- Have you ever been hurt so badly by someone that you find it difficult to forgive?
- Does it sound cheap when people encourage you to forgive and forget?
- Does forgiveness mean swallowing hard and letting your offender off the hook?
- Should you pretend the offense never occurred?
If this is what forgiveness is, most people want nothing to do with it. Yet most also realize that refusing to forgive can be personally costly.
In recent studies, “…social scientists are discovering that forgiveness may help lead to victims’ emotional and even physical healing and wholeness. They believe that the personal benefits of forgiveness include release from anger, rage, and stress which have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic illness” (Christianity Today, 2002).
What does Scripture imply when it says, “See to it that ….no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).
An unforgiving heart afflicts you with bitterness and defiles those who come into contact with you. The affects of such inner resentment can be devastating. Forgiveness is liberating.
Those who struggle with forgiveness find it hard to hear the requirements of Jesus. He said, “… whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25).
Would God actually withhold forgiveness from you if you don’t forgive your offender? When the church prays the Lord’s Prayer, do you catch yourself mumbling through the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we also have forgiven those who trespass against us”? How could you possibly forgive when you’ve been hurt so deeply?
A word of clarification is needed. Often people have difficulty forgiving because they assume forgiveness requires immediate reconciliation with their offender. If forgiveness means a person must immediately restore a broken relationship no matter how seriously it was damaged, the choice to forgive is more difficult. What needs to be clarified, however, is that it is possible to forgive an offender without being reconciled to him.
Forgiveness can be resolved in the context of a person’s relationship with God apart from contact with an offender. It is legitimate to say, “I forgive you, but…” It is possible to genuinely forgive someone and yet hold her accountable for her actions. Forgiveness is always required based on God’s forgiveness of our sins and the fact that God is the rightful judge.
Desires for revenge and retaliation are surrendered when forgiveness is genuine — even if our offender doesn’t acknowledge his hurtful actions.
But reconciliation necessitates the offender’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing. When a relationship has been significantly violated, regaining trust and restoring that relationship doesn’t happen quickly. In such cases, the offender needs to demonstrate the sincerity of her confession. If she resents the need for time and demonstration by the one she hurt, it may prove that her confession was not genuine.
Don’t be manipulated by the person who claims that your hesitancy to restore a relationship indicates a lack of forgiveness. When this line is used, the offender should be told that he is confusing forgiveness with reconciliation.
Some people wrongly view forgiveness as “a cheap avoidance of justice, a plastering over of a wrong, a sentimental make believe.” Yet, as Lewis Smedes has written, “If forgiveness is a whitewashing of wrong, then it is itself wrong.” Another adds that, “forgiveness does not preclude the enforcement of healthy and natural consequences on the offender.”
Restoring a broken relationship might involve such things as restitution, a period of detachment, and new boundaries for the relationship. But the conditions for restoring a relationship must not be used vindictively. When reconciliation is understood as a process distinct from forgiveness, it helps people practice true forgiveness.