Forgiving others is not an option. It’s a sacred duty, demanded by Jesus and reiterated throughout the New Testament. It’s central to the Christian message.
But when it comes to actually forgiving someone of something…. well, that’s another matter. It’s tough to do. Isn’t it? And it’s made all the harder because so many of us have never been shown what Biblical forgiveness actually looks like.
Some of us have been taught that forgiveness is pretending that nothing happened. Some of us think forgiveness is a never-ending series of second chances given to the offender (or ourselves). Others view it as a fresh start with all the consequences and old baggage removed. Still others imagine it as the immediate and full restoration of a broken relationship, complete with the same level of trust and privileges that existed before the wrongdoing.
A real problem occurs when forgiving gets confused with forgetting. The two are not the same. We tend to assume that we should automatically forgive a transgressor, and whatever happened in the past should be a dead issue. That we should just get over it and forget it.
But that is unreasonable. It unfairly turns the tables on the one who has been wronged. It assumes that his or her pain should magically disappear. And if it doesn’t, then they are an unforgiving villain.
Yet, in reality, healing takes time. Forgiveness is a decision lived out as a lengthy process. The expectation that we should simply forget about the wrongs committed against us is not only unreasonable; it’s emotionally unhealthy. People who bury their pain are not spiritually mature (as we have been led to believe); they are emotionally handicapped.
Anyone who has been deeply hurt knows that painful memories stick. They can’t be willed away. Pray as we might, they are not erased. The pain may lessen. The memories may fade. The nightmares may disappear. But gone for good? Not likely.
Sure, we can (and should) forget the little stuff – the social slights, the unkind word, or the idiot who cuts us off in traffic. But when it comes to the true hurts and injustices of life (or in the church), most of us are keenly aware that self-induced spiritual amnesia isn’t in the cards. It’s just not possible.
So, how do we live out the requirement to forgive others while living in the real world? How far do we go with second chances? Does forgiving mean trusting someone again even when we know they are untrustworthy? Does it give those who have deeply wounded us the right to barge back into our lives? Do we have to invite them over for dinner…. or Thanksgiving…. or the wedding?
These are the tough questions.
No question about it: as Christians, we are to forgive. But that doesn’t mean the same thing as overlooking everything people say or do. God’s call to forgiveness doesn’t mean that we have to go through life as a punching bag. It doesn’t mean we can’t speak up. It doesn’t mean rolling over. In other words, there is a time and place for confrontation, rebuke, and to point out our displeasure at what is being done.
Ultimately, forgiveness can be given only to those who want it. For those who don’t want it, especially those who would rather continue to hurt us rather than reconcile, there is another response. It’s a response that many Christians are not even aware of as an option.
It’s called: Let God be God and allow Him to do what He wil.
To the surprise of many, there is a New Testament version of revenge. But it’s a different kind of vengeance than what we understand. It doesn’t personally return evil for evil. For a Christian that is not even an option. Instead, it turns vengeance over to God, asking Him to do the honors in His perfect timing (Romans 12:17-21).
The apostle Paul – the same man who wrote so eloquently about our need to forgive others – saw no inconsistency in his own prayers that God would repay his enemy Alexander the coppersmith for the great harm he had done. In one passage he wrote of turning Alexander over to Satan (1 Timothy 1:20), while in another he simply said, “The Lord will repay him” (2 Timothy 4:14). Further still, Paul instructs us, “Do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is Mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
In other words, sometimes it is okay to turn it over to God in our prayers and say, “God, you repay them as You see fit.”
Two things are accomplished when we do this: (1) We let go, liberating ourselves, and (2) God works His righteousness.
But if and when we do that, we still need to leave room for God’s grace. He’s been known to turn His (and our) enemies into His friends, you know. And if He chooses to do so, who’s to complain? That’ what grace is all about. That’s part of what it means to let God be God.
Forgiving others is a big deal. It’s not just for those who have done the little stuff that gets us worked up. It’s also for those who have done the big stuff – the deep wounds, real harm, and irreversible damage to our lives.
Remember, Jesus died for sins He never committed to forgive people who had no right to be forgiven. Maybe that’s why it’s such a big deal to God that we learn to forgive even as we have been forgiven…. and that we let Him be God.