As Christians, we face a strange conundrum. On one hand, we know that in Jesus Christ, the Almighty God has forgiven us for our ignorant and sinful rebellion against Him. On the other hand, despite knowing this grace and reveling in its goodness daily, we still struggle to reciprocate it to those who have hurt or offended us.
God commands us to offer the same magnitude of forgiveness to those who might have sinned against us (Ephesians 4:32); to do good to both our loved ones and our enemies (Luke 6:27-28). But actually trying to forgive people forces us to engage with serious questions that further test our emotional, and spiritual, maturity: If I forgive, will she hurt me again? If I still feel the need to confront this person and express my hurt, does this mean I haven’t forgiven them?
God commands us to offer the same magnitude of forgiveness to those who might have sinned against us. But actually trying to forgive people forces us to engage with serious questions that further test our emotional and spiritual maturity.
As followers of Jesus Christ, our lives ought to reflect the lavish gift of grace offered to us by God himself (2 Corinthians 5:19-21)—a high calling indeed. Exercising this discipline is often costly, hence a genuine desire alone does not always offset the painful and difficult choices we need to make to demonstrate grace. Rather, I think understanding the act of forgiving in a nuanced manner is the better way:
Forgiving is active.
To forgive is to decide not to hold something against another, regardless of what he or she has done to you. It is effectively an act of dying to self. Don’t be surprised when it hurts! In a relational conflict, it is often the most real way to demonstrate love. It is also attractive, both to believers and non-believers. To die to self, we need a motivation more steadfast than our good intentions or fickle feelings. Just as Jesus’ walk to the cross was intentional, grace-filled and motivated by obedience to God’s will, so too should our efforts to forgive be intentional. We shouldn’t make our efforts to reconcile contingent on how we feel today, or the circumstances we find ourselves in. We should also be wary of temptations to put it off. There is wisdom in healing, praying and thinking; but there is also wisdom in courageously reaching out, letting go and saying sorry.
Forgiving is unconditional.
Because the act of forgiving is so difficult, we often try to protect ourselves by limiting the circumstances to which we will extend grace. I need to hear a ‘sorry’ before I can accept this. Show me your repentance and I’ll show you my forgiveness. However, wouldn’t placing conditions on forgiveness strip away the essence which makes it so powerful? Isn’t forgiving an act of extending unmerited grace anyway? We need to remember that God didn’t wait for us to repent before actioning his grand plan of salvation (Ephesians 1:4). In fact, He continues to save and forgive despite our resistance. If God graciously extends his grace towards us daily, how much more should his sinful children continue to do so to one other?
Forgiving is a journey.
The road through forgiveness to reconciliation is often as varied as it is difficult . For example, the process and outcome for a victim of crime will be different from those appropriate to a child forgiving a neglectful parent. We need wise counsel to assess each case. As we are all in some form of relationship (with friends, family and the church), each of us could benefit from prayerfully considering all of our relationships and submitting them under the scrutiny of God (Psalm 139:23-24). Are there places in our hearts where we harbour unforgiveness? Is there bitterness in our speech that indicates an unforgiving spirit? As we continue to journey as followers of Christ, we ought to pray that he will help us to make godly decisions in our relationships so that they will carry the Christ-like mark of forgiveness.
The sole reason forgiveness is possible for Christians is because we ourselves have been forgiven by God in Christ. If we are reluctant to extend forgiveness, we must do a spiritual check on the state of our thankfulness. Yes, God’s grace will meet us when we fail. Yes, time will heal. Yes, there is wisdom in setting up boundaries against those who have hurt us. However, we must not use these peripheral considerations as excuses to hold a grudge. May we, instead, grapple with these nuances courageously—as part of taking necessary actions to work on difficult relationships. And may we, finally, in everything we do—both in our efforts and in our failures—increase in devotion to Jesus Christ, who forgave us whilst we were yet dead in our unforgiveness, and loved us infinitely more than we deserved.
‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.’ Psalm 103:11-12