When To Forgive
You may think the title of this post is odd because, as believers, we are commanded to forgive period. The Bible is filled with scripture on forgiveness, the very core of our faith and belief. Most of us key in on Matthew 6:14-15 which states that unless we forgive others, God will not forgive us. I find myself wondering how many deeply hurt people searching for comfort in the Bible or from other believers have turned away from Jesus because of this sobering passage. Forgiveness is just too hard. Welcome to When To Forgive.
As an adult child I have been estranged by my entire family of origin for going on twenty years now. The agony, pain and suffering this situation brought into my life and that of my wife and children made forgiveness a distant hope. The fact that this could happen in a professing Christian family nearly caused me to walk away from my faith. Many years of pleading and reaching out for reconciliation were met with rejection. My father passed away in December 2019. I didn’t think I had any tears left. My stepmother called a couple of days after the fact. I had already been informed in a text from a concerned friend. My wife and I travelled to the funeral and prayed for the Lord to be in our thoughts, words and actions as we entered the service. I crossed the floor and introduced myself to two nephews and a niece whom I’ve never met. As always with my family I was hoping for some sign of a change of heart. I felt great compassion for them all as they were losing dad for the first time, I was losing him a second. I felt pity for them because pride and judgment still reign. Nothing has changed. One sibling in particular looked up at me with such bitterness, anger and hatred that my blood literally ran cold. I wasn’t afraid of him, I was very afraid for him. I haven’t been around for over twenty years and I’m still the scapegoat. I mention these things to help you to understand how difficult true forgiveness can be.
I know full well that God has forgiven me for my sins and what it cost Him to do so. Who am I to withhold forgiveness from anyone else. Many years ago I made the difficult choice to forgive my family for what they have done to me and move on. To be clear, no one in my family has ever expressed remorse or a willingness to be held accountable for what has happened. No one has ever asked to be forgiven for their hurtful words and actions. I have always spoken up when I see blatant wrong-doing and poor treatment of myself or others. This has cost me dearly, both in my professional life and that of my family. I don’t regret a single time. James 5:20 Isaiah 1:17.
True forgiveness means that you no longer hold anything against a person and that you forfeit the right to ever bring up the matter again. Still, every time the subject of my family comes up I say, “I still hold them responsible.” I have been very conflicted for years over this. Have I not truly forgiven them?
A few months ago I came across an article that beautifully described when we should forgive. It has completely changed my understanding of true forgiveness and is the reason for this post. I will share a link to said article in the resource list at the bottom.
The article had such an immediate and deep impact on me that I did further research on the subject and quickly realized that it’s one of those hot button issues with different schools of thought. I sent the article to my pastor to get his reaction. He really enjoyed it and said that he would share most of it’s sentiments. Even as I sit here typing, the Christian radio station playing in the background just shared a story about an African American jogger. A truck with five white guys in it pulled up along side him and began yelling racial slurs and threats of harm. Being Christian, the jogger didn’t respond but said he chose to forgive them. It was wise not to respond as the situation could have easily spiralled out of control and ended badly for him. There was no mention of the offenders being sorry for their despicable treatment of the man. Unless those men cry out to God from a repentant heart and ask Him for forgiveness, their guilt remains. The jogger’s choice to forgive would be more accurately described as a willingness that they be forgiven. This is bared out in scripture with Jesus own words on the cross in Luke 23:34 and the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:60. They were expressing their heart’s desire to God …their willingness to forgive.
Ephesians 4:32 clearly tells us to forgive others as God has forgiven us. So first, let’s take a look at how God forgives us. Our God is a Holy God and sin must be answered for and paid for. He gave up His only Son, Jesus, to a torturous cruel death on the cross as the final sacrifice for our sins. Jesus literally paid for our salvation with His life. God doesn’t want anyone to perish. He patiently waits for us to change our behaviour (repent) 2 Peter 3:9. Through Jesus work on the cross, God offers us forgiveness. So for us to be truly forgiven we must first humbly agree with the Lord that what we did was wrong and ask to be forgiven. Then we must repent of the wrong by changing our ways. This doesn’t mean that we never slip up again. God knows our heart, and He alone knows the depth of our repentance. Our actions should indicate that change of behaviour as we strive to Love the Lord and each other. So clearly God’s forgiveness is transactional. For years I have said that reconciliation always takes two, but forgiveness only takes one. I was wrong. What God looks for is a heart that is ready and willing to forgive, a heart that truly wants to forgive. We may never hear the words, “please forgive me,” but a persons actions can also be a means by which they apologize.
Forgiveness is not the same as forbearance. To forbear is to patiently endure poor treatment as long as you are able. It is a virtue, to be sure but there may come a time when you must speak up. Luke 17:3.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. It means that we no longer hold the offence against the offender. Trust takes time to rebuild. To “forgive & forget,” is something I have not found to be possible, I’m human. But I can tell you from experience that when a person is truly sorry for what they have done, it goes a long way to putting it your rear view mirror.
Forgiveness does not necessarily remove all consequences. Boundaries may need to be set until trust is restored.
Forgiveness is not self-serving. This is the one that may get some hairs standing up on the back of your neck. Psychologists, well meaning friends and others may push you to forgive for your own sake. “You simply must forgive them or you’re just hurting yourself.” I have often wondered what an unrepentant offender would say if I told them I have forgiven them? “Oh…well that’s nice, but I haven’t done anything wrong so…carry on.” It totally negates the purpose. They are not sorry and they have not changed. We must be very careful not to say, “I will never forgive you for this!” Confession and repentance is what God requires and we are commanded to forgive as God has forgiven us. Still, as important as it is to seek justice, we should always err on the side of mercy. We all sin and we all fall short of the glory of God. If someone has hurt you and doesn’t apologize or show any sign of being sorry then they really don’t understand what it means to be forgiven. This is especially tragic for a professing Christian. I love 1 Peter 5:10. Our suffering is but for a little while. God calls us to patiently endure until then.
Some of you may have a hard time agreeing with the views taken in this post. Even my own wife, who is one of the most committed true Christians I know, continues to believe that we are to forgive…period.
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gotquestions.org – Since God withholds forgiveness, can we?