By Peter Amsterdam
September 5, 2017
(Points for this article were condensed from the book Forgive and Forget, by Lewis B. Smedes1)
Within the Gospels we read of Jesus being whipped, beaten, and then nailed to a cross. As He hung there, waiting to die, some of His last words were “Father, forgive them.”2 Forgiveness was His response to an unjust trial, being lashed by a whip which had strands weighted with bone or metal and which lacerated the skin with unimaginable pain, the hammering of spikes through His hands and feet, and being left to die in agony. While on the one hand this is a very surprising reaction, it also makes perfect sense when we read what Jesus taught about forgiveness all throughout His ministry. He not only taught it, He embodied it, both in His life and in His death. He practiced what He preached.
Jesus’ forgiveness reflected His Father’s forgiveness. In the Old Testament, when God revealed Himself to Moses, He said of Himself, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”3 God was saying that forgiveness is one of His divine attributes, that it is rooted in His character. This point is made again and again throughout the Old Testament.
You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.4
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.5
To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness.6
We’re also told that when God forgives our sins, those sins will never be held against us.
I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.7
The magnitude of God’s forgiveness is seen in statements such as these:
You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.8
As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.9
In love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.10
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.11
God, by nature, is forgiving. And true to His nature, He made a way for us to be forgiven through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. In a sense we can say that Jesus’ sacrificial death was the embodiment of God’s forgiveness. Thus, if we wish to emulate Jesus, we need to forgive.
Jesus made it abundantly clear in His teachings that we are to forgive others.
Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”12
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”13
Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone.14
“If he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”15
Jesus also made the point that there is a correlation between our willingness to forgive others with God forgiving us.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.16
If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.17
Forgive … so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.18
In the parable of the unforgiving servant,19 Jesus told of a servant who had been forgiven an astronomical debt by his master, and after being forgiven his debt, refused to forgive another man who owed him a small amount of money. The master then told the unforgiving servant, You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.20 Jesus then said to all who were listening: So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.21 (For more on this parable, see A Scary Thought.22)
When we forgive others for things they have done to us, this reflects our understanding of divine forgiveness. We are to forgive others because we have been forgiven. Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven, and we are called to forgive others when they sin against us or wrong us. That’s showing Christlikeness.
When someone hurts us, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we are called by Christ to forgive them. In order to do so, it’s important to know what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.
Some hurt is done intentionally. We are assaulted in some way physically, verbally, or emotionally. Someone steals from us, perhaps by intentionally misleading us so that we are defrauded and lose our money, possessions, etc. We are betrayed by someone we love—a spouse, a family member, a close friend. Some hurts we experience are minor, but eventually become major, if they are repeated over and over again.
Forgiveness isn’t denying the harm or wrongdoing someone has done to us. It’s not making excuses for why they hurt us, and it doesn’t minimize the seriousness of the offense. It doesn’t mean that the offense stops hurting, or that it is forgotten. Forgiveness is not resuming a relationship without changes; it’s not an automatic restoration of trust. It isn’t neglecting justice, as sometimes there are consequences to be faced even after the act of forgiveness. It’s not instant emotional healing.
Forgiveness looks at the wrong done to us, admits that it has wounded us, and then decides to forgive—which is actually a decision to start the process of forgiving. It’s recognizing that the hurt was personal, unfair, and deep, and choosing to forgive the person or persons who hurt you. Forgiveness is making a conscious decision to let go of the inner negative feelings we have toward someone who has hurt us, to leave them behind so that the hurt no longer negatively affects us.
As Kelly Minter explains in her book, The Fitting Room:
Forgiveness is not denying what our enemies have done; it’s not calling something whole that’s fractured or something pure that’s corroded. Forgiveness is looking in the face of what our offenders have done, recognizing their wound for all that it is, and then choosing to forgive. It has nothing to do with denying the wrong of those who hurt us, but has everything to do with changing our hearts towards them.23
Sometimes we want to wait to forgive until the person who hurt us apologizes to us for what they have done. We want them to acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and to express sorrow for doing it. But there are a few problems with this. Sometimes the person doesn’t know they hurt you, and if that’s the case, they will never apologize. In some cases, the person knows they hurt you, but they don’t care; and other times, the individual is no longer in your life or you have lost contact with them. If you wait for someone to ask for your forgiveness before forgiving them, you may end up carrying your hurt for the rest of your life. We’re not told only to forgive if we first receive an apology, nor is our forgiving contingent on someone else telling us they are sorry.
There are cases where we are hurt by those whose own problems spill over on to us in some way. For example, parents’ marital problems may hurt their children, but that isn’t intentional hurt on the part of the parents. Sometimes we’re hurt by those who make mistakes. Sometimes someone is even trying to do something they think will be beneficial, but in the end it doesn’t work out the way it should, and some people are hurt by the final outcome. We are always to forgive those who hurt us, even if unintentionally. In such situations, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that just as others may hurt us unintentionally, we also do things which result in hurt to others which we didn't mean to cause. When we do, and we realize what has happened, we of course hope that those we hurt will forgive us. And therefore we should be willing to forgive those who have harmed us without intending to.24
There is also the factor that not every hurt that we experience needs to be forgiven. Many of the injuries we feel in life are caused by the actions of others who mean us no harm. We live in a world where we regularly interact with people just like us, who often say or do things with no intent to hurt others, but sometimes these things do cause hurt unknowingly. While those types of hurts might be taken personally, generally they weren’t meant to hurt. Such encounters generally don’t cause us deep or lasting hurt.
Author Lewis Smedes gives an interesting example:
There was once a person in my life who did outrageous things to me. She screamed at me all through dinner; she made me jump to her service anytime, day and night, no matter how busy I was with other things; and now and then she would pee on my best slacks. To make matters worse, she got acutely sick and drove me mad because she did not tell me what was wrong. There were moments when I felt like whacking her. But I never felt the impulse to forgive her. … She was my six-month-old baby, and I did not feel a need to forgive the outrageous things she did to me, because she did not hurt me wrongfully. I loved her and I took whatever she dished out.25
Besides not needing to forgive those who cause us the unintentional hurt which can occur in the general run of our lives, we can’t forgive impersonal things which cause us harm. For example, we can’t forgive nature when we are hurt by it. If we are born with less health, beauty, or intelligence than we want; if we suffer from a natural event such as a hurricane; if a loved one dies a natural death; these are all events which can cause us pain, but we can’t forgive nature. Certain systems of society can also cause hurt, such as an economic system which keeps people in poverty, political systems which greatly disadvantage some people, or corporate systems which treat people like objects and discard them when they are no longer needed. These all can cause hurt, but we cannot forgive them, because we can only forgive people.26
Forgiveness is personal. It’s one person forgiving someone else who has personally hurt them. We can only forgive those who have hurt us. We may be outraged at the way someone mistreats others, but we can’t forgive for what has been done to someone else, only for what has been done to us.
Understanding that Scripture tells us to forgive others and agreeing that we should do so is one thing. But the act of forgiving someone who has deeply wounded us can be a difficult and gut-wrenching task. C. S. Lewis wrote, Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.
The Greek word most often translated as forgiveness is aphiemi, which is used to express letting something go, or canceling a debt. When we forgive someone for what they have done, we release them from a legitimate debt. We acknowledge that we have been injured or wronged, our trust has been betrayed, and our life has been marred by someone else’s hurtful actions. But we also understand that we, too, are sinners, that we offend and hurt others, and that we have been forgiven for our offenses by God. When we forgive, we make the decision to let go of our pain, our desire for retribution, our anger and negative feelings toward the person. We put the person, and their actions, into God’s hands—and we move on.
Placing actions which have hurt us deeply, and the people responsible for them, into God’s hands means that we have entrusted them to Him and we can let them go. We no longer need to dwell on what happened or why, for we have committed it to God. Having done so, we are able to release our negative feelings toward the one who caused us injury, let go of resentment and anger, and allow our own emotional healing process to begin.
It can be natural to feel that if you forgive someone, it excuses them for what they have done. It doesn’t. Rather it sets you free to let go of the pain of the offense, to move on without your feelings of ill will toward the person who harmed you constantly plaguing you. When we forgive others, we generally begin experiencing a decrease in our negative feelings toward that person over time. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we start to have positive feelings toward them, though that can and sometimes does happen.
If we wish to continue to have a relationship with the person who hurt us, the next step after forgiveness is reconciliation. Some teachers and authors feel that reconciliation is a step which must be taken in the process of forgiveness; others see it as an ideal, but recognize that sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible, and if it isn't, the key elements of forgiveness can still be present and the process complete. Of course, sometimes it’s not possible to reconcile, because the other person is no longer in your life. Maybe they have passed away, or you have no way of getting in touch with them. It may also be the case that although you have forgiven the person, they are not someone you feel inclined to have a continued relationship with, or it is not beneficial for your spiritual life or emotional well-being. This doesn’t mean that you haven’t forgiven them; it only means that you are choosing not to renew fellowship with them for some reason.
Forgiveness is a complex topic with many aspects, and at some point in the future I hope to cover it more thoroughly. However, in the context of desiring to grow in Christlikeness, it’s clear that Jesus, by His example and His teaching, emphasized forgiveness. He instructed us as His followers to forgive, and He didn’t put caveats on that command. If we truly desire to be more like Jesus, then we must forgive others for their trespasses against us—as hard as it may sometimes be—because God has forgiven our trespasses against Him.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.27
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget (New York: HarperOne, 1984).
2 Luke 23:34.
3 Exodus 34:6–7.
4 Nehemiah 9:17.
5 Micah 7:18.
6 Daniel 9:9.
7 Jeremiah 31:34. See also Hebrews 8:12.
8 Micah 7:19.
9 Psalm 103:12.
10 Isaiah 38:17.
11 Isaiah 1:18.
12 Matthew 18:21–22 NAS.
13 Luke 17:3.
14 Mark 11:25.
15 Luke 17:4.
16 Matthew 6:12.
17 Matthew 6:15.
18 Mark 11:25.
19 Matthew 18:23–35.
20 Matthew 18:32–34.
21 Matthew 18:35.
23 Kelly Minter, The Fitting Room (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook Publishing, 2011), 90.
24 Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them (Matthew 7:12).
25 Smedes, Forgive and Forget, 8.
26 Ibid., 6.
27 Ephesians 4:32.