I Don't Understand Forgiveness

I Don't Understand Forgiveness April 4, 2012

Have you ever desperately wanted someone to apologize for wronging you, just so that you could forgive them? I have felt that way sometimes, because I’m a naturally tender-hearted sort of person. When relationships are broken, I long to make it right, even if I’m not the one at fault. So I wait… and wait… and wait. And the more I’m hurt, the less inclined I am to forgive. Yet all the while I keep hoping. If that person could just for one moment see what he’s done and how wrong he’s been, for one moment be willing and able to admit the whole truth, and then come to ask forgiveness for everything… how gladly would I give it! How thankful I would be for the healing of that relationship. Because that was all I ever wanted.

But what if that moment never comes? What if time moves on, and that person is never sorry, never sees that he’s been wrong, and maybe even continues to hurt you? Can you still say “I forgive you?” Must you still say “I forgive you?”
Forgiveness is a strange thing. The older I get, the more I realize I know nothing about it. On the one hand, God didn’t tell us to forgive… if the other person is sorry. He just told us to forgive. That seems to indicate that the answer is yes, we should extend that grace regardless. Yet when I think about exactly what the picture of forgiveness modeled by Christ’s sacrifice looks like, I realize that we can only receive his forgiveness if we ask for it. In a strange way (and I’m aware that this is very much a live debate, so I’m contributing nothing new here) I wonder whether perhaps it’s misleading to say that Jesus forgave our sins at that one moment in time on the cross. Should we not rather say that he made it possible for us to be forgiven? That he provided a way for us to obtain grace? There are people who will choose to live and die in their sin, because they rejected grace. And that means that God will not forgive their sin! The offer was there, the grace was extended—but they turned away from it.
And yet, when I look at Jesus’ words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…” I am thrown back the other way. Here were these cruel, brutal men, obviously unrepentant, and Jesus was asking the Father to forgive them anyway. He was pleading for them because of their ignorance—they literally didn’t know what they were doing. But of course, that didn’t make the act any less evil. Jesus was still an innocent man, even if they didn’t think of him as God.
So ultimately, I have to say that I simply don’t understand just how forgiveness is supposed to work. It is a profound and beautiful mystery to me. In the past, I have thought that I was obliged to offer it no matter what, and I have offered it when it was not asked for. Part of me still feels that was right. I just know that I want to follow what God requires. The question is… how much exactly does He require?

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  • bravesfan513

    Christ died for every sin of every man. The atonement has been made. But to RECEIVE the forgiveness, one has to repent and claim it.
    Jesus did not tell us to forgive when someone tells us they are sorry. He just said to forgive. Why did He do that? Your first paragraph illustrates why. If we do not forgive, that little seed of bitterness will hold us back from living a life of full joy, and eventually will take root and grow. You forgive to relieve yourself of that spiritual burden, but the other person has to claim that forgiveness to see the same benefit. Until the person in the wrong repents and makes it right, it is they who will not be happy. Don’t double the unhappiness by holding onto it on your side.

  • Yes—I believe Christ died for every sin, so that if we repent, God would look at us and see Christ’s righteousness instead of our sin. I guess what I’m seeking is an order of events. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I think that as a philosopher, someone who’s always thinking about time and paradox, I sense there’s a paradox here. A both/and. Almost as if both ideas are correct.
    Your second paragraph describes how I’ve always understood the practical and spiritual benefit of forgiveness, which seems to serve as more support for forgiving first and waiting for repentance later.

  • David Mac

    “perhaps it’s misleading to say that Jesus forgave our sins at that one moment in time on the cross”….
    I think it is. Jesus’ comment – often quoted out of context – “Father forgive them…” was directed towards the Roman soldiers who were carying out the crucifixion duty. Luke, the Gentile writer, and the only Gospel writer to record the first utterance of the cross, makes that clear in the context.
    If we teach “forgiveness” for all, on the cross, we are bordering on universalism surely?
    “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1John 1:9)

  • Patricia

    I find this question very interesting. My dad was a Pastor and wrote a book on this very subject . It’s called What the Bible says about Forgiveness. It would take to much time for me to quote the whole book but I will say some things in the book. I’m also one of those people that want to forgive and also ask for forgiveness when I wrong someone. I had something happen a long time ago I asked for forgiveness from a person I hurt and they said they could never forgive me it still haunts me today. I tried, I really was sorry for what I did yet the person would not forgive me. Well the Bible is very clear on when that happens Mark 11:26 “But if ye do not forgive,neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses”. So a person who refuses to forgive is telling us they have a spiritual problem,including possibly not being saved. My dad says there is four steps to be taken for Biblical Forgiveness step one: Discover if an offense has been committed. “Take heed to yourself: if thy brother trespass against thee,rebuke him: and if he repent, forgive him.”Step two : Confront and rebuke the offender.” But he turned and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of”. People so miss this in the Bible but we are to confront the offense and rebuke the one who did wrong yet people don’t like confrontation so we never do it. Step Three: Wait until the offender repents. Step four Forgive the offender. My dad also brings up the very thing about Jesus on the Cross “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” He then said we must remember some important points.Jesus,who was God himself, could have forgiven the sins of those crucifying him. Jesus had the power to forgive sins.If Jesus wanted to forgive these folks,he could have done so. The simple truth is that Jesus did not forgive these folks. Why? Because,they never repented and asked him to forgive them. So why did Jesus ask the Father to forgive them? Jesus was showing us the attitude of forgiveness. Jesus teaches us we should not be bitter, or vengeful, to those who treat us wrong.We should be willing to forgive. You see if we went on you need to forgive them without ever confronting them it’s not Biblical because for anyone of us to get saved we have to repent of our sins and confess to the Lord. I hope this helps some I was trying to be careful not to quote to much of my dad’s words in this blog. We should always have our hearts ready to forgive and when someone does ask for forgiveness forgive them, but it takes at least two maybe three people not just one to have the whole process to be complete. I’m so glad God gave us his Word and we can trust it and that our Lord is a Lord full of mercy and forgives us. “For thou,Lord are good,and ready to forgive: and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.”

  • Yes, it was specifically directed towards the people carrying out the crucifixion duty, but my point in using the example was that it shows Jesus uttering forgiveness for a horrible sin where the sinners had not repented and sought forgiveness.
    I know, and when I hear people like Rob Bell taking the “Jesus already forgave you” line and then running with it to unbiblical extremes… I think a re-evaluation of what the crucifixion actually meant is in order.
    Now I am not a Calvinist, and I don’t know whether or not you are, so our views on concepts such as “the elect” may differ. I believe that Jesus’ grace is AVAILABLE for ANYONE at this very moment. But only some will receive it.

  • That’s an interesting take on Jesus’ words from the cross. I hadn’t heard the idea that perhaps he was not literally forgiving their sin, only demonstrating the spirit OF forgiveness.

  • Lydia

    Perhaps practically speaking there is no difference between quietly “forgiving someone in my heart” and waiting for him to come to me and ask. Here’s why the two may practically come to the same thing: If he doesn’t come and say he’s sorry, it’s not a good idea for me to _say_ to him that I forgive him. And the relationship will not be whole simply because I forgive him in my heart anyway. True reconciliation is a two-way street and has to await his seeking it. Very, very rarely, usually only with those people who already have a commitment to us (such as immediate family) it can work out to go and say, “I think you owe me an apology in an unsolicited way. Usually not. So in a sense my forgiving him before he repents is my not holding it against him while I wait for him to come and “complete” the reconciliation by asking.

  • Perhaps, but on a much bigger scale, you do read stories about people like Corrie Ten Boom who wrote letters of forgiveness to people who had persecuted them years after the fact. One German was literally about to be executed for war crimes when he received Corrie’s letter, and when he read the gospel as she presented it, which she said was the reason why she could forgive him, he repented and gave his heart to Christ. He was able to reply to her and tell her this before being hung.

  • I’m going to take a bit different of a tactic here. I don’t think it’s proper to say Christ died to offer us forgiveness and we have to accept it. (If you’ve read my blog you may have already guessed that I would say this being a Calvinist and all 😉 I do think He died in order to cleanse the sins and pass His perfection to those whom He already chose. None of that should be a surprise coming from me.
    BUT I think as far as human relationships go it’s going to look different from Christ’s relationship to us. Christ is omniscient. He can see the big picture. He presumably (and this is another debated topic, as in, did Christ choose to put aside his omniscience while incarnate) knew who He was dying for, or at least He trusted that the Father knew. We can only respond with forgiveness (for those who sinned against us) if they are repentant. It’s useless to the person to just say, “Oh well…you sinned…but it’s fine. I forgive you.” There is a point (after all the waiting) where you have to kind of…let go (for lack of a better term)…just so you don’t get consumed by anger. But I believe for forgiveness to happen there has to be some form of repentance….at the human level. Otherwise it’s not helpful in restoring the sinner to a right relationship with you and with God.
    Hmmm, I hope that is clear in all my rambling. I did get up rather early this morning. hahaha! And this comment is WAY too long and might not even pertain to your question.

  • Beth

    Many good thoughts shared. I’ll not offer an explanation, but just say that forgiveness is wonderful to receive, and wonderful to give.

  • Lydia

    Good point about Corrie ten Boom. In most ordinary friendship cases, though, writing such a letter would only make matters worse. It might help if we distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation and both of those from making the relationship as it would have been had the harm never been done. Forgiveness can be done on your own, and I’m guessing we’re all required to strive to forgive in our own hearts, no matter what. Reconciliation requires both parties to come together and work at it. And putting the relationship on the same footing as it was before the harm may be literally impossible. (E.g., If someone’s a kleptomaniac, you probably should never trust him with money again even if you forgive him for previous acts of stealing.)

  • Yeah. Sometimes you hear the line “You can’t forgive unless you also trust,” and that’s completely false.

  • Honestly, you did sort of describe what I’m leaning towards at the moment (minus the Calvinism of course. 😉 ) So thanks for the comment!

  • Of course! And I figured that is maybe what you were sort of shifting into, but I thought I’d lend a hand…or a comment. 🙂

  • I liked the distinction made a few comments up between forgiveness and reconciliation. Christ forgave His persecutors, but not all of them were reconciled to Him, i.e. they did not accept that forgiveness and the graces which accompanied it. So according to that usage of the word “forgiveness”, we can say that God forgives all those who do evil, and thus He is willing to remit all guilt and punishment. But if they do not accept forgiveness, the guilt will remain, and they will still be punished.
    But then, the question is: is forgiveness the WILLINGNESS to remit guilt and punishment, or is it the actual remission itself? It seems it can be understood both ways. But when it’s understood as the actual remission of guilt and punishment, I think that’s where we have problems. So understanding it as the WILLINGNESS to remit guilt and punishment helps resolve our problem.

  • Precisely! You captured my puzzlement perfectly. How exactly are we defining forgiveness? The actual moment when God blots out the sin or the offer of pardon?

  • Lydia

    Here is an interesting test as to whether in human relationships we are really forgiving in our hearts. Suppose that a friend has hurt me and that I can’t think of anything I have done for which I need to apologize to him. So I struggle and ask God to help me to forgive him, which I think the Maestro is right to define as a willingness to remit guilt and to distinguish from reconciliation. Now, suppose my friend (or shall we say former friend?)shows up one fine day in a location (or a virtual location–say he sends me an e-mail if he was an on-line friend) being friendly and showing a visible desire to be reconciled, but not actually apologizing. What do I do? If I say, “You’ve got a lot of nerve just writing to me out of the blue like that, buddy!” then I’m probably not _really_ willing to remit his guilt. I probably haven’t really forgiven him in my heart. There’s a fine line here, as discussed above, between forgiving him and feeling toward him as I would had nothing ever happened. The latter may be not only impossible but also imprudent. It may be quite legitimate to remember that this is someone to be cautious around, not to be as free with him as I was before, and so forth. At the same time, I think that I can show that I really am willing in my heart to forgive him by going on as best as possible from there without demanding an apology. Which is very hard to do if the person really does owe me an apology.

  • I must admit that I’m having trouble coming up with a friendly message that would “show a desire to be reconciled” without apologizing.

  • Plus, and I guess this would be largely a matter of personality, as well as the depth of the rift in the friendship, but it seems like it would be an all or nothing thing—a friendly message out of the blue sans apology just doesn’t seem natural/plausible if you literally haven’t been speaking at all for a long period of time. It seems like if the person had gotten so far as to feel warm and friendly towards you again, he’d have progressed all the way to feeling guilty and offering an apology.

  • Amy Herrera

    Hey, just some random thoughts. I’m not claiming to be an expert at this forgiveness stuff either, although that’s scary to say. First my only original idea- I think human forgiveness is very different from divine forgiveness. And no, I won’t be able to prove this out of the Bible. But I agree with those who are suggesting that granting remission of sin is God’s office. I think the forgiveness Jesus showed on the cross was as a man. He didn’t look at the soldier and say, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” And we know He could have done that. So I think He was forgiving as we forgive, praying for the person who trespassed against Him and refusing to cherish any bitterness in His heart.
    Now, I wish you could have been at my church’s convention Thursday and Friday. The Friday am message was on the root of bitterness, which the speaker likened to a strangler fig. He researched his illustration online, so rather than trying to repeat it all here, I’ll refer you to Google. 😀 But he talked about how this harmless little plant sprouts and eventually encases a tree in a living prison and kills it. BUT, he was so excited in his researching to find out that there is one area in the world where these plants are cultivated. Their roots are trained over decades to produce bridges. He said that the events in our life will either kill us spiritually, or we can take them to God and let Him build bridges out of them.
    Another good message addressed forgiveness more directly. This preacher has a delightful backwoodsy style of getting his point across. He said that when the rapture takes place, he doesn’t want to be stuck here running around to collect forgivenesses someone owes him. He told us as a church that if anyone owes him an apology, they can mark it down that he has already forgiven them, and if they feel the need to apologize to him, it will be an easy one, because it will be forgiven. I just mention his because I think it lets us know that it is possible by the grace of God to live this way, although we may be struggling to get there.
    And yes, sometimes for our own sake, we have to make shift without an apology. Although we know it was needed, it doesn’t always come. We just have to leave it in God’s hands. If I were to refuse to be reconciled to my husband until he had apologized each time he offended me, I’d have a pretty rotten marriage. Now many times he apologizes immediately. Other times the Lord showed me that if I would continue with a good spirit, the apology might even come a few days later. But sometimes it doesn’t, and maybe he forgets, or maybe I misjudged his intentions, or whatever. But of course something like infidelity (God forbid) would require a reconciliation, but when it’s a case of my hurt feelings, standing on my rights won’t get my anywhere. And I don’t believe it ever will in my Christian walk. It’s not a lesson, as I said at the start, that I claim to have mastered, but one that I’m praying for grace to live. Space and time constraints force me to close; I may not have helped you much, but I wish you all the best. 🙂 And have mercy on my comment; remember typing on an iPod touch isn’t conducive to expressing oneself well.

  • AmyH

    Yikes, I think my comment is longer than your post….

  • On the contrary, your comment was quite articulate and well-thought. 🙂
    I think I can make another separation (besides divine vs. human), and that’s ordinary friendship relationships as opposed to marriage relationships. I think with a marriage it may be a little more important to try as much as possible to get things back to the way they were before the rift happened, which might involve requesting a fuller reconciliation. However, with a friendship, since returning to the status quo is less urgent, it makes more sense to settle for less.