There are two barriers to forgiveness. One is simple unwillingness, which is something each of us can decide to change. The other is misunderstanding of what biblical forgiveness is. Forgiveness can be confusing. Misinterpretations of Scripture and other misconceptions have distorted its meaning. As we sharpen the focus on God’s view of forgiveness, note which issues have been misconceptions for you and which are issues of unwillingness.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: dismissing the offender’s moral responsibility.
But FORGIVENESS IS: dismissing the right to pay back and assuming the responsibility to love.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: primarily a feeling.
But FORGIVENESS IS: primarily a choice based on truth.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: forgetting the offense.
But FORGIVENESS IS: deciding not to use the offense in retributive ways.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: a once-for-all event.
Yet FORGIVENESS IS: a decision which often must be reaffirmed.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: agreeing to trust an untrustworthy person.
But FORGIVENESS IS: being willing (when appropriate) to allow the offender to rebuild responsible trust.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: passively tolerating future abuse.
Yet FORGIVENESS IS: exercising disciplinary measures with redemptive intent.
- FORGIVENESS IS NOT: the same as reconciliation.
But FORGIVENESS IS: being willing to work toward reconciliation.
MISCONCEPTION: Forgiveness Means Dismissing Moral Responsibility
Some people try to deal with their bitterness by resorting to a form of popular determinism. Our offenders committed hurtful acts, but they are not responsible because they themselves are the victims of other people and circumstances. If we can convince ourselves that our offenders couldn’t help what they did, we may not have to face the pain of the offense and the responsibility to forgive. In a word, this is a way of playing the ostrich. We are keeping our heads in the sand instead of dealing with the problems.
God’s Word agrees that our environment can influence us. However, there is a crucial difference between influence and determinism. Christians have a basis for genuine empathy for even the most wicked criminals. Because of the Fall, all of us have an inner inclination toward evil. This makes us susceptible to external temptation.
…Empathy and compassion must stop short of determinism. To decide that [people are] not responsible for their actions creates an endless sequence of victims. Such thinking reduces humans to robots, programmed by their environment. They are incapable of love as well as hatred.
Biblical forgiveness always insists on personal moral responsibility. It does, however, transfer the right of retribution to the One to whom this rightfully belongs. When I forgive an offender, I do not decide he couldn’t help what he did to me. Rather, I decide that it is not my place to pay him back. God alone has this right because all sin is first of all an act of rebellion against him. For this reason, he is the only competent moral Judge. In transferring this crime to a higher court, I am not overturning justice. I’m cooperating with God’s perfect justice.
MISCONCEPTION: Forgiveness is Primarily a Feeling
The Bible describes forgiveness primarily as a choice based on the truth, not as a feeling. God does not say, “Feel mercy.” He says, “Show mercy because I showed you mercy.” I can choose against my feelings to lay down my right to exact revenge. This is the only consistent response for a sinner who has received God’s forgiveness. I can likewise choose against my feelings to serve my offender in love. True, God must empower me to do this, but he promises to do this as I turn to him in prayerful trust and obedience.
Most of the positive emotional changes associated with forgiveness are the result of this choice. If I wait to forgive my offender until I feel warm toward him, I will probably wait forever. In addition, the change in my feelings toward my offender may be gradual. This doesn’t necessarily mean I have not forgiven. It may mean only that my emotions haven’t caught up with my choice yet. Actions are a much more reliable indicator.
Am I turning away from negative thoughts that emerge in my mind? Am I refusing to follow through with the hurtful words and actions that sometimes suggest themselves? Also, am I choosing to pray for him and treat him with kindness?
MISCONCEPTION: Forgiveness is Forgetting the Offense
Many Christians say “forgive and forget.” If you’ve really forgiven someone, they say, you won’t ever think about how he sinned against you. If you do think about it, this is proof that you never really forgave him.
This view of forgiveness comes from a misinterpretation of Jeremiah 31:34. God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” The point here isn’t that God erases our offenses from his awareness. God is omniscient—he knows and remembers everything. Furthermore, he disciplines Christians out of his loving concern for our good. This discipline presupposes that he takes note of our sins. Rather, Jeremiah 31:34 means that God will never again remember our sins against us. He’ll never use them as a basis for condemning or rejecting us —because he has fully satisfied his righteous wrath against our sins through the death of Christ (1 John 2:2).
Biblical forgiveness means waiving the right to focus on past offenses as an excuse for hating the offender or plotting revenge. It also means choosing not to use these offenses against the person in the future through reminders, gossip, and other forms of retaliation. It may be necessary to speak about the offense at times, but the motivation for doing so will not be retribution.
What can you expect to experience concerning your memory of forgiven offenses? Because you have laid down the right to pay the person back, you will not recall and ruminate over the offense. Therefore, it will play a smaller and smaller role in your thought life.
This doesn’t mean, though, that memories of the offense will never emerge into your mind. Various events (conversations, dreams, and related memories) may trigger your memory. Sometimes they will occur with alarming emotional intensity. When this happens, you shouldn’t focus on the fact that you remembered the offense or experienced negative emotions along with the memory.
Rather, you should focus on how you’ll respond to this memory. There’s no reason to beat yourself for having this memory. You didn’t have control over this. The best things to do is to confront this memory with two other memories. They are the memory of your forgiveness by God and the memory of your choice to forgive our offender. Then choose to move forward by setting your mind on something that is true and good.
MISCONCEPTION: Forgiveness Means Trusting an Untrustworthy Person
Many people are unwilling to forgive their offenders because they think forgiveness goes with trust. They believe this means you must trust him even though he may still be untrustworthy. Does forgiving a sexual offender mean that you entrust your young children to his care? Does forgiving a thieving church member mean that you allow him to handle collections? In forgiving someone’s dishonesty, does this mean that you believe everything he says?
Forgiveness and trust, though related, are nonetheless distinct. Forgiveness relates to a past offense. It chooses to accept the painful consequences. It sets the offender free from our retribution. Forgiveness, therefore, is something we choose to grant freely, with no strings attached.
Trust, however, relates to the present. It is a measure of the confidence we have in a person’s reliability. Trust is earned. This is why we speak of people being “trustworthy.” They’ve proven themselves to be worthy of our trust in an area because of their reliable performance. Trusting an untrustworthy person is not spiritual. It is foolish (you may get burned), irresponsible (others may be injured), and unloving (you refuse to discipline the offender).
It is possible, then, to grant someone forgiveness while still insisting that he or she earn back your trust. Those who insist on being trusted just because they admitted their sins are especially suspicious. They would probably not grant this request if they were in the other person’s shoes. After confessing that I had been lying to them for years, my parents forgave me. But even so, they didn’t trust my word for a long time afterward.
My initial response was outrage. After all, I was sorry for my lying. I was now telling them the truth. Upon reflection, however, I realized that they could gauge my heart only by my actions. Unfortunately, my actions rightfully told them I was untrustworthy. Their mistrust was valid, and it taught me to place greater value on their trust.
Likewise, when people betray important responsibilities in ministry, we should forgive them freely. We would be irresponsible, however, to allow them to resume these responsibilities until they demonstrate repentance. They need to establish a proven record of reliability in this area.
Biblical forgiveness is different from trust, but it often involves the willingness to allow the offender to rebuild responsible trust. Forgiveness keeps its eyes open, but it desires to see restoration of this important part of the relationship.
MISCONCEPTION: Forgiveness Means Passively Tolerating Future Injury
Some Christians view forgiveness as adopting a doormat posture toward an offender. The idea of pressing charges on a physically abusive spouse, for example, seems to some people incompatible with extending forgiveness. Since forgiveness means not paying people back, doesn’t this mean we shouldn’t make our offenders experience any negative consequences for their sins? Many people are quick to foster this view so they can go on preying on others. But such a view is a serious distortion of biblical forgiveness.
Expression of Love
According to the Bible, forgiveness is an expression of love. But the love that extends forgiveness also disciplines. It’s willing to confront offenders, to allow them to experience the consequences of their sins, and even to devise consequences to influence their lives for good. Jesus chose to give himself to his captors because it was God’s will for him to die for our sins. Even so, he never allowed people to run over him because they wanted to. He “felt a love” for the rich young ruler, and because of this he exposed his idolatrous love of money (Mark 10:21). He told the Laodiceans, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent” (Rev. 3:19).
The same Paul who says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-22) goes on to inform Christians that civil government is “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). God forbids the vengeance-taking of bitterness. He does, however, acknowledge that Christians may resort to the police to protect them from thieves. While some people use the civil authorities to take vengeance on their enemies, we can involve them out of love as an expression of discipline when other lesser disciplines have failed.
MISCONCEPTION: Forgiveness is the Same as Reconciliation
Reconciliation is the restoration of a relationship because both parties have resolved that which separated them. It is always bilateral. Both parties must be willing to reconcile a relationship. As many divorcees know by painful experience, one spouse who is willing to forgive and work on the marriage is not enough to ensure its success. Forgiveness, by contrast, is a decision to release an offender from my retribution. We can forgive others regardless of whether they ever repent or agree to work on their relationships with us.
Reconciliation is normally a goal of forgiveness, and forgiveness is a condition for reconciliation. But they are not the same thing. Paul makes this distinction in the way God deals with us. In 2 Corinthians 5:19, he says that through Christ’s death God has extended forgiveness to all people (“not counting their sins against them”) —even to those who are non-Christians.
Being Reconciled to God
He goes on, however, to appeal to those who have not yet received this forgiveness to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Because God has extended forgiveness, reconciliation is possible. But it does not occur unless we choose to receive his forgiveness and become reunited with him. If we choose to continue our rebellion against him and deny our need for his forgiveness, we remain separate from God and justly under his judgment.
What does it mean if you claim to have forgiven someone, yet have no desire to be reconciled with him? It depends. In a fallen world, relationships sometimes break beyond repair. Physical death, for example, can permanently prevent reconciliation. By God’s grace, though, we can forgive even these people and move forward in our walks as a result. If your reticence is due to this refusal to repent, your position may be justified. In this case, you may be saying that you refuse to act as though the issue is resolved when it isn’t. If, however, you’re unwilling to consider reconciliation of any sort regardless of his demonstrated repentance, you may have deceived yourself about having forgiven him.
Has God convicted you of unresolved bitterness as you’ve read this? If so, please respond to his conviction by telling him you’re willing to forgive, no matter what this entails. As you adopt this posture before God, he will show you what specific steps you’ll need to take. You will then reap the benefit of a renewed vitality in your relationship with him. What good reason is there for delaying?
This article was edited from the book, Loving God’s Way, by Gary DeLashmutt, published by Kregel Resources. This is not really a marriage book —it’s a book about relationships, which of course marriage is one of them. In this particular chapter there are additional insights into the misconceptions to forgiveness that you would benefit from reading.
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