To Forgive or Not to Forgive
We have all heard that we should forgive others, that it's not only the right thing to do, but that it's actually good for us. While it's true that forgiveness leads us to a healthier mental and physical state than does holding onto anger and bitterness, it's often not that simple to get there, is it? Let's answer a few questions about forgiveness to better understand how we can get there.
What Exactly Does Forgiveness Mean?
Since God Himself is the author of forgiveness, His definition is better than any other. Throughout scripture, we are told that when we do something wrong, it is equivalent to incurring a debt (Luke 11:4, Colossians 2:14, Philemon 1:18).
Take God's law for example, the Ten Commandments, according to scripture, we've all broken God's laws. If you think you're a "good person," take this test and discover, that you too are guilty in God's eyes of breaking His laws and incurring a debt. Unfortunately, many people are deceived into thinking that they either have no debt or that they are capable of settling their debt with God on their own, when their pockets just aren't deep enough. Yet, God in His great love and mercy, became flesh, sending Jesus to Earth to take on the punishment that we deserve, so our case could be "legally dismissed" in God's heavenly courtroom. Having lived a perfect life, Jesus's pockets are plenty deep and sufficient to pay our debt and settle our account with God. So this brings us to what I believe to be the best definition of forgiveness:
Forgiveness is releasing someone from the debt they owe you.
To put it another way, forgiveness means that we are not going to "make them pay." Isn't that what makes forgiveness so difficult? If we release someone from a debt they owe us, aren't we letting them off scot-free? God addresses this by assuring us that vengeance is His, that He alone reserves the rights to justice and He rights every wrong ever done, either by paying the fine through Christ's sacrifice, or for those who tragically reject this grace, through eternal punishment and separation from God and His goodness (Romans 12:19).
Why Forgive Those Who Betray and Hurt Us?
If recognizing the tremendous debt we've been forgiven is not motivation enough to extend that same forgiveness to others, God tells us that there are consequences to unforgiveness. He gives us a compelling reason for why we ought to forgive others.
"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. " Matthew 6:14-15
Being left to pay for our own debt to God is a frightening thought for sure. At the same time, when we forgive, there are blessings attached to that choice. As I mentioned earlier, it is good for us, not only spiritually, but mentally and physically as well. According to Johns Hopkins,
"studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age."
God is faithful, He never commands us to do something that He doesn't intend to ultimately benefit us.
How Do We Forgive?
In order to achieve this lofty virtue, first we must understand that forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is not a feeling. If we were to wait until we feel like forgiving someone, we may likely never do it. We are called to forgive others, whether they seek forgiveness or not, whether they are sorry or not, and whether they are changed or not.
We must understand that forgiveness and reconciliation are two very different things. Forgiveness is a gift that we give someone, while trust is earned. For there to be reconciliation in a relationship, the ball is in the court of the offender to rebuild the bridge that was burnt down by the offense. This rebuilding cannot be done by the wounded party, it's just not possible. However, forgiveness opens the door and makes a way for the offender to begin the rebuilding process. Forgiveness is leaving the door open to reconciliation, it doesn't guarantee it.
It's important to remember that our feelings do not always line up with God's truth and His commands. If we have been hurt and angry over someone else's sins against us, these feelings are normal and understandable. Yet, we must be careful not to allow our feelings to dictate our obedience to God's word. (See my related blog post, "A Slave to Feelings," for a deeper look at this.)
If you're struggling with your feelings and wondering if you can actually forgive or maybe you've already chosen to forgive, but those negative feelings still crop up at times, you may doubt whether you can or have forgiven. It's ok. You can't control your feelings, but you can control the choices you make and the thoughts you choose to meditate on. Making the choice to forgive and to meditate on God's promises when you do, will help lead the way for your feelings to follow and true freedom to begin.
Lastly, but most importantly, take advantage of the greatest resource we have, God. Go to Him in prayer and simply ask Him to help you begin the process of forgiveness, talk to Him about all of those difficult emotions when they surface, and trust Him to carry you through to a place peace.