Forgiven to Forgive: Part Two
“When you’re ready,” I said calmly, glancing down to the page where I’d recorded a few notes from our initial session. It was our second counseling session, and she* had come ready to tell me the story. I looked up to see the client shuffling in her chair restlessly, struggling to compose her emotions. Finally, she drew in a deep, courageous breath and began to tell me about the accident.
The words fell heavily from her lips, weighed down by the grief and torment pulsing through her veins and clouding her mind. The story progressed slowly, but we weren’t in any hurry. She finally came to the moment in the accident where the world had stopped spinning from the impact. She had heard her passenger release a loud exhale of breath. It was at this point that she knew her friend had died.
As she finished describing that painful memory, sobs immediately wracked her body, and she bent in brokenness. I was thankful for the pause, needing the opportunity to settle my own coursing emotions.
Innocence lost, a life taken. And why? Because of one brief moment of distraction. How do you process such unimaginable loss?
As our session drew to a close that day, the client looked to me with desperation, haunted by these memories which were her reality. With great effort, she finally asked the question I knew had been weighing on her since she first came to my office: “How do I forgive this person and move on?” Her question dangled in the air as her eyes, full of consuming pain, searched mine for answers.
There is no easy answer to the question she asked that day because the process of forgiveness does not come in a tidy, one-size-fits-all package. While the majority of offenses requiring our forgiveness can be resolved without great effort, deeper betrayals and tragedies are much more difficult to resolve. In these situations, the how of forgiveness is circumstantial and deeply complicated. Forgiveness is also intensely personal and costly.
Yet Scripture is not silent on the issue of forgiveness. While the exact process of forgiveness might vary depending on the person and situation, the guiding principles Scripture offers will be the same in every situation.
The Costliness of the Cross
As we discovered in Part One of this series, God has already provided the paramount example of forgiveness through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. In exploring the concept of forgiveness, it can be tempting to take for granted God’s forgiving nature and to minimize the great cost our debt required. Oswald Chambers explains it like this:
“Beware of the pleasant view of the fatherhood of God: God is so kind and loving that of course He will forgive us. That thought, based solely on emotion, cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament. The only basis on which God can forgive us is the tremendous tragedy of the Cross of Christ …there is no other way! Forgiveness, which is so easy for us to accept, cost the agony at Calvary. We should never take the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our sanctification in simple faith, and then forget the enormous cost to God that made all of this ours.”
When we cultivate the habit of humbly remembering the incredible, sacrificial nature of God’s forgiveness, we begin to discover the source and motivation of our own forgiveness of others. Forgiveness, wrapped in the love of God, is costly, and it is personal. Jesus demonstrated the extent to which our loving forgiveness should reach.
Forgiving within the Body of Christ
The exact steps we need to take in releasing those who have hurt us will be determined by many factors, including the attitude of the one who has hurt us (Does he acknowledge any wrongdoing? Is she repentant or not?); the nature of the offense (Was it a one-time offense or habitual? Does the betrayal put someone in danger?); and the consequences of the situation (Has a relationship been lost due to the betrayal? Is restoration possible or likely?). Restoration is always the desired outcome, and Scripture offers some guidelines when a breach has occurred in a relationship within the Body of Christ.
Matthew 18:15–20 outlines this process for us. If a fellow Christian has sinned against you, the first step is to go to that person alone and to lovingly confront the behavior or transgression (v. 15). If there is no repentance, we are to go again to our offender with one or two others to seek reconciliation (v. 16). If this still does not bring about resolution, we are to go to the church with the conflict (v. 17).
It is not always possible or appropriate, though, to follow this process outlined in Matthew 18. Sometimes, an offender has died or is no longer in our lives. Other times, it might not be safe or wise to meet alone with our betrayer. One who has been a victim of a crime, for instance, does not need to meet alone with the offender to seek restoration. This might also be true in situations where a person in authority has violated boundaries with someone in a subordinate role. Wise counsel should be sought from a trusted advisor before proceeding in situations such as these.
Forgive … and Forget?
The popular phrase “forgive and forget” has caused many wounded individuals inner turmoil in the journey of forgiveness. Tortured by memories of the past, many wrestle with whether or not they can ever truly forgive or live in freedom from what happened. Some believe that forgiving and forgetting implies dismissing the seriousness of a crime or betrayal, belittling the consequences, and/or excusing wrongdoing. With this said, the question begs to be asked: Have I truly forgiven my offender if I still remember what happened?
In emulating God’s forgiveness, we must examine Scripture to find this answer. Psalm 103:12 explains, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Micah 7:9 similarly says, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Hebrews 8:12 further declares, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” These verses reveal the powerful, final nature of God’s forgiveness toward us. They also give insight into how our forgiveness should impact our memory.
One thing to note is that God does not experience some sort of spiritual amnesia the moment we repent of our sins and call on Him for salvation. Instead, these verses describe God intentionally removing the memory of our sins from His mind. The moment He declares us guiltless is the moment Christ’s blood covers our transgressions and satisfies our sin debt. However, this does not mean God’s forgiveness minimizes the seriousness of our crimes, and the costliness of His forgiveness speaks to this.
As we seek to forgive our offenders, the same is also true for us. We are not God, so the memories still may come at different points along the way. The memory of a betrayal coming to mind does not mean we haven’t forgiven. It is what we do with those memories that matters. Do we nurture the pain and relive the memories over and over? Or do we turn our memories over to the Lord as they arise, taking “every thought captive to obey Christ”? (2 Cor. 10:5).
God’s forgiveness also does not mean He always dismisses us from the temporary consequences of our sins. While eternally we stand before God without condemnation, in the course of our time on this earth, we still feel the effects of our sin.
This holds true in the interpersonal realm of forgiveness as well. Most often, it is prudent and wise to release our offenders, forget the offense, and move on. But sometimes, consequences prevent us from moving on and acting as if something never happened. The nature of a relationship sometimes necessarily needs to change after a betrayal. The murderer still serves time for his crime. The unfaithful spouse still loses the trust of his partner, if only for a season, as reconciliation and healing is sought. In these and other types of circumstances, the power of forgiveness is most notably displayed, for we forgive in spite of the great personal cost. We offer forgiveness by not condemning those who have violated us in the most personal manners.
When Restoration Doesn’t Happen
We will not find restoration in every situation that requires our forgiveness. Yet in remembering Christ’s sacrifice, we discover one final aspect about God’s forgiveness toward us: His offer of forgiveness was never dependent upon how we would respond. Romans 5:8 puts it this way: “…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We know, of course, that we only experience God’s forgiveness once we repent and turn toward Him in faith, but this does not minimize the fact that God made salvation possible while we all were consumed in our own sinful ways.
Following God’s example, we are able to extend forgiveness of the heart and discover God’s peace in our circumstances even if interpersonal resolution is not possible or likely. John Piper rightly notes that “the full effect of forgiveness can only happen if the other person believes they need it and want it … But we do not wait for that, right? … We must be rid of bitterness and grudges right away. We do what Jesus did on the cross.” Most importantly, it takes God's grace and power working within us as we allow the Gospel to take root in our hearts, uprooting bitterness, and planting forgiveness for those who have wronged us. In doing so, we surrender to the Lord the outcome of our betrayal, trusting Him for justice where justice is needed.
A Final Word
As you’ve read these posts on forgiveness, you may have further questions that need exploring. You also may still find yourself reeling from the pain and loss of betrayal. Forgiveness of those deeper betrayals is not a journey easily traversed. Scripture never implies forgiveness is easy, but it is always worth it. It can take time to sort through the wreckage, consider the cost, and release our offenders.
Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Meeting with a godly professional counselor or trusted pastor is worth the time and resources to forge the path toward healing. Sometimes, in telling our stories to another, we begin to experience healing through someone else validating our loss and understanding, even a little, and the pain we’ve endured. We release the tormenting emotions inside so we are able to then release those who have caused our injuries.
Forgiveness is possible—Jesus has made that perfectly clear. No one said forgiveness would be easy, but it is always in those difficult endeavors in life that we discover the way that is truly worth living! When we forgive others through the power of the Holy Spirit and with the sacrificial love of God, we are able to live in the freedom and peace Christ purchased for us by the cross. Indeed, forgiveness is possible … and it is worth it!
* Key details have been changed to ensure anonymity