Forgiveness may feel offensive or unnatural, and it could quickly soak a face with tears. But every deep relationship requires it. Before we forgive, however, we should first grasp its definition and motivation biblically.
Forbearance is often confused with forgiveness. Forbearance overlooks an unpleasant characteristic, event, or offence that is relatively minor even if our emotions feel major (Matthew 5:23-24; Proverbs 28:13; Proverbs 19:11; 12:16; 17:14; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8). It’s the annoying habit in our colleague, the friend who didn’t wave at church, the joke at our expense last week. With God’s help, forbearing people resolve their inner discord quickly in recognition that further insistence on their rights may generate further wounds to ourselves and to the body of Christ. Forbearance ‘lets it go and moves on’ when emotions resurface knowing that everyone needs constant grace, including ourselves.
By contrast, forgiveness applies to major offences that require discussion in order for a resolution to occur. It does not mean forgetting or excusing egregious acts. It does not insist that reconciliation be immediate or return to its previous form. It does not remove any legal consequences that may apply. However, it does cost us deeply because through it we choose to lay down our right to have our offender owe us. It asks us to extend love and kindness even when it’s undeserved, to trust God to avenge our situation instead of ourselves, and to use life’s conflicts as opportunities to display God’s character (Matthew 5:23-24; Proverbs 28:13).
In our culture today, many feelings-based views of forgiveness are taught which have migrated into Christian counselling as well. Feelings-based forgiveness is accomplished when we’ve released hostility toward our offender by resolving our internal emotional pain.
In Scripture, however, feelings-based forgiveness remains incomplete. Scripture shows us a consistent, important pattern of how forgiveness is triggered through repentance (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; 13:3; 17:3-4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19,5:31,8:22; 1 John 1:9). Unforgiveness is like a closed-door that impacts the intimate relationship between two parties.
If the guilty party offers repentance, the application of forgiveness opens the door in order to restore the relationship. The Holy Spirit can move us toward inner peace so that we become ready and able to forgive, but forgiveness is not actually applied until repentance is sought. It gives the opportunity for the offended to hear I’m sorry, and the opportunity for the offender to receive the freedom of I forgive you.
Together, this transaction displays the reconciliatory power of the love of Christ up close and personal. These distinctions are important because, in a feelings-based form, justice for wrong-doing becomes inconsequential and its purpose is self-focused rather than us-focused which is Christ-focused. In sum, forgiveness is conditional upon repentance, and transactional in its peace-making between people and not just within our own hearts.
The closed veil that once blocked communion with Jesus tore open as an invitation for us to repent so that forgiveness could be applied. The words Father, forgive them echoing from the cross were answered when thousands repented at Peter’s preaching (Acts 2:37-41). Upon Joseph’s brothers’ contrition, he not only forgave them but brought their families into reconciliation with him and protection from famine (Gen 50:18-21).
Forgiveness requires that we give a repentant person an opportunity to regain our trust by forgiving them. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said, Go and be reconciled to your brother (Matt 5:24; 1 Cot 7:11; 2 Cor 5:18-20). Reconciliation of ourselves with others replaces hostility and separation with peace and friendship. The complexities of what a restored relationship looks like can be complex and varied. Biblical counselling is often necessary to process the relational complexities in a God-honouring way.
Why we forgive
Why would we want to forgive when it costs us so much and reconciliation may actually be undesirable? Because He first loved us (1 John 4:7-8). None of us are righteous (Romans 3:10, 23). And as believers, we’ve been drawn to repentance (John 6:44) and have received the ultimate gift of forgiveness ourselves (Rom 6:23). Shame eliminated (1 John 1:9). Eternal life secured (John 3:16). Coheirs with Jesus (Romans 8:17). Christ’s ultimate gift floors us in worship and continues to lavish upon us – He gave us Himself.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9)
We don’t forgive because we are loving and forgiving people, we forgive because we’ve been loved and forgiven (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). Forgiveness doesn’t allow us to say that we love God but hate one another (1 John 4:20-21). Instead, the love of God within us compels us to pay it forward (Matt 18:21-35). In any conflict, we will make a choice to either fight peace, fake peace, or make peace in our thoughts, speech, and actions.
We fight peace by becoming retaliatory. We fake peace by burying (denying) our emotional distress. Fighter and fakers take emotional control of the situation for the preservation of themselves. We make peace by leaning into the Prince of Peace who moves us to restoration because we’ve given control of ourselves and all outcomes to Him. Peace-makers take the focus off of themselves and onto Him, for the preservation of Us.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling[c] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
Our new life in Him doesn’t ask, Why must I forgive? but How can I display the beauty and reality of Jesus? (1 Corinthians 10:31). We become recommissioned peace-makers—ambassadors of reconciliation to the watching world who longs for freedom from guilt themselves and wonders whether reconciliation could be a possible reality for them too (John 13:35; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
There’s hope for those on both sides of the hurting—the wounded and the shamed. Through the ministry of reconciliation that we have tasted through Christ, being forgiving people is essential evidence of Jesus’ power for when we crave it and when we offer it.