I suspect that there is someone in your life who has hurt you—and hurt you deeply. It may be an employer who wronged you, a friend who betrayed you, a parent who abused you, or a mate who deserted you.
Perhaps you have difficulty forgiving that person. After all, doesn’t your offender deserve to pay for what he or she did? In my four decades of ministry, I’ve discovered that the two issues people struggle with most in life both have to do with forgiveness: either receiving God’s forgiveness or extending forgiveness to those who have wronged them.
Someone has said that forgiveness is like letting go of a rattlesnake. The choice benefits the snake, but it benefits you more! There are many physical and emotional benefits of forgiveness, such as reduced anxiety and depression, less stress, and a longer life. Yet several common misunderstandings about forgiveness keep us prisoners of bitterness, instead of freeing us to experience the life God wants us to have.
First, you may think your offender has to earn your forgiveness. But what could a person do to restore a reputation ruined by slander? What restitution could someone offer for a marriage devastated by adultery or a child killed by a drunk driver? The fact is, there is very little a someone else can do to earn our forgiveness.
In a three-legged race, your leg is bound to your partner’s, and you can go no farther or faster than your partner is willing to go. Similarly, when you say, “I won’t forgive until my offender asks for it, earns it, or deserves it,” you are emotionally binding yourself to the person who hurt you.
As in a three-legged race, you can go no further or faster in your life than your emotional partner—the person who wronged you—is willing to go. But when you forgive someone, you are unbinding yourself emotionally from your offender so that you can move on with the life God has planned for you.
Second, you may think forgiveness requires surrendering your desire for justice. There’s a difference between justice and vengeance. Vengeance is our desire to hurt somebody for hurting us. The Bible says, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
When we forgive, we let go of vengeance and say, “God, I’m letting You settle the score with my offender.” But we don’t have to release our desire for justice. Justice is the payment that God or others require from the offender. We desire justice because we are made in the image of God, who is just.
Third, you may think forgiveness means pretending the offense didn’t happen. We do people a disservice when we say, “Forgive and forget.” Forgiveness is a spiritual action, while forgetting is a biological action. Ignoring the offense short-circuits the forgiveness process.
To forgive somebody, you have to go through the proper steps: You acknowledge that somebody has wronged you. You calculate what your offender owes you. Then you choose to release your offender to God.
Fourth, you may think forgiveness is synonymous with reconciliation. But you can forgive without being reconciled to your offender. Forgiveness depends only on you. You choose to forgive regardless of whether the person asks or deserves to be forgiven. However, reconciliation depends on you and the offender. To be reconciled with you, the offender has to demonstrate repentance, go through a process of rehabilitation, and rebuild trust.
As Christians, we are to forgive because God has forgiven us. You and I owe a sin debt to God that is incalculable. If we die without paying our sin debt, then we will spend eternity separated from God.
The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The most consequential choice you and I make in life is this: “Who’s going to pay for my sin?” We can keep trying to pay our debt and never do it, or we can say by faith, “Jesus, I believe when you died You paid the debt for me.”
Only when we understand the magnitude of our sin against God and receive His unconditional forgiveness, can we truly forgive other people. As Paul said in Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Extending the forgiveness we have received from God to others is life’s most important choice—a choice that results in true freedom. As the late Dr. Lewis Smedes wrote, “When we forgive we set the prisoner free, and the prisoner we set free is us.”