What is Forgiveness?
Sometimes we think of forgiveness as a feeling. But forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s a conscious decision to pay the debt someone else owes you. Just as we know true love is not an emotion but a conscious decision to put effort into a relationship, forgiveness is a conscious decision to commit to the hard work of paying the debt of hurt someone else has inflicted on you.
I've been exploring the topic of forgiveness all year long. I'm a classic Type 1 on the Enneagram and an ESFJ on the Meyer’s Briggs. I, like most other people, have a bent towards un-forgiveness. One of my many struggles in the flesh is that forgiveness does not come naturally to me - like REALLY not natural.
I attribute a lot of this to my principled, emotional, and spirited personality. I have a lot of feelings about things and this can be a HUGE benefit in my walk. I experience promptings in my spirit SO clearly. But it can also be a massive downfall. I overreact, say things without fully thinking them through, and often have to backtrack and say, “I’m so sorry.”
When we're wronged, it’s so easy to think, “But they did something wrong! Shouldn’t they have to acknowledge what they did to me? I know they knew better!” It’s easy to justify the emotions that tell me those who offend me have to acknowledge my pain before I have to forgive, right?
That thought is rooted in the belief that forgiveness is a feeling, and friend… I’m both afraid and excited to say - it’s not.
This concept became so real to me as I stood in my kitchen one afternoon doing the dishes. As He often does, God was speaking to me in the midst of the mundane tasks of life. “I can’t wait to see Heaven,” I mused to Him, “and the place you’ve prepared for me.” Then it struck me, like an internal panic, just waiting for the opportune moment to consume my thoughts: “I can’t go there if SHE is there." I was immediately thinking about someone who had highly offended me. "There’s no way you’d let someone like HER in, right?”
In an instant I knew that this was my fleshly fears coming out. At once I tried to pretend like I was too busy doing the dishes to acknowledge to Him that I had these emotions. After a bit of silence I started to get uncomfortable, I knew He had an opinion on this, but I wasn’t convinced I was ready to hear it. I switched to sweeping the floor instead. After several more moments of uncomfortable silence, I got flustered and finally asked Him for what I knew I didn’t want to hear.
“The only person that will stay out of Heaven is you, my beloved, if this continues to be your attitude. I can’t have people walking around with hatred and un-forgiveness in my Kingdom.”
I knew He was right. Of course I knew.
“But what if she never repents and accepts your forgiveness?” Aha! I had found the loophole. I don't have to forgive her if she's not repentant. Or so I wanted to think.
“Are you willing to bet your eternity on someone else’s repentance or lack thereof?”
No I’m not.
So many verses in the Bible that talk about forgiveness say that my own forgiveness is contingent on my willingness to forgive others. I wrestled with this a lot this year. I even had a friend tell me that the only person I was hurting in my un-forgiveness was myself. Yes, that’s true! I know that’s true! Then why don’t I feel like forgiving?
Shortly after this conversation with the Lord, I was talking to two mentors in my life. These beautiful women so graciously pointed out to me that forgiveness is a work of the Spirit. Suddenly things started to click.
I can submit to God’s ways, and I can ask Him to do that work in me, but as hard as I try, I can never muscle forgiveness. That’s the work of the Spirit, and much more, that’s kinda what Christ’s entire job description consists of. If all of humanity had the power to forgive on their own, would they still need the cross?
This was the first of many true "aha moments" where I started realizing that forgiveness, much like love, is not rooted in a feeling and that I needed to release the expectation that I was ever going to feel forgiveness. This concept applies to both the forgiven and the forgiver.
To the Forgiven:
You’ve said, “I’m sorry. I’m REALLY sorry,” so many times, and they’re always saying, “It’s ok,” or, “I forgive you.” But sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s okay or that they forgave you. To you I say, release forgiveness as a feeling.
To the Forgiver:
You’ve heard them say, “I’m so sorry.” You’ve accepted the apology and fully intend to move on, but something comes along and triggers that pit in your stomach again. You know you’ve said they’re forgiven but you just don’t feel it. To you I say, release forgiveness as a feeling.
Over and over and OVER and OVER, Scripture maintains that God’s forgiveness for me hinges on my forgiveness towards others (see verses below). But why? At some point in my journey to better understand forgiveness, I had to release forgiveness as a feeling and admit that there is not one single offense on this earth that is greater than all of my fleshly offenses against our Holy God. The debt that Jesus paid for ALL of my sin is so much greater than any number of debts a single person could commit against me.
I know this makes us squirm a little. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel fair. I’ve wrestled and wrestled and wrestled with these concepts.
It's not that feelings are never attached to forgiveness but they so often betray us that they are an untrustworthy guide to our obedience and a poor indicator of whether or not forgiveness is actually taking place. The principle I always come back to is this: Feelings are too weak a platform for offenses and forgiveness to stand on. Know how I know this? Because when Christ was about to die on the cross for my sins, do you know what He said? He said, “I don’t feel like doing this.”
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” - Luke 22:42
But He did it anyway. He made a conscious decision to forgive us even when His feelings weren't there. He still died for me. He still made the decision and went through the process of forgiveness. He still took what I absolutely deserved and forgave me in the process - regardless of His feelings.
In the same way, forgiveness for us is a conscious decision we make to forgive even when those forgiveness feelings aren't present. That friend of mine was right: Sitting in my un-forgiveness only positions me to drink the poison of vengeance believing it’s the offender who will be affected. Un-forgiveness says much more about me than it does anything about the person to whom I need to forgive.
Friend, even if you’re not feeling it today, will you hold out your un-forgiveness to the Lord and pray these words with me?
Not my will, Lord, but yours, be done.
Bible Verses About Forgiving Others:
- Mark 11:25 -- "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses."
- Matthew 6:14 -- "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you."
- Colossians 3:13 -- "...bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
- Luke 6:37 -- "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven..."
- Matthew 18:21-22 -- "Then Peter came up and said to him, 'Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times...'"
- Psalm 86:5 -- "For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you."
- Matthew 6:15 -- "...but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
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