What Forgiveness Is, and Is Not


We forgive a person for what he/she has done – not for who they are.

You and I have had times when we needed to forgive, and times when we were the ones needing forgiveness.  Sometimes we need both at the same time.

Forgiveness is nothing more, and nothing less, than choosing not to hold another person’s sinful words or actions over their head.

Several years ago, when I was experiencing a major depression, I had trouble doing what were normally simple tasks for me.  I found it hard to focus on reading for any length of time.  It was difficult to get out of bed and even to move, at all.  I don’t even remember some of the terrible things I said to my wife during that awful time – things which she in no way deserved.

To the credit of my wife, she forgave me for such instances of the occasional lashing-out at her.  It took her awhile, but Mary began to understand that it was the depression talking.  She didn’t hold it over me when I was a repeat offender.

Yet, before my wife got to the point of forgiveness, she learned something important.  You can’t forgive someone for being depressed any more than you can forgive someone for getting cancer or for dying young.  You can only forgive words and behaviors which hurt.

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Far too often we have expectations for others.  We want them to live-up to our desires for them.  But when they don’t, that’s not in the arena of forgiveness – that’s in the scope of needing to let go of our pre-conceived forecast for their lives.

My lovely wife has A.D.D.  It’s not possible to forgive her for that.  Now, if she has an impatient outburst on her slow-moving husband – that’s something I can say hurt me and for which I need to forgive her.  I have had to learn to let go of my expectations that she will always pay attention and focus well on everything I say and do; that she will never lose her car keys; and, that she will consistently complete tasks on time.

I can’t forgive Mary for any of those things, any more than I could forgive a person with a broken leg for not running in the local community’s 5K race.  I can’t use forgiveness to manipulatively maneuver my way for perfect order.  When we try to forgive someone for their actual personhood, it only breeds resentment on our part.

Being sick and missing work doesn’t need forgiveness.  We don’t need to feel guilty for stuff like that.  God doesn’t jerk us around trying to use the cross of Christ as the way to make us feel bad for being stupid, silly, sanctimonious, or even sinners.  Rather, God forgives us in Jesus Christ because we have all sinned against him with hurtful words and unfeeling actions which have grieved his heart.

“But, what”, you might ask, “do you do with heinous, intentional, and/or egregious evil which one person commits on another?  Do you mean we should forgive Larry Nassar? Because I want to be like the Dad in the courtroom who wanted to beat the ba-jeebers out of him!”

I’m right there with you.  I’ve been a real victim of terrible sin, and I’ve seen loved ones go through awful grief from perpetrators.  I have fantasized more than once about the eye for an eye.

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Rather than talk about my own junk (which I’m not really at liberty to do, anyway), let’s think about Jesus.  He did nothing wrong whatsoever.  In fact, he only did good, all the time.  Yet, he was the ultimate victim of both individuals, groups, and an entire Empire.

His only crime was that he did not live up to certain people’s expectations of what Messiah should be.  He is the King of a spiritual kingdom, and that was too threatening to the powers that be.  So, he was betrayed by someone close to him and killed – more than killed – tortured, beaten, spat upon, mocked, and publicly shamed.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)

One of the greatest followers of Jesus, Paul, who was beaten more than once and left to die, had no resentment and no bitterness.  Paul took his cues from his Savior:

“Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.” (Ephesians 4:32)

Both Jesus and Paul forgave the persecuting acts and the horrible words, while seeing the personhood behind their perpetrators’ hate.

“But how? I’m not them.” Neither am I.  That doesn’t stop me, however, from dying to myself and striving to live up to their example and teaching.

You can’t forgive someone for failing to live up to what you want them to be.  You can only forgive their bad words or actions.  Jesus and Paul longed for people to connect meaningfully with God.  But when the people didn’t do so, they just kept plugging along without resentment, even when it hurt them deeply.

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I think we tend to believe that forgiveness has to be immediate, like a one-time event.  It rarely is that.  Forgiveness is much more a process, elongated over time.  And just when you think you’ve licked it and gotten over the hump, a bitter feeling rears its ugly head and bites you in the butt.

The late Christian writer and psychologist, Lewis Smedes, in his insightful book, Forgive & Forget, said:

“Ordinary people forgive best if they go at it in bits and pieces, and for specific acts.  They bog down if they try to forgive people in the grand manner, because wholesale forgiving is almost always fake.  Forgiving anybody is a minor miracle.”

Indeed, it is.  We have enough on our plate trying to forgive another for specific words and actions.  We don’t need to compound it by making it into the full repentance of the other as a prerequisite to our forgiving them.

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