The act of forgiveness occurs first in the presence of almighty God as I surrender my desire for revenge before the God who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” (Romans 12:19). This is why I view forgiveness as an act of worship — as occurring in the context of worship as Jesus taught (Mark 11:25).
Forgiveness is first about God. It is a confession of God’s prerogative when it comes to justice.
But this is not a “God will get you mentality.” Such an outlook would be an effort to use God not to worship Him. Forgiveness happens in response to the God who holds the right of vengeance and the God who forgave our sins (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).
This way of approaching forgiveness provides a gospel-focused perspective that frees us from the grudge-bearing vindictiveness and the troubling and infectious root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). It equally empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8; see also,Genesis 5:15-20; Romans 12:17-21). This is how forgiveness liberates us to pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:28).
Yet approaching forgiveness this way does not ask us to downplay commitment to justice with silly clichés like: “It’s no big deal.” or “We’re all sinners.” When I forgive, I bring the matter before the one who is both Judge of all the earth and my faithful and merciful High Priest. No moral neutrality here! This is not a feigned effort at “forgiving and forgetting.”
When my heart allows feelings of hurt and betrayal to lead to desires to “even the score,” I must return again to this place of worship (Mark 11:25). I must reaffirm my confession of God as final Judge.
What about reconciliation?
With this view of forgiveness in mind (and heart), in cases where an offender is unwilling to acknowledge wrong-doing, sometimes we have to build boundaries around our relationship with him. But, in such cases, we must guard our hearts (and perhaps seek wise counsel from one who clearly understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation) so that our boundaries are not retaliatory but appropriately protective and guided by the hope of restoration.
As forgiven people, we should be open to the possibility of reconciliation (unless personal or family safety are clearly at risk). Forgiveness requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and regain trust.
Forgiveness and reconciliation must occur together in resolving minor offenses. But when behavior is repeatedly hurtful in significant ways or trust has been deeply or repeatedly betrayed, “Pretending” all is well (when it clearly is not) is not a loving option.
As John Stott noted, “If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. Forgiveness which by-passes the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality (Confess Your Sins, p.35).