Forgiveness: Making it Stick

In our most honest moments, we can acknowledge that the Bible occasionally gives direction about how we are supposed to live with one another that can be just plain tough to pull off.

And then, it goes on to convict us in ways that are hard to not take straight to the heart.

Take for example this directive from the apostle Paul: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13 NIV).

Now as believers, we know he’s right; we have to learn to be able to forgive as He has forgiven us.

But almost as if that weren’t difficult enough, Paul goes ahead and bookends the passage with these two gems around it:  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  (Colossians 3: 12, 14 NIV).

C’mon, man…have you seen some of the people we’ve been asked to deal with?

As people who Jesus died for and who are His chosen, made holy and dearly loved as evidenced by His death in our place, we are asked to clothe ourselves with attributes that He, Himself projected while He was here among us and continues to imbue in us through His Holy Spirit.

So, why then is it so often so difficult to exhibit these attributes ourselves?

Again, have you seen some of the people we’ve been asked to deal with?

And yet we are called…

And, more specifically, we may be someone who someone else is having to deal with.

So, for today let’s go back and consider the first challenge:  how can we really know if we’ve truly forgiven someone?

It’s one of those questions that popped up in the margin of my study Bible as I was reading Colossians during our study this past week, and it just kept popping back into my mind.

But before we go there, let’s look at some basic thoughts and definitions of forgiveness.

The Oxford language dictionary teaches that forgiveness is a noun that means “the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.”

Ok, I’m going to need a bit more than that.

Forgiveness expert Fred Luskin shares the following; “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness or don’t.”

Fred goes on to say, “Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.”

“Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.”

You’ve maybe heard the saying that when we play judge, jury and executioner and won’t let go of our pain enough to forgive another person, it’s a bit like being a jailer where in this particular jail, it’s difficult to distinguish between the warden or guard and the prisoner.  Both lack a certain level of freedom.

When we get rid of deeply held negative feelings and not let our pain define us, we also open up room for the Holy Spirit to do work in and through us.

If I hold true to what my study Bible says (and, most often, I do my best to do so), then I have to say that what Fred shares makes sense and is helpful.

In fact, my Bible’s expositors go further on to put it in these terms; “Knowing when we’ve truly forgiven someone comes easier when we understand these realities of forgiveness:

  1. Forgiveness requires us to surrender our right to get even. The blood of Jesus covers all of our sins, but each of us must do personal business with God to experience His forgiveness.  When we forgive, we place the outcome of the matter in God’s hands and choose to live with unbalanced scales.
  2. Forgiveness takes time. God can forgive in a single breath, but we need time.  We may have to forgive over and over before it becomes real.  (Matthew 18:21-22)
  3. Forgiving doesn’t require forgetting. True, God said through Isaiah (43:25), “I…am he who…remembers your sins no more.” But did God forget that Peter denied his Lord?  On a human level, it is futile to try to forget; the more we try, the more we remember.  But we can detoxify the memory; we can purge its poison from our souls.
  4. Forgiving is expected. Nothing enables us to forgive like knowing in our hearts that we have been forgiven.  This why Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” (Matthew 6:12).  It is unthinkable for a forgiven person to refuse to forgive someone else.”

It’s true, isn’t it?  Just as “hurt people hurt people,” “Forgiven sinners forgive.”

And we can learn this discipline.

Just as referenced in point #2 above, it takes time and we may need to “exercise our forgiveness” a good number of times in order to get it to “stick.”  When Peter asked Jesus in verse 21 of Matthew 18, “how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  In verse 22, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”  Jesus goes on to tell a parable about the unforgiving servant  and, in verse 35, why our learning to practice forgiveness is so important; 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

When some read or hear this they may ask, “Is our salvation dependent on whether or not we forgive others?”

And again, with my study Bible as a reference, the answer is that “Jesus told this parable to Peter and the disciples.  It is not about salvation but about personal relationships.  To be right with God, we have to be right with other believers.  If we ask God for forgiveness, we should forgive others (including, when needed, ourselves).

The Bible has a lot more to say about forgiveness than we have room for in this post but sufficed to say, it’s a topic that we will no doubt return to again in the future.

In the meantime, if you’d like to review additional passages on the topic of forgiveness, you may do so through this link.

And as we close, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there someone in your life that you’re having a tough time forgiving?
  • What are you able to identify as the primary roadblock to your being able to move forward in forgiveness?
  • Would it help to talk it out with a pastor or perhaps someone from our counseling center?

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback and will be happy to assist in any way I can.  Please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected]

And, in the meantime know that I am…

Right here with you,