Forgiveness- What It Is and What It Isn't

In my last article on forgiveness I stressed that forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. I hope you took that to heart and put it into practice. If you did you are probably seeing the results already.

Now let’s look at some common misconceptions about forgiveness.

Forgiveness and Liking

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to like the person. After all, some people are not likable.

Shirley has a husband who treats her, on most days, like a dog, and on all days like a servant. Never has this man told her he loves her. Never does he value her, appreciate her, or encourage her. In public he talks of their marriage enthusiastically, but that talk is only for the audience. Shirley’s husband has insulted her, rejected her . . . even beat her.

Because of her peculiar circumstances, leaving home isn’t possible. Neither can she throw him out. So Shirley works through her anger, her hurt, and her outrage. She forgives her husband, but she doesn’t like him. How could she?

Amazingly, and with God’s help, she does love him, even though this man treats his wife as though he is her enemy. She would love him as a friend and even as a lover, if only her husband would let her. Unfortunately he is too proud and too broken to get the help that would change him. Shirley cannot like her husband, but she can still forgive him.

Forgiveness and Forgetting

What does it mean to forgive and forget? It means you no longer allow the offence to affect your life and relationship negatively. As an example, think about Paul’s words in Philippians, chapter three. In the first few verses of the chapter, he recalls, in detail, his life before Christ apprehended him and saved him. Then, in verse thirteen, he gives us his strategy for dealing with the offences of his past:

“ . . . forgetting the past and straining forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize, for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.” (Philippians 3:13, Today’s Living Bible)

Paul remembered his past life as a persecutor, and no doubt some of those memories still brought pain. Yet he also said that he forgot his past. We might say that because of the forgiveness Paul experienced, he could remember redemptively. He remembered, but he remembered as a man forgiven, not a man condemned. When we forgive or are forgiven, memories may remain, but the memories can have a positive effect on our present experience and our future expectations.

Wrongs and Sins

The Bible, in its characteristically honest way, recounts a very dark moment in King David’s life. David, king of Israel, sees Bathsheba, the wife of a loyal general, bathing. Her husband is away at war, so David invites her over for dinner. But it isn’t food David hungers for that night.

Things happen. In time, Bathsheba discovers she is pregnant. David, fearing the consequences, invites Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to take a break from battle and come home. He’s thinking that Uriah and his wife will do what comes naturally, and Uriah will think he is the father of the unborn child.

Uriah is much too honorable for something like that. At David’s order He does come home, but he refuses to sleep with his wife. He feels that a good general could never give himself such pleasure when his men are risking their lives in heated battle. An upstanding man, worthy of a long and distinguished life.

David still has the problem of how to handle his adultery. So David, king of Israel, writer of many Psalms, arranges to have Uriah- fine, honest Uriah- murdered. I don’t know where you could find a more terrible crime.

David thinks that ends the matter. But one day Nathan the prophet visits. Nathan tells David that God knows the whole affair and will judge him. During this awful period of his life, David writes one of his most penetrating poems, Psalm 51. Notice these words from the fourth verse of that psalm: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”

David had committed horrible wrongs against Bathsheba and Uriah. Perhaps David asked Bathsheba to forgive him, but we don’t know. He could not have asked Uriah, because Uriah had died in the ambush David arranged. What we do know is that David, with a broken heart, pleaded with God for forgiveness because he had sinned against Him.

Here is the important issue: Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that person does not have to go to God for forgiveness. We forgive the wrongs done to us. Only God can forgive the sin.

If you have hurt your husband or wife, you can ask forgiveness for the hurt, but you still need forgiveness from God for the sin. Take both steps and healing will begin.

Forgiveness and Trust

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we have to trust the person. Why? Because you cannot trust someone who is not trustworthy.

I sent my car to a mechanic. He did some work, but also broke some things. His bad workmanship cost me hundreds of dollars. I have forgiven him for that, but it would be crazy for me to trust him with my car again.
If the mechanic called me and apologized; if he admitted that he did not really know what he was doing; if he told me he would like to make it good; then I could trust him again.

In American movies you sometimes hear this warning: “Watch your back!” It means that there is danger all around and you must not let down your guard. Ask Shirley if she trusts her husband and she will tell you she does not-- at least not in the important matters. But still she forgives him and loves him as much as she can, and maybe as much as he will allow her.

Consider what Paul wrote to his dear friend Timothy: “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.” (II Timothy 4:14-15, NIV)

We may never know whether Paul had forgiven Alexander, but if he practiced what he preached, he did. Yet he knew that Alexander could not be trusted, so he warned Timothy to watch his back.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

This could be the most difficult aspect of forgiveness to understand. We automatically assume that when we forgive, we reconcile. But that is not always possible. Some people are stubborn. They would rather stay separated, nursing their hurts. We reach out and ask them to forgive us, extending an open hand. They cross their arms, turn, and walk away. We want to reconcile, but they do not.

Paul addresses this issue in Romans, chapter twelve: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18, NIV)

Shirley repeatedly forgives her husband. But he never responds as she would hope. When the offender doesn’t give us grounds for reconciliation, we can still forgive even though the offender does not respond positively. We are extending an open invitation of restoration even though they do not respond.

Forgiveness and Privileges

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we automatically restore all privileges that were forfeited through the offence. Suppose a woman’s husband is unfaithful to her. Wanting to do the Christian thing, she goes to her pastor for counsel. The pastor, a compassionate man, though perhaps too legalistic, tells her to forgive her husband. So far so good. Then she asks, “Does that mean I have to share my body with him, although he is still going to bed with the other woman?” The pastor, thinking he is doing the right thing, tells her she must allow her husband to have sex with her.

Many of us would disagree with that counsel. We would encourage this lady to forgive her husband, but to also insist on his faithfulness. He doesn’t get her sexual pleasures until hers are the only ones he gets. In this day of rampant, sexually transmitted diseases, there is even more reason to follow that path.

Real Offenses or Imaginary

If we find ourselves constantly forgiving, we may be too easily offended, too touchy. You might be hypersensitive at certain times. If you are stretched tight, like a violin string, it doesn’t take much to get a squeal out of you. In times like that we need understanding, patience, and maybe a little extra help from our husband or wife. We can also find out what we can do to lessen the pressure, if possible.

"Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (I Corinthians 13:5, NIV) In every way, love is the opposite of selfishness.

Revenge or Forgiveness

Revenge is never the best choice, because revenge is not redemptive. “My husband just invited forty-five friends of his for a party!” the young wife living next door moaned. “I could kill him!” I don’t blame her for thinking about it, and I doubt a jury of women would convict her if she did.

I don’t think her husband needs to worry about waking up dead some morning, but there are more subtle forms of revenge. She could embarrass him in front of his friends, maybe burn the burgers and cremate the hot dogs. She could withhold sexual pleasures. She could go on a spending spree and put it all on his charge card. And she could justify her revenge by saying, “He deserves it!”

If she is wise, our young friend won’t try to get even. Getting even does not help. Ever. Revenge can backfire. In Nigeria they have a saying: “You do me, I do you!” That describes the problem perfectly. Both parties try to make the last strike, the ultimate blow, and only injure each other more.

Accepting Forgiveness from God

We see much fuzzy, pseudo spiritual thinking these days. Some writers like to make a case for forgiving yourself. It’s good for you, they say. I would agree to a point. The problem is that they do not acknowledge God. I know that without God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of the offended party, I cannot experience freedom in my soul. I also know that I can beat myself up for a long time, even when my God and my friend have forgiven me.

Forgiving yourself means that you put the offensive, embarrassing behavior behind you. You can’t do that until you know God has forgiven you. Even so, to keep bashing yourself does not please God any more than your sin does. Let it go.

Life is a challenge. In our attempt to cope and to relate, we all cause pain and we all get hurt. Jesus gave us the key to healing in these words, “Stop judging others, and you will not be judged. Stop criticizing others, or it will all come back on you. If you forgive others, you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37, New Living Translation)

Forgive! It’s best for you, best for the offender, and best for your marriage. Forgiveness may not fix everything, but it’s the best preparation for further repair.

Forgiveness Leads to Restoration

Although forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to like, trust, reconcile, or restore, forgiveness opens the door to trusting, liking, reconciling, and restoring. If we truly forgive, we will be open to all positive possibilities.

Dallas Willard, noted professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, says that all of us live with each other on the basis of mutual mercy. He is right. All of us make many mistakes. If we did not forgive we would live in a constant state of alienation and anger.

Jesus tells us that we must forgive because God has forgiven us. Why not do your part to become a more forgiving person?


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