“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” -Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)
Scripture has much to say on forgiveness, and there have been many books written on the subject. In doing research for this article, I have read scripture plus three of those many books and thought a great deal about my own experiences and those of the people I counsel. I have concluded that forgiveness, in and of itself, is a simple thing. The problem is that it must, by nature of the actions that need forgiving, be attempted and accomplished in a sea of emotions. Being able to navigate that sea requires a good understanding of the nature of our hurts and what forgiveness really is.
Forgiveness is the best medicine for most of the hurts we experience in life, but is frequently harder to accomplish than living with the pain. Why? I would suggest that we have an inadequate understanding of forgiveness. Our faulty understanding may come from a belief in often-stated myths about what forgiveness is. In this article, I will explore three of the more common of those myths:
- You must forgive and forget.
- If you forgive, you must reconcile with the offender.
- Forgiveness means letting the offender off the hook.
Forgive and Forget
I had a professor who told us that forgiveness was divine and that forgetting was senility. Yet, I have heard many people claim that if you couldn’t forget you had not forgiven.
Forgiving and forgetting are two entirely different things. The Greek word for forgive has to do with sending away or letting go of something. It is a deliberate action–an act of will. I believe that is what is referred to in Psalm 103:12 (As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.) and Jeremiah 31:34 (Their sin I will remember no more.).
Those passages do not mean that God has forgotten our sin, but that He no longer remembers it against us. Jesus’ death makes that possible by actually bearing our sin and thus taking it away from us. God is omniscient–He cannot forget. Our brains are designed to remember. Memory is essential to our lives and our brain’s mission of caring for us. Without memory of past hurts and experiences, we are susceptible to being hurt over and over–we wouldn’t know whom to trust. So, memories remain, but forgiveness takes away their power to hurt us.
Forgiveness Equals Fellowship
Many people struggle with forgiving because they believe they must resume fellowship with the offender. Matthew 5:23-24 (Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.) makes it clear that reconciliation is the desired outcome.
Although reconciliation is the ideal, it is not always possible. Hamilton Beazley in his book, No Regrets, says that reconciliation can be a part of forgiveness, but is not required. There are times when it is necessary, for our own healing and freedom, to forgive someone with whom it is impossible to reconcile with due to physical circumstances such as death or incarceration.
Fellowship requires reconciliation. Sometimes we need to forgive someone with whom it is not safe or in our best interests to fellowship with. The apostle John, in his first epistle, teaches us that fellowship with God and with others is based in the light, which refers to truth and reality (1 John 1:5-8). Those who continue in lies and denial are walking in darkness and cannot fellowship with those in the light (2 Corinthians 6:14). When an offender refuses to acknowledge his sin, he is left in darkness. We are not to reconcile with darkness–it is not safe to do so.
Fellowship also requires trust. When someone lies to me or otherwise abuses me, he is not trustworthy. Without evidence of true sorrow and repentance, we are wise to withhold trust. If someone has stolen from me, I don’t leave him alone in my house. I do not have to be a doormat. Forgiveness is not a signal that I’m willing to put up with abuse.
Forgiveness is for us and is necessary for our healing. It frees us from the power of those who have offended us. Fellowship is reserved for those with whom we can walk in truth and light–those we can trust.
Forgiveness Let’s The Offender Off The Hook
In fact, the opposite is the truth. We cannot forgive someone without being able to place blame on them. It might be easier to just find some reason to excuse them, but we can’t forgive those we excuse. There is no healing for us when we, through making excuses, invalidate our own hurt and pain. To forgive, we must acknowledge that hurt and pain, and place the blame squarely where it belongs. We must hold the offender accountable for their actions in order to truly forgive them.
When we forgive, we let go of malice and vengeance toward the other person. We let go of our obsession with thoughts of their offense and making them pay. We do not excuse their action or release them from justice or the consequences of that action.
In order to truly forgive, we must understand that forgiveness is for us. When we don’t forgive, we are imprisoned by our own feelings. We will remain stuck in the past and become bitter in the future. Forgiveness allows us to live in the here and now with a heart full of joy and hope for the future. We can truly walk in the light.
“When we forgive, we take God’s hand, walk through the door, and stroll into the possibilities that wait for us to make them reality.” Lewis Smedes
For Further Reading:
- The Art of Forgiving by Lewis Smedes
- Forgive and Forget by Lewis Smedes
- I Should Forgive, But… by Chuck Lynch
Salley Sutmiller, M.S.