The Paradox of Forgiveness
Tell me if this isn’t true in your life: We want forgiveness and mercy from Christ for ourselves, but justice for those who have hurt us.
Like you, there have been times I’ve been deeply hurt or offended by people in my life: I say I’ve forgiven them, but I’m occasionally reluctant to let a few of those hurt memories go. I enjoy fondling them. There’s something both sad, and satisfying about re-living certain hurts. I understand I’m commanded to forgive and forget, but I don’t always want to. I think memories of other people’s sin comforts my own self-righteousness.
So, I replay this little fantasy in my mind of what I should have said, or done at the moment of the offense, or what I’m going to say the next time I meet them. I’m so clever in this little drama, so spiritual, so right, so logical, that I completely destroy their position and they finally see the error of their ways. They tearfully ask for my forgiveness, which I generously grant, of course and my friends admire me even more.
Sound familiar? Maybe this paragraph just triggered your “favorite” hurt fantasy.
Is it really possible to get both freedom and closure? Yes
Aside from the fact that an unforgiving spirit is sin, there’s absolutely no “upside” to our bitterness, even if we we’re totally innocent of any wrongdoing. The truth is those who have hurt us generally sleep well, but our bitterness cripples us spiritually and relationally. Our prayer and spiritual life often becomes dull and lifeless. Even innocent people are often affected as we view their motives and actions through the filter of our experience. In holding on to the “right to not forgive” we actually allow that person to keep on hurting us. Satan silently accuses God, in our minds, of failing to bring justice and over time, we come to believe that lie.
Jesus says the only way to spiritual, emotional and relational peace is forgiveness. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins” Matthew 6:14, 15. I don’t have the right to ask forgiveness (mercy) for myself, without granting forgiveness to those who hurt me, even if they are not sorry.
I think the Bible and real life experience teaches us that it’s in everyone’s best interest to forgive. First, because it pleases the Father, second because it brings peace and closure to our heart, third it frees Satan’s hold on us, and fourth it may lead to the restoration of a broken relationship. I say “may” because it doesn’t always. Even if not, grace given to others is a gift we also give to ourselves.
Practically speaking how do we bring healing, forgiveness and closure to these situations?
If a person has hurt or wronged us deeply and we’ve previously talked to them about it and they’ve asked our forgiveness, then our continued bitterness is our sin – period. However, even if they refuse to acknowledge their sin, or ask our forgiveness, we are still called to forgive them. What else does “love your enemies” mean, if not at least that? I’ve found that I can’t will myself into liking everyone and enjoying their company, but I can be kind and gracious to them and not intentionally harden my heart toward them. (More about loving people you don’t like in a few weeks.)
In either case, we need to go before God, confess our sin of an unforgiving spirit and make a decision about what we will do the next time we begin re-living our hurt fantasy. For me, as soon as I begin opening that memory door, I try to stop and imagine looking straight into the face of Jesus, my forgiver. I say his name out loud and ask him to forgive me. The sight of his face and sound of his name usually melts away that hurt memory. On other days, that door begs to be opened but each time I rebuke it, I find it’s easier to close.
There is a passage in Matthew 18:15-20 that describes a process for those who have been wronged by another Christian to get justice by “going to the church”. But getting justice is different than forgiveness. To attempt to get justice while bitter is still sin. It’s been my experience that those who truly forgive another person, often chose to simply let go of the injustice and never end up taking it to the church. They know full well if they do, in reliving the memory, the bitterness often returns. Better to be defrauded, than to sin yourself. (I Cor. 6:7)
There are some people who have hurt me deeply, who I’ve forgiven that I’m still wary of. I’d be very reluctant to ever partner with them in business or even in ministry because I no longer trust their character. I don’t think that’s an unforgiving spirit. I think it’s wisdom.
Should I tell the person who has wronged me and won’t admit it, that I’ve forgiven them?
My counsel is “no” and here’s why; if they don’t think they’ve wronged you, it will simply make them more angry that on top of your accusation, now you’re trying to make them feel guilty. And admit it, that’s probably one of your motives. It makes us feel even more self-righteous to tell someone, we’ve forgive them doesn’t it? Instead, just confess it before God and let it go.
If we’re to imitate Christ, it isn’t always enough to simply forgive and forget. Restoration of any broken relationships should be our ultimate goal, if possible. This blog is already getting too long to discuss restoration, but just read this quote from Jesus: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matt. 5:23-24 Jesus instructs us to attempt restoration even if we don’t think we’ve done anything wrong. If someone else “thinks” we have, we’re to attempt restoration. Mediate on that for a few minutes.
Last week someone emailed me this question: “Does God forgive unconfessed sin? Here’s my answer. When we fail to forgive others, that sin does not disqualify us from salvation. However, it’s clear from the passages below, that unconfessed, unrepented sin still plays some role in the final judgment of believers as God rewards each believer based on the things we’ve done “both good and bad”.
For believers, the Judgement will feel more like the Olympics. Some will receive a “gold medal” , some silver and others bronze. How we live in this life, both good and bad determines our reward, or failure to receive awards in heaven, including un-repented sin.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. II Corinthians 5:10
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, "I repent," forgive him. Luke 17:3, 4
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Luke 6:37, 38
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Matthew 5:7
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. Revelation 20:12
One final reason to forgive: the person with an unforgiving spirit is a terrible witness to family, friends, and co-workers. In effect, it is the antithesis of the gospel, because the heart of the gospel is love and forgiveness.
My question for you: As you’ve read this, has God brought to mind anyone you have yet to forgive?