Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of forgiveness. I won’t share why, but let it suffice to say that pastors need forgiveness just as much as anyone. Funny thing is that we are best prepared to teach the things we have hardest learned. One who truly understands forgiveness, has both forgiven others much and been forgiven much by others—there is no other way to learn these lessons.
Often when counseling someone to forgive, there is one most common reaction. When hurt by another or slighted in some way, we are often unwilling to forgive the person because it would mean they got away with what they did. We can find ourselves thinking, “Once that person pays for what they did I will forgive them.” Another form of this would be “Once that person reverses the results of their actions, then I will forgive their actions.” The problem is that this is not forgiveness.
According to Dictionary.com, the word forgive comes from the Old English forgiefan, which is a compound of the prefix for meaning “completely” and giefan meaning “to give.” It literally means to give up completely. You see, if we require any rebalancing of the scales prior to forgiveness, it is not forgiveness we practice. This is because we would not be giving it up completely. In effect it would be saying, “I will not give up that much, but if you act to bring the line back this far then I can work with you by giving that up.”
Another reason a requirement for restitution does not constitute true forgiveness is because it is, instead, a demand for justice, or at least a more just outcome. Forgiveness is not interested in justice, it offers grace and mercy. Forgiveness is, in effect, to declare the scales balanced. If one demands the scales be actually balanced, then there is no forgiveness necessary.
One can only forgive if one gives up completely the right to be recompensed. One truly forgives only when one declares the scales of justice to be balanced.
So, how best can we do this? One thing to do is keep in mind that this is exactly what God did for you through Christ. God did not demand you make up for your sins, or work some of them off so there was less to forgive. No. He met you where you were, in the midst of your darkest sins, to forgive you. He declared the scales balanced. When he did this he gave up any right to demand justice against you. Think about that for a moment. The God of the universe, creator of all, the most holy and righteous judge gave up any right to demand restitution for your sins. He declared the scales balanced, meaning he declared you as not guilty of the sins—he declared that you did not do them. You see, one reason we cannot require restitution when forgiving is because we are in effect declaring the forgiven action never happened—if it never happened there is nothing for which to make restitution. We are, in effect, justifying that person in our own eyes and hearts. So, was this act of God a divine fiction—God winked and pretended you were not guilty? No. God did this by placing your sins upon Christ. The sinless Christ was declared, willingly taking it upon himself, to be guilty of your sins. We often gloss over this because we know that Christ is sinless and never sinned. We are willing to say he bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24). We are willing to see his parallel in the scape goat. We forget that this means the guilt itself was placed upon Christ. Folks, understand! This means you are not guilty of your sins. Christ has been declared guilty of them! I know this sounds too harsh, but it is the reality of the transaction to which Christ submitted. We are forgiven because Christ took our sins and he is righteous enough to balance any scales of justice.
We are commanded to forgive and should do so, because that sin committed against us was also placed upon Christ. Now this assumes the person to be a Christian. What if that person is not? Then all that person has to do is come to Christ and that sin will be placed upon Christ. So, when we refuse to forgive, we are declaring the sacrifice of Christ as insufficient to cover that sin. If Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient to cover that sin, then there is no hope for our own sins. We find ourselves caught in a trap when we refuse to forgive.
There is one more thing to remember about forgiveness. If we are truly declaring the person who has sinned against us as not guilty (as we do when giving up their offense completely), then can we ever bring that back up? If we bring it up against them later, then we show that we have not actually forgiven them. We do this because bringing it back up says, “You are guilty of this,” which is the opposite of forgiveness which declares, “You are not guilty of this.” How can we say we forgive when we then hold the forgiven act against the one we claim to have forgiven?
As you read this understand that I rebuke myself in this far more than anyone can know. There are things I have not forgiven people for. I thought I had done so, simply because I had decided to not demand restitution. However, by continuing to see them as guilty of the transgression shows I did not truly forgive.