Forgiveness and Freedom – 4. Is Total Forgiveness Realistic?
Ephesians 4: 29 - 32
Archbishop Desmond Tutu - “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” He was speaking not just of personal pain, but also in the larger context of South Africa. What is true of individuals is true of families, and what is true of families is true for nations as well. Without forgiveness, there is no future. We could add to the statement in several ways without changing its basic meaning: Without forgiveness, there is no freedom, there is no recovery, there is no healing. In a world with so much pain, so much hatred, so much animosity - is total forgiveness realistic or is it just a distant dream, a theory that can never become reality? Fair and honest question - deserves an answer. We might say - “Yes, total forgiveness is the best way, but it is so far beyond us that we must settle for something much less.” We may think that, but we would be wrong. Total forgiveness may be beyond us, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. It just means we have fallen short of God’s goal for us.
Forgiveness of sins is a major biblical doctrine. Salvation really begins with God’s forgiveness of our sins - "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103: 12). "If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness” (Psalm 130: 3, 4). "You have put all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38: 17). "I—yes, I alone—am the one who blots out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again” (Isaiah 43: 25). "You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!” (Micah 7: 19) "Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10: 43). "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1: 7).
Salvation begins with our forgiveness by God. If God did not forgive us, we would be weighed down under a load of guilt that could never be removed. But what about our forgiveness of the sins of others against us. "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11: 26). "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4: 32).
Twin towers of forgiveness. 1. Christianity is a faith of forgiveness. It begins with God and comes down to us. 2. God only has one solution to the problem of human sin - forgiveness. If we do not accept his solution, no other will be offered. 3. God has shown us how to forgive others. We are to do for others what he has done for us. 4. There is a direct connection between our own spiritual health and our willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us.
Forgiveness is of the Lord - starts with God, comes down to us, and then goes out to other people. We are to extend grace to others as God has extended grace to us. We, the undeserving who have been showered with God’s grace in Christ, are to give to other undeserving sinners (who have sinned against us) the same outpouring of grace. From God - to us - to others.
But is this realistic? Is the standard too high? Can anyone really live this way in a fallen world? What would a “grace-full” lifestyle look like? When Paul says, “forgiving each other,” what does he mean? Several practical questions arise at this point:
1. What is Forgiveness?
Number of words used - “to blot out” - God erases the record of the sins we commit - “to lift and carry away” - the complete removal of our sins from us, as if a heavy load had been lifted from our shoulders - “to release from debt” - the punishment for sin has been cancelled - “to show grace to one who has sinned greatly” - the undeserved nature of forgiveness. It is truly a gift from God. The Bible uses at least 75 different word pictures of forgiveness. Here are a few of them: "To forgive is to turn the key, open the cell door, and let the prisoner walk free.” "To forgive is to write in large letters across a debt, ‘Nothing owed.’” "To forgive is to pound the gavel in a courtroom and declare, ‘Not guilty!’” "To forgive is to shoot an arrow so high and so far that it can never be found again.”
Perhaps it will help to remind ourselves what forgiveness does not mean. It is not …Denying the evil that was done. Excusing sinful behavior. Pretending it never happened. Glossing over the pain you suffered. Removing all consequences for wrong behaviour. Overlooking criminal behaviour. Approving of evil. Condoning abuse. Acting as if the sin never happened. Letting others continually abuse you. Pretending you weren’t hurt.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation or restoration. What, then, is forgiveness? The most important thing I can say is that forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. God never says, “Forgive them if you feel like it.” Forgiveness is not about your feelings. If you have been deeply hurt, you will probably never “feel” like forgiving someone. Forgiveness is a choice, a decision you make in your heart. It is a choice to release others from their sins against you. 1 Corinthians 13: 5 – “love keeps no record of wrongs.” Forgiveness means letting go of the anger and the desire for revenge. Forgiveness is an act of mercy toward the offender. We say, “He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.” Of course he doesn’t. No one “deserves” forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t earned, and if a person could “earn” forgiveness, he wouldn’t need it in the first place. It is a gift of mercy that you give to someone who has hurt you. The gift is given to the other person but it remains between you and God. The other person may never know about it. When you forgive, God knows and you know, and that’s all that matters. The result is a change in the way you feel and act toward that other person. Forgiveness is not about fairness, it’s about grace.
2. How do I Know when I have Truly Forgiven?
Simple answer - when you no longer think about it day and night, no longer have to talk about it all the time, no longer feel the need to seek revenge, no longer live in bitterness and anger, can recall those who hurt you and can wish them well.
3. Is Forgiveness an Event or a Process?
Answer – yes - both an event - you must at some point decide to forgive - and a process that often must be repeated over time. 2 very good reasons to forgive that have nothing to do with the other person: A. You should forgive because God has commanded it. B. You should forgive because forgiveness is good for your own soul.
Any other benefits are nice but not necessary. We should practice forgiveness for God’s sake and for our own sake. That should motivate any of us.
4. Does Forgiveness Always Lead to Reconciliation?
Answer - no. Forgiveness is one thing; reconciliation is something else. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but forgiveness does not demand reconciliation. Forgiveness depends on you. Reconciliation depends on you plus the other person. It implies confession, repentance, forgiveness, restoration of trust and time plus a mutual desire to reconcile. Often it is not possible; sometimes it is not wise.
5. What about “I can Forgive but I can’t Forget”?
We all understand that God “forgets” our sins when he blots them out, puts them behind his back, and casts them into the depth of the sea. He can “forget” our sins because he’s God and has the power to do things like that. But we’re not God, and our painful memories often return to haunt us.
Hebrews 10: 17 - God says, “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more.” “I will remember no more.” God’s forgiveness means He chooses not to remember our sins. That’s helpful. Forgiveness is a choice we make - not a feeling, a mood or a passing notion. Forgiveness does not mean we somehow wipe out of our mind what happened. Forgiveness means we choose not to remember it. There is a big difference between remembering something and dwelling on it. We can all remember things in the past that have hurt us deeply. Forgiveness means we choose not to dwell on those things. It also means we choose not to hold a grudge against someone who has wronged us.
6. Do I Need to Tell the Person, “I forgive you”?
Answer - not necessarily. Obviously if they ask for forgiveness, and if you intend to forgive then, then of course say, “I forgive you.” But there are times when we are hurt by thoughtless comments and unkind actions. Then it isn’t always helpful to say, “I forgive you” - end up picking a fight because the person says, “I didn’t do anything that needs to be forgiven.” Remember that your forgiveness doesn’t depend on them. You don’t need their permission to forgive them. You don’t need their agreement that they were wrong. Just forgive them. Choose forgiveness in your heart. Then move on with your life.
7. How do You Forgive if they do not Confess?
This is a painful problem for many people because we live in a cruel world filled with mean people. There are people who will stomp on your face and walk away laughing. You may work with someone like that. You may be married to someone like that. You may have had a relative who sexually abused you and has never admitted it. How do you forgive someone who has died? What about people who have moved out of your life and you have no way to confront them?
There are 2 kinds of forgiveness. 1. Where the person who did the wrong admits it, comes to you asking for forgiveness, you grant it and the relationship is restored. That’s the best kind. That’s the ideal. There is confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Unfortunately, in this fallen world the ideal is not always possible. 2. People who have wronged us will not admit their guilt no matter what we do. In fact, sometimes they will lie to cover up the truth. Sometimes they will cut off the relationship rather than face the hard work of reconciliation. Sometimes they will keep on hurting us on purpose.
How can you forgive in a situation like that? You can forgive - let go of your anger and bitterness and refuse to let the hurt dominate your own life. True, the relationship remains broken. It may never be healed. But you can choose not to remember the sins of others. You can choose to wipe the slate clean so that your life is free from bitterness. That’s not easy but it’s far better than living in the past nursing a wounded spirit. We follow the example of Jesus himself who, when he hung on the cross, an innocent man put to death for crimes he did not commit, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34).
8. What about the Feelings of Anger that Keep Coming Back?
It’s not surprising if after forgiveness, for a while the memories keep coming back. If you refuse to dwell on them, slowly they will fade away. Why? When you forgive, you let go and the force is gone out of your anger.
A Miracle of God
Is total forgiveness realistic? On a purely human level, the answer is no. In our own strength, we will never be able to forgive others as God forgives us—completely, absolutely, freely, immediately, graciously, with no strings attached. As long as we live on the human level, total forgiveness will be beyond our grasp. But once we bring God into the picture, everything changes because with God, all things are possible.
On the supernatural level, total forgiveness is not only realistic, it’s the “supernatural” way of life. Forgiveness is nothing less than a miracle of God. It is a miracle we receive the moment we put our trust in Jesus Christ. And it is a miracle we give to others when in Jesus’ name, by his power and for his sake, we forgive those who sin against us.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future.” So said Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His words ring true because they are based on the truth of God. Without forgiveness, there is no future, no freedom, no hope and no healing. But where there is forgiveness, there is grace and mercy and a future as bright as the promises of God.
If God found a way to include us in his love, can we not reach out to include those who have sinned against us? This is the very heart of the gospel. What God has freely done for us, we are called to do for others. The heart of God is filled with love and at its centre stands a cross. Through that cross we have been forgiven. May God give us grace to forgive others as God has forgiven us. Amen.