What IS Forgiveness?

The City Pres women are having their annual retreat this Friday and Saturday. The focus of their weekend is, “Forgiveness.” My hope and prayer for this is that they do a better job of getting to the bottom of what forgiveness means than I have. Mostly, forgiveness has just been confusing.

The Bible’s pretty clear about how important it is. When he was questioned about it by Peter, Jesus came back with the famous, “seventy times seven.” Then in Luke he talks about when someone comes to you and asks, you MUST forgive.

So, we’re commanded to do it. Ok. Seriously, though. What does it mean? Is it like a light switch, you just make a decision to do it and it’s done? Is it that easy? Then there’s that part in Jeremiah about the Lord forgiving wickedness and remembering their sin no more. Does that mean that it’s biblical to forgive and forget? I guess I can try that.

One of the better resources I’ve heard was a Tim Keller sermon from 2003. His three main points from the sermon were:

1. Why do we need it?

2. What is it?

3. How do we get it?

The first part, he equates an unforgiving and hardened heart with someone walking around the earth living in their past with wrath and turning into a wraith (same root word or something). You’re distorted. Ok. I get that, Not a hard sell, I guess. I don’t want to be a wraith.

The second part, he talks about what it means to forgive. This is where he talks about forgiveness in terms of economics sort of like forgiving a money debt. This part is particularly hard because in order for someone to be made whole, somebody, somewhere has to make a payment.

Most of the time, when I’m wronged, I want the other person to pay. When we seek vengeance, we want the debt/wrong to be paid in pain. This way isn’t forgiveness. Keller says that forgiveness starts to happen when we pay their debt to us with our own pain. Keller’s examples are stuff like, instead of gossiping or running them down to others, you pray for them. You seek good for them. You identify with them. This is painful and hard to do. It’s a great sermon, and you should listen to it if you get a chance, but it only got me part way to where I wanted to be.

I’m still curious about where forgiveness takes us. One time I asked my friend Bruce about this.

He used an economic example too. He talked about an antique watch. A family heirloom that couldn’t be replaced. And the watch was busted by someone you knew. He asked if I would ever be made whole with money. Not really. He asked if I would ever be made whole by making the person miserable or seeking vengeance. No. He said the only way for me to be whole again was forgiveness of that debt. Heard that all before.

But, how do I know I’m there? He told me something next that really changed what forgiveness means to me after that. He said, “You know you’ve forgiven that person when, not only do you not hold a grudge about your broken watch, but you are actually thankful. You’re glad that it happened.”

Wait. What?

But, what does that mean for victims of sexual abuse or neglect or infidelity or … ? I don’t know what it means for all of those groups. I do know what that would mean for me and for the significant pain caused to me by others. Especially those that I trusted. I know that’s scary. And, while we don’t want to live in the past, to pay the debt, you have to understand the debt and that means entering the pain. The best example of forgiveness we have certainly does seem to show someone not afraid to enter into that pain for us.

Maybe one thing I’ve answered here is that it’s not a switch, and it’s not easy. It can’t be done with cliche phrases and it can’t be done without pain and perhaps suffering and it can’t be done without payment on our own part. But forgiving others gives a much deeper understanding of the pain Christ bore in his forgiveness of us. And digging in shows me how much more I need a savior than I ever even knew. And through it all, those fleeting glimpses of Grace are even more beautiful.

I’m glad that the women of our church are having these conversations and I pray that they’re willing to walk down this road together. I pray that through the pain and eyes full of tears that they might catch, even the blurriest image of Jesus. And that will be enough. Because he’s got a perfect understanding of what it means to pay that debt… and what it means to forgive us.

Doug Serven