There are times I wonder if I really understand forgiveness and times where I know I don't. For the most part I can tell someone who has done me wrong “I forgive you,” and really mean it. Where I have trouble is when that person has wronged someone I love.
How do I forgive those who walk out on their families? And those people who hurt defenceless children? And what about those who talk maliciously behind others' backs? How am I supposed to just let that go?
I know the Bible says keep no record of wrongs, and that revenge is for the Lord alone, but it's really hard to forget about the bad things people have done. And what about the bad things I've done? I know I deserve death for the sins I've committed—how can God possibly forgive me for all the times I've rejected Him? And how can I live in that forgiveness when I can't forget the things I've done?
We live in a fallen world. With the introduction of sin our relationship with God was broken. A sin nature now in all of us means relationships are fragile and easily destroyed. Sinful acts, attitudes, and even just regular events of life can be catalysts for offences requiring forgiveness.
God tells us to forgive as He has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). Before seeking to forgive others, reflect on God's forgiveness of you (Romans 5:8). To forgive like God means to forgive:
- Completely (Matthew 18:27). To forgive means to cancel a debt. Something owed is not owed any more. Once cancelled the right to seek repayment is given up.
- Repeatedly (Luke 17:4; Matthew 18:21-22). Just as we continue to sin but God continues to forgive us, there is no point at which our sin becomes unforgivable. We must continue to choose to forgive.
- Sacrificially (John 3:16). Forgiveness is costly. Somebody must pay. When we forgive as God forgives and let the offender off the hook, we may have to suffer for the cause of following Christ's example.
- With a view to reconciliation (Hosea 2:14-15, 11:8; Romans 12:17-21). Just as God not only forgave our sin but reconciled us to Himself and restored the relationship when we repented, so the end in view is not just forgiveness of the offender, but reconciliation and restoration when they repent.
- “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NASB). At the root of all forgiveness is love. Many day-to-day offences can and should be overlooked easily. But if the offence is too big to overlook then deliberate action is needed.
- Resist the desire for revenge. Let go of the need to see the offender punished. Release your desire for revenge to the Lord (Romans 12:19).
- Forgiveness is a choice. It is a deliberate act of your will not based on feelings. Feelings follow choices. Therefore we must decide and choose to release, let go of, and cancel the debt or offence against us.
- Keep choosing to forgive. From time to time things will trigger the memory of the offence. We may be tempted to revisit and dwell on it. At that point we must remind ourselves that we forgave the offence already.
- We can forgive and be emotionally healed from the hurt. In order for there to be emotional healing we must continue to forgive (as in #4), and commit to not allowing ourselves to dwell on the offence, talk about it with others, or allow others to bring it up to us. Only as we do this for a long enough period of time will we experience emotional healing where we no longer feel our stomach churn when we remember the offence.