“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against any one, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
God is very clear that if you do not forgive those who sin against you, He will not forgive you when you sin against Him.1 This is a non-negotiable principle.
But what does it really mean to say, “I forgive.” Here is my understanding of the forgiveness that God requires:
- Forgiveness is a personal choice that I make to release another person from his “debt” to me.
- It is demonstrated by my refusal to feel resentful and bitter toward him, coupled with my purpose to treat him in a loving manner, just as I would want to be treated in reverse circumstances.
- It also includes a willingness to restore my relationship with him as far as the consequences of his sin will allow or as far as he is willing to be reconciled.
Our forgiveness of others must model God’s forgiveness of us. When Adam and Eve sinned, God forgave them; but He still removed
them from the Garden of Eden and prohibited them from returning to it (Gen 3:22–24).
When Moses sinned by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God forgave him but denied him entrance to the promised land (Numbers 20:8–12).
What Forgiveness is Not
To understand forgiveness in the light of how God forgives us, we should learn the following truths:
Forgiveness is not approval of the wrong that someone did. God never approves of our sins. Just as God hates sin, we are to hate sin (Psa. 11:5; Rom. 12:9).
Forgiveness is not excusing or condoning what someone did. God has a standard of right and wrong, and we are to adopt His value system. God never minimizes sinful behavior or excuses wrongdoing.
Forgiveness is not justifying what someone did. If you seek to justify or excuse wrongdoing, you become an abomination to God yourself. Proverbs 17:15 warns clearly, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.” Wrong is always wrong, no matter who did it.
Forgiveness is not clearing someone else’s record with God. We have the right and obligation to clear their record with us. We can forgive whomever has sinned against us. But we cannot tell him that God forgives him unless he has asked Him to do so, nor can we arbitrarily assure him that God will not bring judgment upon him.
When Jesus and Stephen prayed, “Father forgive them,” those who were jeering at Jesus and throwing stones at Steven did not suddenly receive God’s forgiveness for their sins. Jesus and Stephen were demonstrating that they held no bitterness or unforgiveness in their hearts toward their offenders. Their prayer did not immediately extend forgiveness to sinners who were not repentant and who did not desire God’s forgiveness. Nor did it stop God’s promise to avenge all wrongs done (Rom. 12:19; Col. 3:25).
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation requires the participation of two people both of whom are willing to be reconciled. The person you forgive may not want to see you or talk to you, let alone be reconciled to you.
Forgiveness is not denying what someone did. True forgiveness can only be offered after we have come to terms with reality—when we can admit, “This person actually did or said this to me.” Many victims of child abuse repress the memory of the wrong committed against them.
Forgiveness is not blindness to what happened. Blindness is a conscious choice to pretend a sin did not take place, while repression is usually unconscious and involuntary. Both, however, can be psychologically damaging. When Paul said, “Love keeps no record of wrongs,” he did not mean that we should be blind to those wrongs.2
Forgiveness is not forgetting. How often have we heard, “Just forgive and forget.” But it is usually impossible to forget painful events in our lives. Being a loving, forgiving person does not erase our memories. Many people would love to be able to “forget,” but are not able to do so.
Being a loving, forgiving person does not erase our memories
Remember, God does not literally “forget” our sins in the sense that He has no further knowledge that we ever sinned. If He did, He would cease to be omniscient. He does tell us, however, that He will not “remember” our sins against us if we truly repent of them—that is, He will not charge them to our account. But even His forgiveness does not cancel the law of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7-8).
Forgiveness is not refusing to view the sin as serious. Forgiveness does not require a Christian to become a doormat for abusive behavior. A loving, forgiving person does not aid and abet sinful activity by refusing to obey the law.
For example, failing to report child molestation to lawful authorities is a crime. If you see someone breaking into someone’s car or home, forgiveness does not turn a “blind eye” and refuse to call the police. The most loving act a Christian can do for a lawbreaker is to inform the police so they can restrain his evil.
Forgiveness is not pretending we are not hurt by what someone did or said. Always we must be truthful about this, though we dare not continue to nurse or relive those hurts committed against us. If you do this, it gives the person who did the wrong power over you. Rather, focus your energy on the Scriptural passages that promise healing.
Forgiveness is not automatic reinstatement of trust in the offender. Trust must be earned, and we must never put past offenders into positions where they will be unduly tempted. A person who has had a problem with stealing prior to his conversion probably should not be asked to be the church treasurer. A former child molester should not be asked to lead a children’s ministry. Romans 13:14 says, “Make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns, “Wherefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
What True Forgiveness Really Is
Forgiveness is being aware of what someone has done and still choosing to forgive him. This is painful, for it hurts us to release bitterness and revenge. For some people it seems almost a duty to carry a “justified resentment.” Otherwise they claim that those who have wronged them will never face the consequences of their actions. But to forgive as God requires means that you must embrace the Scriptural teaching that there are no sins that justify you choosing to be resentful.
Forgiveness is choosing to keep no record of wrongs. You can not “forget” what you cannot forget, but you can choose to stop rehearsing all of the wrongs you have suffered. Second Corinthians 10:3-5 will help you, especially the phrase, “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” Just as love is a choice, total forgiveness is a choice. It is not a feeling—at least at first—but is rather an act of the will.
Just as love is a choice, total forgiveness is a choice. It is not a feeling—at least at first—but is rather an act of the will
Forgiveness is realizing that God has said, “It is mine to avenge, I will repay.” (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). Vindication is what God has promised to do. He doesn’t want or need our help!
Forgiveness is refusing to tell other people what an offender did. If you need to do so, you may unburden yourself therapeutically and with the right attitude to your pastor, therapist, or other authority figure. But it is wrong to gossip about your hurts with family, friends, and other acquaintances. Often this is only a subtle way of punishing those who have wronged you and of seeking sympathy for yourself.
Forgiveness is showing mercy and grace (Mat. 5:7). These qualities are often expressed by what you don’t say even when what you could say would be true. Say about others only what you would want them to say about you.
Forgiveness is an inner condition and attitude of our heart and mind. It is a gift you give to yourself, not merely something you do for someone else. Really, forgiveness has little or nothing to do with another person, because it is an internal matter with you.
Forgiveness is the absence of bitterness. It isn’t enough to say, “I forgive” or “I am not bitter.” The real tests of forgiveness are much deeper.
- Have you stopped meditating on what happened?
- Have you stopped telling others about it?
- Have you stopped living in the past, rehearsing your hurt?
When Jesus met the eleven disciples in the upper room after His resurrection, there was no hint of rebuke for their desertion and betrayal before His crucifixion. Jesus never said, “How could you have abandoned me like that.”
Forgiveness Sets You Free
Forgiveness is mandated by God, but it is also something you must do for yourself.
A former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp was visiting a friend who had shared the horrible suffering with him.
“Have you forgiven the Nazis?” he asked his friend, who answered, “Yes.”
“Well, I haven’t. I’m still consumed with hatred for them,” he declared.
“In that case,” his friend replied gently, “they still have you in prison.”
This story points out this reality: ultimately, forgiving others, as we have already noted, is a gift you give yourself. Bitterness and anger imprison
you emotionally. Forgiveness sets you free.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.
- See Matthew 6:14–15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25–26; Luke 6:36–37; 11:4; 17:3–4; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12–13.
- 1 Corinthians 13:5 in the KJV says, “thinketh no evil.” Most modern translations render it, “keep no record of wrongs” or “is not resentful.”