What exactly is forgiveness?
I spent a number of years defining “forgiveness” incorrectly, and it had some fierce ramifications on relationships in my life.
I once thought forgiveness was:
-overlooking, minimizing or tolerating…
-mustering up the strength to say it wasn’t a “big deal.”
-the willingness to never talk about “it” again.
-the expectation I’d just “get over it.”
-only for people who asked for it…in a really sweet way and with the correct wording.
At least that was what I was taught anyway…
…and oh how terribly wrong that was…
But here’s the thing, forgiveness is not just a hot topic for husbands and wives to wrestle through. Forgiveness impacts every single relationship we have: friendships, siblings, extended family, parents, children, coworkers, neighbors, church family.
Relationships across the board are challenging and conflict is commonplace, which means it is crucial for us to understand what forgiveness is…and possibly more important…what it isn’t.
So what does forgiveness really mean?
-one sided. You can forgive whether or not someone asks you to forgive.
-an act of the will. Choosing to forgive is an act, a decision, an event…it’s taking on the mindset that you will extend forgiveness, freeing your heart from the trap of bitterness and wrath.
-sometimes a repetitive process. Similar to the process of grief, we lack control over whether or not an area of forgiveness will come up again. It is common for the pain, emotions, memories, heartache or grief to bubble back up. There’s nothing wrong with that. Yet you can choose to continue to “walk in forgiveness,” sorting through those emotions/thoughts/feelings as they come with the backdrop that you will continue to be forgiving.
-not deflecting or minimizing. It’s not saying, “It’s no big deal” or “It’s not that bad.” Forgiveness names what was wrong, yet chooses to move out of it. That process can be quick and painless, or deep and time consuming. Forgiveness costs something, and the cost is often pain and heartache.
-absorbing the offense. Picture a dry sponge soaking in water. Absorbing means taking on the heartache, processing it, learning to live with it, and grow out of it. Absorbing simultaneously means letting go of the right to be resentful, bitter, and cold-hearted.
-not becoming the martyr. While forgiveness is costly and painful, it should never be an excuse to play the victim. The process of “walking in forgiveness” ultimately brings a sober response of joy.
-not an opportunity for gossip. When you share your story with others, guard your heart against using that as an opportunity to bash someone else. “I’ve forgiven ______, but you’ll never believe what they did to me…”
-not letting the offender off the hook. Holding someone accountable for their actions (or lack of actions) is responsible and loving. Just “moving on” is not the same as forgiveness.
-not tolerating abuse. Forgiveness does not mean staying in a harmful situation or tolerating abuse. You can draw firm boundaries while also walking in complete forgiveness. Forgiveness is about your hearts response to an offender, but you can (and should) still seek help, get out, call the police, press charges…whatever may apply.
-trusting God with justice. God tells us that “vengeance is mine.” When you forgive, you transfer power over to the One who will determine the consequence. You give up control to punish or get revenge.
-not a decision someone else can make for you. People in your life may make you feel obligated or hurried. It can be tempting to forgive just so others will still like us, accept us, or not think badly of us. Saying you forgive to avoid rejection is not genuine forgiveness. Likewise, people in your life may tell you not to forgive when you feel you should. The act of forgiveness should not be motivated solely by the opinions of others.
-NOT the same as reconciliation. There’s a huge difference between the two…and this just might be the turning point…a key to understanding forgiveness and the role it plays.
-two sided. Reconciliation means both the offender and the offended are willing to move toward one another with soft, humble hearts…both having a genuine desire to be re-united, to be at peace with one another. You can choose to forgive even if it is not asked of you, which frees your heart, but unless the offender chooses to repent and ask for your forgiveness reconciliation may not be possible.
-a linear process. Soft-hearts lead to Brokenness followed by Confession, Repentance, and Restitution. Forgiveness can happen anywhere in that process, but the point here is that forgiveness is a part of reconciling but it is not the same as reconciling.
-a humbling, beautiful, sometimes painful experience that points the offender and the offended to Jesus.
Forgiveness is ultimately about Jesus
Focusing less on the person who has offended and more on the Person who offered up His life for you (and me) is the heart of true forgiveness. When we set our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we learn what it means to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus is our example, as he chose to forgive and love us while we were His enemies, while we hated him. The more we realize our own need for forgiveness the more we are compelled to extend it.
The Holy Spirit empowers us to walk in forgiveness, gives us the ability to extend grace, strengthens our faith, gifts us with inexplainable joy, and creates in us a heart of compassion for others.
Forgiveness is opportunity to encourage others to look past us, our hurt, our pain and our suffering to see Jesus more clearly. He paid the ultimate price for your sin and mine. Each time we speak of our stories and share of forgiveness, both what we have offered and what we have received, we have an opportunity to boast in the greatest act of forgiveness when Jesus gave up His life for our sake.
People may wonder where your hope comes from, how you have joy and strength to forgive and it is one of the sweetest opportunities to speak of the grace of God…choosing, even in your hardship, to boast in Him.
Will you choose to forgive? Will you use this, yes, even this, to boast in Jesus who resonates with your suffering, is near to you in your heartache, and empowers you to walk faithfully through it?
Sweet friend, I promise, His grace is more than sufficient. He sees you, He knows every hair on your head and every detail of your life…and He loves you. You can trust Him with your heart…
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.