Is Total Forgiveness Realistic?
June 1, 2003
A few days ago I received an e-mail with a comment about these sermons on forgiveness:
Since you started this series, I have made some important discoveries in my life, but am enjoying it all the same. Maybe ‘enjoying’ is not the right word, but I hope you know what I mean. It’s like you know my heart—because most of the time it is breaking.
That comment could be multiplied many times with testimonies from many people. One person commented that the emphasis on forgiveness has been cleansing to his soul. It is good to know that the Word of God still works whenever our hearts are open to hear the truth. We need to hear this truth over and over again because we need to be forgiven and we need to learn how to forgive. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” He was speaking not just of personal pain, but also in the larger context of South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. What is true of individuals is true of families, and what is true of families is true of cities and states. And what is true for states is true for nations as well. Without forgiveness, there is no future. We could add to the statement in several ways without changing its basic meaning:
Without forgiveness, there is no freedom.
Without forgiveness, there is no recovery.
Without forgiveness, there is no healing.
But in a world with so much pain, so much hatred, so much animosity between races, tribes, clans, nations, is total forgiveness realistic or is it just a distant dream, a theory that can never become reality? The question is fair and honest and deserves an answer. We might end up saying something like this: “Yes, total forgiveness is the best way, but it is so far beyond us that we must settle for something much less.” We could say that, and indeed we may think that, but we would be wrong. Total forgiveness may be beyond us, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. It just means we have fallen short of God’s goal for us.
Let’s begin with the observation that the forgiveness of sins is a major biblical doctrine. The Bible has a great deal to say about God’s forgiveness of our sins because that is where salvation really begins.
• As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
• If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:3-4).
• You have put all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38:17).
• I—yes, I alone—am the one who blots out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again” (Isaiah 43:25 NLT).
• You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!” (Micah 7:19 NLT)
• Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
• In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
No matter what else I may say about forgiveness in this sermon, let’s clearly understand that salvation begins with our forgiveness by God. If God did not forgive us, we would have to shoulder our sins forever, weighed down under a load of guilt that could never be removed.
But the Bible also has a lot to say about our forgiveness of the sins of others against us. Here are two examples:
• And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:26).
• Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Several points might be made regarding these twin towers of forgiveness. First, Christianity is supremely a religion of forgiveness. It begins with God and comes down to us. Second, God only has one solution to the problem of human sin—the act of forgiveness. If we do not accept his solution, no other will be offered. Third, God himself has shown us how to forgive others. We are to do for others what he has done for us. Fourth, there is a direct connection between our own spiritual health and our willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us. When we have a “root of bitterness” springing up within us, we cannot be truly healthy.
I’m sure we would all agree that forgiveness is of the Lord in the sense that forgiveness starts with God, comes down to us, and then goes out to other people. This is what Ephesians 4:32 plainly says. We are to forgive as God has forgiven us. In his massive commentary on Ephesians, Harold Hoehner points out that the word translated “forgive” in the NIV is actually a Greek word meaning, “be gracious.” It includes forgiveness but is actually a much broader concept. We are to extend grace to others as God has extended grace to us. We, the undeserving who have been showered with God’s grace in Christ, are to give to other undeserving sinners (who have sinned against us) the same outpouring of grace. From God to us to others. Grace to us, grace to others. This is God’s plan.
But is it realistic to live this way? Is the standard too high? Can anyone really live this way in a fallen world? What would a “grace-full” lifestyle look like? When Paul says, “forgiving each other,” what does he mean? Several practical questions arise at this point:
1) What is forgiveness?
The various biblical authors used a number of different Hebrew and Greek words to convey the concept of forgiveness. One word means “to blot out,” in the sense that God erases the record of the sins we commit. Another common Hebrew word means “to lift and carry away,” speaking of the complete removal of our sins from us, as if a heavy load had been lifted from our shoulders. Still another word means “to release from debt,” indicating the punishment for sin has been canceled. And one Greek word means “to show grace to one who has sinned greatly,” speaking of the undeserved nature of forgiveness. It is truly a gift from God. In their book Forgive and Love Again, John Nieder and Thomas Thompson (pp. 62-63) point out that the Bible uses at least 75 different word pictures of forgiveness. Here are a few of them:
• “To forgive is to turn the key, open the cell door, and let the prisoner walk free.”
• “To forgive is to write in large letters across a debt, ‘Nothing owed.’”
• “To forgive is to pound the gavel in a courtroom and declare, ‘Not guilty!’”
• “To forgive is to shoot an arrow so high and so far that it can never be found again.”
• “To forgive is to bundle up all the garbage and trash and dispose of it, leaving the house clean and fresh.”
• “To forgive is to loose the moorings of a ship and release it into the open sea.”
• “To forgive is to grant a full pardon to a condemned criminal.”
• “To forgive is to relax a stranglehold on a wrestling opponent.”
• “To forgive is to sandblast a wall of graffiti, leaving it looking like new.”
• “To forgive is to smash a clay pot into a thousand pieces so it can never be pieced together again.”
• Or think of yourself as a banker. In your hand is a note detailing a huge debt owed to you. What debts of others does your note list? Slander? Fraud? Rape? You carefully take the note and look at it once more. But instead of putting it back in the file, you tear it into a thousand pieces. That’s forgiveness.”
• “When we forgive, we consciously, before God, cancel the debt. We discard the note. We pardon the prisoner. We release the offender.”
Perhaps it will help to remind ourselves what forgiveness does not mean. It is not …
- Denying the evil that was done.
- Excusing sinful behavior.
- Pretending it never happened.
- Glossing over the pain you suffered.
- Removing all consequences for wrong behavior.
- Overlooking criminal behavior.
- Approving of evil.
- Condoning abuse.
- Acting as if the sin never happened.
- Letting others continually abuse you.
- Pretending you weren’t hurt.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation or restoration. And it’s not a magic trick that we use to force others to become our friend again. It’s not a tool to manipulate others into confessing what they did that hurt us so greatly.
What, then, is forgiveness? The most important thing I can say (perhaps the most important sentence in this sermon) is that forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. God never says, “Forgive them if you feel like it.” Forgiveness is not about your feelings. If you have been deeply hurt, you will probably never “feel” like forgiving someone. Forgiveness is a choice, a decision you make in your heart. It is a choice to release others from their sins against you. That’s why I Corinthians 13:5 tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs. Forgiveness means letting go of the anger and the desire for revenge. Seen in its true light, forgiveness is an act of mercy toward the offender. Sometimes we hear people say, “He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.” Of course he doesn’t. No one “deserves” forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t earned, and if a person could “earn” forgiveness, he wouldn’t need it in the first place. It is a gift of mercy that you give to someone who has hurt you. But note this qualifier: The gift is given to the other person but it remains between you and God. The other person may never know about it. When you forgive, God knows and you know, and that’s all that matters. And the end result is a change in the way you feel and act toward that other person.
A friend wrote and said, “I’m looking for fairness but can’t seem to find it.” And you won’t find it because forgiveness is not about fairness, it’s about grace.
2) How do I know when I have truly forgiven?
Here is my simple answer to this question. You know you have forgiven when you …
A. no longer think about it day and night,
B. no longer have to talk about it all the time,
C. no longer feel the need to seek revenge,
D. no longer live in bitterness and anger,
E. can recall those who hurt you and can wish them well.
3) Is forgiveness an event or a process?
The answer is yes. It is both an event in the sense that you must at some point decide to forgive. And it is a process that often must be repeated over time. I spoke with a woman whose husband abandoned her for a younger woman, leaving her with a very young child to raise. As she told me the story, she said, “I guess I’ve forgiven him a million times. I forgive him over and over again every day.” “You’ll probably have to forgive him a million more times before it’s over,” I replied. That may not seem like a word of hope, but in fact it is. Remember, forgiveness isn’t a tool for manipulating people into having a good relationship with you. No one can force another person to be reconciled. That must come from a heart prompted by God’s Holy Spirit. When it comes down to it, there are two very good reasons to forgive that have nothing to do with the other person:
A. You should forgive because God has commanded it.
B. You should forgive because forgiveness is good for your own soul.
Any other benefits are like ice cream added to a piece of apple pie—nice but not necessary. We should practice forgiveness for God’s sake and for our own sake. That ought to be enough to motivate any of us.
4) Does forgiveness always lead to reconciliation?
The answer is no. Forgiveness is one thing; reconciliation is something else. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but forgiveness does not demand reconciliation. Forgiveness depends on you. Reconciliation depends on you plus the other person. It implies confession, repentance, forgiveness, restoration of trust, and the passage of time plus a mutual desire to reconcile. Often it is not possible; sometimes it is not wise.
5) What about the person who says, “I can forgive but I can’t forget?”
This is a very common problem and a very common statement. I must confess that I have changed my answer to this question over the years. If you go back and listen to my sermon tapes on forgiveness from a few years ago, you will hear me say something like, “If you haven’t forgotten, you haven’t forgiven.” I’m smiling as I write these words because that statement is so obviously wrong I wonder what made me ever think that way. But, then, I do know why I said that. We all understand that God “forgets” our sins when he blots them out, puts them behind his back, and casts them into the depth of the sea. He can “forget” our sins because he’s God and has the power to do things like that. But we’re not God, and our painful memories often return to haunt us.
In pondering this problem, my mind ran to a scripture in the book of Hebrews that speaks of God’s forgiveness of our sins. Surely if we have trouble forgetting, what about God who never forgets anything? Hebrew 10:17 quotes God as saying, “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more.” Underline that last phrase, “I will remember no more.” God’s forgiveness means He chooses not to remember our sins.
That’s helpful, isn’t it? Forgiveness is a choice we make. It is not a feeling or a mood or a passing notion. Forgiveness does not mean we somehow wipe out of our mind the record of what happened. Forgiveness means we choose not to remember it. There is a big difference between remembering something and dwelling on it. We can all remember (if we try hard enough) things in the past that have hurt us deeply. Forgiveness means we choose not to dwell on those things. It also means we choose not to hold a grudge against someone who has wronged us. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, was talking with a friend one day. The name of a person they both knew came up. Years before that person had done some very mean things to Clara. The friend asked Barton, “Don’t you remember when she did that to you?” “No,” she replied, “I distinctly remember forgetting that.”
6) Do I need to tell the person, “I forgive you?”
The answer is, not necessarily. Obviously if they ask for forgiveness, and if you intend to forgive then, then of course you should say, “I forgive you.” But I’m thinking about those times when we are hurt by the thoughtless comments and unkind actions of others. Most of the time it isn’t helpful to say, “I forgive you.” About 90% of the time you end up picking a fight because the person says, “I didn’t do anything that needs to be forgiven.” It helps to remember that your forgiveness doesn’t depend on them. You don’t need their permission to forgive them. You don’t need their agreement that they were wrong. Just forgive them. Choose forgiveness in your heart. And then move on with your life.
7) How do you forgive if they do not confess?
The last answer brings us to the heart of the matter. How do you—how can you—forgive those who do not—will not—cannot—own up to what they did? If they don’t ask for forgiveness, how can you forgive them? I pause to comment that this is a painful problem for many people because we live in a cruel world filled with mean people. There are folks out there who will stomp on your face and walk away laughing. And they’ll do it again and laugh again. You may work with someone like that. You may be married to someone like that. You may have had a relative who sexually abused you and has never admitted it. How do you forgive someone who has died? What about people who have moved out of your life and you have no way to confront them? You may not even know their name or where they live. What does it mean to forgive in that situation?
Writing over 400 years ago, John Calvin addressed this very question by saying there are two kinds of forgiveness. The first is the kind where the person who did the wrong admits it, comes to you asking for forgiveness, you grant it and the relationship is restored. That’s the best kind. That’s the ideal. There is confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Unfortunately, in this fallen world the ideal is not always possible. Sometimes people who have wronged us will not admit their guilt no matter what we do. In fact, sometimes they will lie to cover up the truth. Sometimes they will cut off the relationship rather than face the hard work of reconciliation. Sometimes they will keep right on hurting us on purpose.
How can you forgive in a situation like that? Calvin said you can forgive even in that situation in the sense that you let go of your anger and bitterness and refuse to let the hurt dominate your own life. True, the relationship remains broken. It may never be healed. But you can choose not to remember the sins of others. You can choose to wipe the slate clean so that your life is free from bitterness. That’s not easy but it’s far better than living in the past nursing a wounded spirit. It’s also biblical for in this we have the example of Jesus himself who, when he hung on the cross, an innocent man put to death for crimes he did not commit, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
8) What about the feelings of anger that keep coming back?
One final question. How do we deal with the feelings of anger that keep coming back even after we forgive someone? That’s a fairly common problem, especially when we feel deeply and repeatedly mistreated. In one of her writings, Corrie Ten Boom tells of some Christian friends who wronged her in a public and malicious way. For many days, she was bitter and angry until she forgave them. But in the night she would wake up thinking about what they had done and get angry all over again. It seemed the memory would not go away. Help came in the form of a Lutheran pastor to whom she confessed her frustration after two sleepless weeks. He told her, “Corrie, up in the church tower is a bell that is rung by pulling on a rope. When the sexton pulls the rope, the bell peals out ding-dong, ding-dong. What happens if he doesn’t pull the rope again? Slowly the sound fades away. Forgiveness is like that. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for awhile. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”
So it’s not surprising if after forgiveness, for a while the memories keep coming back. If you refuse to dwell on them, slowly they will fade away. Why? When you forgive, you let go of the rope and the force is gone out of your anger.
A Miracle of God
That brings me back to the original question. Is total forgiveness realistic? On a purely human level, the answer is no. In our own strength, we will never be able to forgive others as God forgives us—completely, absolutely, freely, immediately, graciously, with no strings attached. As long as we live on the human level, total forgiveness will be beyond our grasp. But once we bring God into the picture, everything changes because with God, all things are possible.
On the supernatural level, total forgiveness is not only realistic, it’s the “supernatural” way of life. Forgiveness is nothing less than a miracle of God. It is a miracle we receive the moment we put our trust in Jesus Christ. And it is a miracle we give to others when in Jesus’ name, by his power and for his sake, we forgive those who sin against us.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future.” So said Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His words ring true because they are based on the truth of God. Without forgiveness, there is no future, no freedom, no hope and no healing. But where there is forgiveness, there is grace and mercy and a future as bright as the promises of God.
God Moved the Fence for Us
During World War II, as Allied soldiers fought their way across France, a soldier died during a bloody firefight. After the battle was over, his buddies wanted to find a way to give him a decent burial. The only cemetery in the closest village was a Catholic cemetery so they approached the priest, asking for permission to bury their fallen comrade there. “Is he Catholic?” the priest asked. “No, he’s Protestant,” came the reply. With great regret, the priest said, “He cannot be buried here. This cemetery is reserved for baptized members of the Catholic Church.” So the soldiers found a suitable place outside the fence that marked the border of the cemetery. With great sorrow, they buried him and then went back to the war. Some months later, the soldiers returned to the tiny village, hoping to provide a suitable marker for their friend. To their surprise and consternation, when they came to the burial spot, they could not find the grave. Not knowing what else to do, they asked the priest if he knew what had happened. He told them after they had buried their friend, he could not sleep at night. So one morning he got up early and moved the fence to include the body of the much-loved soldier who had died for his country.
That’s what God did for us. He could not rest while we’re on the wrong side of the fence. He wanted so much to bring us into his family that he sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who through his death on the cross “moved the fence” so that we would have a place in God’s family.
If God has “moved the fence” for us, can we not do the same for others? If God found a way to include us in his love, can we not reach out to include those who have sinned against us? This is the very heart of the gospel. What God has freely done for us, we are called to do for others. The heart of God is filled with love and at its center stands a cross. Through that cross we have been forgiven. May God give us grace to “move the fence” for others as God has “moved the fence” for us. Amen.