground where our response is most important. 

Responding in our heart as Jesus would have us respond will be the most impossible task but the most important task.

Our heart is deceitful and beyond our own understanding, so putting into the mix the pain and suffering of someone’s sin against us exacerbates the troubled state we now find ourselves in.

As a base rule, you may do well realize that whatever is going in your heart, it’s good to question it; give it time to process and marinate; sit on it for a time (as you’re able) and most importantly, bring it before the throne of grace to have your Heavenly Father bear the weight of your affliction and struggle.

The Journey Ahead

Perhaps the most “relieving” aspect of this question relates to my third point: Forgiveness is a journey.

It’s not always a mere one-time act. The primary reason I say this is because your forgiveness will never be perfectly executed.

Even on your best day, your forgiveness will be tainted, skewed and affected by the Fall. On many days, forgiving someone will have mixed motives mixed in with it, and thus on some of those days, something about your effort to forgive won’t necessarily always be fully clear.

Two aspects of the journey that may be helpful to realize:

1. Barriers

Understanding the barrier to forgiveness is key. That barrier serves a function.  We do well to understand that function as much as possible.  Oftentimes the barrier is a perception that goes something like:  If I forgive them, then they will get away with it… 

But thankfully, nothing can be further from the truth.  That sin against you will be rectified. The question is, how.  Will they pay the penalty when God takes revenge on those who sin against us (Cf. Rom 12:19) or will it be paid by God’s wrath poured out on Christ on the Cross, (Cf. Rom 5:8, 2 Cor 5:21).

As the grace of God remains at work in us more and more, we will see in our heart a growing desire for the latter to be truer and truer.

If you struggle to forgive but at least want to want to forgive, then this will be a good desire to begin asking God to cultivate within you.  Because, if it becomes true for them, then that means your Heavenly Father has forgiven them in Christ.  What can be better than full reconciliation with the one who was sinned against firstly?

Sometimes that barrier are echoes of other lies we tell ourselves as it relates to the pain we’ve endured. So long as unforgiveness remain, a form of justice and vindication for our pain appears to be remain in our grasp.  And due to the inherent weakness of our flesh, we are not always capable seeing this as clearly as we need; hence, it is good to question things that go on in the heart. 

I think well-meaning individuals can unwittingly fall into this trap.  One trap that immediately comes to mind is the trap of control.  That is to say, an underlying modus-operandi of the flesh (of which we are often unaware) is the deep, deep and even unconscious movement to retain power and control over the person who hurt us. 

The barrier effectively serves a control function to ensure we are never hurt again. 

Now, don’t get me wrong…forgiveness does not necessarily mean we must open ourselves to being hurt again.  In some cases, complete disintegration of relationships will follow and total separation is necessary (i.e. prison, divorce and even witness protection) but ultimately, biblical forgiveness will mean letting go of our control mechanism of pain protection in order to trust God to guard and protect us in ways we can never protect ourselves.

At the same time, however, when reconciliation with those who’ve hurt is possible, forgiveness will mean opening our hearts in a way that affords the opportunity of being sinned against again.  This is inevitable in most of our circumstances, especially marriages and parent-child relationships. But this is perhaps where the second point is concerned.

2. Faith  

  • Revenge
  • Justice
  • Pain protection 
  • Power and control

These are things our flesh desires to hold onto, and they serve as barriers to entering into the journey of forgiving someone as we have been forgiven.  

The journey of forgiveness is a journey of forgiveness by faith.   Just as we walk by faith in all other aspects of our Christian life, so too the journey of learning and growing to forgive is a journey of faith. 

As we mature, we no longer forgive because is it convenient or out of sheer obedience to the law, but we forgive because we’ve grown to trust God in new and miraculous ways.

As we learn to forgive by faith, the aim of our forgiveness now points to eternity and heaven and ultimately with a sole focus of bringing newfound glory to our Heavenly Father.  The same power that rose Jesus from the dead becomes the power at work within us to forgive.

To put another way…

We forgive because Christ is risen from the dead.

There is no better reason forgive and no better vision that carries us forward despite the hurt that surfaces.

Resurrection-oriented forgiveness will always outweigh even the worst sorts of pain. 

Forgiveness to God’s Glory

I pray it is helpful to realize that not only will our forgiveness inevitably be imperfect (and thus more imperfect than we want), but that such forgiveness is a journey.  It is a journey of trusting God in that process of forgiving someone we are naturally inclined not to forgive. 

Apart from the work of the Spirit in our heart, we will only forgive to the extent we sense our own need for forgiveness.

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven–for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Luke 7:47 ESV

This aspect of the journey, when journey is in true faith, runs a new contour. 

The new contour of a journey of forgiveness by faith leads to a journey of forgiveness unto the glory of God

The fuller our vision of glorifying God by and through our forgiving those who’ve hurt us not only pulls us out of the oft self-focused aspects inherent in blatant unforgiveness but sets us free to love in the same ways the Father love us by and through his forgiveness of us in His Son, Jesus Christ.

That is to say…when we forgive, we can’t help but think of our being forgiven.  The true Holy Spirit enabled power that undergirds our joy and hope; our faith and love, becomes inextricably coupled with forgiveness against those who’ve hurt us. 

I realize it may hard to imagine at times but when we forgive as God calls us to forgive, we bring glory to God. 

May you yearn for God’s glory more than your own kind of justice, and may you appeal to God’s mercy to forgive more than to hold on to your pain. 

May you humbly walk the journey of forgiveness by faith, learning anew day by day, what is means to forgive as you’ve been forgiven so God’s glory is magnified all the more, and your heart rests in ways only made possible because Christ is risen. 

Because Christ is risen from the dead, therefore we can forgive.