How to Forgive & Be Forgiven
My Fight with Forgiveness
This was an intimidating podcast episode to create. Before I even began podcasting I sent a survey out to friends asking what topics I should cover within the realm of faith, ethnicity, and culture. When one friend submitted the topic forgiveness I cringed. It’s an area I’ve had to grow in and it does not always come naturally, especially in situations regarding ethnicity and discrimination. In fact, it was only several months ago that I came to a crossroads with God about this topic. I knew in order to be used effectively to create change I could not be bitter or blindly defensive, but I could not get over the history of wrong. The centuries of oppression over multiple people groups that have left consequences in our nation still powerfully effective today. Then, and don’t remember how, I came across Corrie Ten Boom’s story.
Corrie Ten Boom was arrested by the Nazis when she and her family were caught hiding Jews in their home during the Holocaust. She was sent with her sister to the Ravensbruck concentration camp were her sister died days before Corrie was released. After Corrie’s release she set up a recovery home for concentration camp survivors and traveled widely preaching God’s forgiveness and the need for reconciliation. At one of her engagements where she spoke on forgiveness a man approached her who she immediately recognized as a guard at the camp where she was imprisoned. He did not recognize her. Below is the story of her encounter directly from Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place.
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. …
“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”
And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” …
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
Reprinted with permission from Guideposts. Copyright © 1972 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved. (www.guideposts.com)
I barely got through the story without breaking down because I knew after weeks of anguished prayer over the issue of forgiveness this was God’s answer. I had no excuse. Somehow the fact God requires us to forgive, or that we are not forgiven unless we forgive others did not move me enough to act. Maybe because I heard the story multiple times and became numb to its impact. It was not until I saw an example of a person who had every right to rage and hold on to the injustice they experienced did I understand the power and significance of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a Mandate
Since Children’s Church or Sunday School the necessity of forgiveness is taught. Before we may fully understand why, we know it is important to forgive our siblings or friends. So, if like me you have struggled with forgiveness then let me provide a brief refresher. First is the biblical definition of forgiveness, which incorporates several elements. Though it is multi-faceted each element is clear and concise providing a necessary foundation in a discussion on how to forgive and be forgiven.
- Left (leave alone), immediately, completely and abundantly; Let go of (Matt. 3:15, 4:11, 20, 22,5:24,40; Mark 7:8; Luke 13:8)
- Canceled, removed from, Sins are covered (Matt. 18:17, 32; Mark 2:5; Rom. 4:7)
- An essential requirement/command (Matt. 6:14-15,18:23-35)
- Dealing with sin and slander (Matt. 12:31)
- Always, consistent, unlimited, merciful (Matt. 18:21-22,23-35)
- Connected to or influenced by our faith (Luke 5:20)
- Inspires love (Luke 7:47)
- Benefactor commanded to repent, told to confess (Act 8:22; 1 John 1:9)
The following points on forgiveness are taken from the sermon entitled “Giving Grace” by Dr. Peter Vogt of LifePoint Church. Material from the sermon is used with permission, a link to Dr. Vogt’s sermon page will be provided on my website.
The first thing we need to note is that we are not discussing forgiveness in the context of someone entering into relationship with the Lord. This discussion of forgiveness does not encompass the act of someone turning from their sin and committing their life to Jesus. This is important because we need to note that our forgiveness — our salvation – is NOT based on whether we have or will forgive someone else. Our forgiveness from God is based on grace. We can’t earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving someone else. Our forgiveness comes from Christ, and is received on the basis of turning to him in faith. In the context I am speaking to forgiveness is part of living out relationship with each other. This discussion is primarily focused on the horizontal requirement of our faith.
The very definition of forgiveness implies that a wrong has been done and needs to be made right. Ultimately, God is the victim of our sins or disobedience. Disobedience is saying that we know better than God whether it be in how to treat others, what to do or not do in a given situation, and even in how we treat ourselves. This is an assault on the status of the all-knowing, omnipotent God. When we enter into relationship with Jesus, we ask for and receive forgiveness for these things. God himself not only forgives but maintains justice by paying the penalty for us. In light of that, Jesus expects that forgiveness be the mark of his followers. If we are unwilling to forgive, we are suggesting that our status as victims is even stronger than God’s. We are suggesting that we are more deserving of justice than even God is.
But the same standard used to forgive others will be used on us since we are sinners who have been forgiven much (Rom. 3:23). An example of the hypocrisy of unforgiveness is given in the parable of the servant who did not forgive the debt of his colleague after he was pardoned for a significantly larger debt (Matthew 18:21-35). When it comes to the sins of others we demand justice, when it comes to our own sins we expect grace. But we can’t have it both ways. If we believe we need forgiveness and have received it by accepting Jesus then forgiveness is the mandate we follow in our desire to obey and be like the Christ and for our personal freedom.
Because we can’t forget that forgiveness frees us. When we refuse to forgive, we spend a LOT of time thinking about the person or people who wronged us. We replay their wrong actions over and over again. We end up spending a lot of time stuck in a particular moment or period of time. Forgiveness allows us to move forward. We are set free from the situation and the person or people who have wronged us. And we show that we are trusting in God to deal with the people and situation properly. Contrary to how it is sometimes understood, forgiveness is NOT saying that whatever offense has been done to us is ok. When God forgives our actions that seek to dethrone him in our lives, he isn’t saying that our actions are ok. They are wrong. Forgiveness is letting go of our desires for revenge, Instead, forgiving a person means trusting that God will deal with that person and their actions. We give up our “right” to tell God how that person and situation should be dealt with.
Forgiveness is not Magic
We should also note that forgiveness does not mean that there will or should be no consequences for wrong behavior. Even if a murderer sincerely apologizes for their action, they will face a consequence. While forgiveness means that we are letting go of our anger and desires for revenge there are consequences that come from our actions. Trust that has been lost can’t be regained simply by forgiving someone. If you have been forgiven for something, there may still be consequences for your behavior. For instance, a person who is abused by their spouse may forgive them, but they will also establish a boundary for safety until or if their spouse stops the abusive behavior. When someone creates a boundary between themselves and the person or entity that broke trust, that doesn’t show a lack of forgiveness; it simply demonstrates that there are natural consequences for negative behavior.
When a person who has experienced prejudice and/or discrimination in a church context is told that they should stay in the context to help those who are sincerely naïve change, is that a biblical mandate? Does it require any responsibility or effort from the offender to regain their trust? Or is it reasonable and safe for someone to put themselves in a healthier environment while they continue to grow in their faith? Surely if they choose to stay and help others learn and change it is gracious and sacrificial of them, but not an obligation they owe their offenders (those who have wronged them), or a directive from God (unless God told them to do so).
Often, I hear the perspective that those who have experienced prejudice or discrimination should forgive rather than perpetuate disunity. But only half of this statement is accurate. What I don’t hear advocated as passionately or effectively is the desire or will to own or take responsibility for the consequences of prejudice and discrimination. This is where the Christian camaraderie breaks down and the political debates begin. Should someone take responsibility for the consequences of an offense if their intentions were sincere, or if they were naïve of their actions, or if they’re a small gear in a larger machine that is causing the problem? And what percentage of the consequence should they own? It is interesting that when we ask or implore someone to forgive we want them to do so without reservation, covering all aspects that need to be reconciled. But when we are asked to take responsibility for an offense we set criteria to determine how much, if any, responsibility we should take. Again, “when it comes to the sins of others we demand justice, when it comes to our own sins we expect grace.”
The command to forgive is clear. There is no choice. We must forgive.
Where do you stand? Before you remind others to forgive have you done so yourself – completely? And if you are in the position of needing forgiveness are you willing to accept the natural consequences of your actions despite the time, commitment, and sacrifice it may entail?