“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,
“Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Peter 3:9-11)
Forgiveness is one of the hardest, most emotive aspects of relationships for many of us. I am always amazed by the grace which some people are able to display, seemingly easily, towards those who have wronged them. A couple of women that I know show tremendous tolerance towards husbands who have walked out of their lives. I freely admit that I find it hard to forgive much lesser offences. My sense of justice is outraged by the behavior that I have received from others, some Christian, others non-Christian. I have left a church over such behavior. I’ve spent decades in some cases coming to terms with aspects of forgiveness in my own personal life.
From what I’ve personally learned about forgiveness, in my own case it’s helped to classify three different forms, each in relation to the response of the person concerned. Each has the same outcome in that God requires we forgive, but the path towards that outcome may take a different route in each case.
The first case is where a person has wronged you, and they acknowledge the fact and ask for forgiveness. In other words, they say they are sorry. They understand that their words or actions have hurt you and they want to make amends. Oh, that this would happen more frequently than it does. This often reflects a healthy relationship between adults who in the main have good channels of communication and who respect one another.
It may be the case that such an apology will lead to a clarification of the circumstances which led to the incident and where wrongs of both parties, if they exist, can be acknowledged. We must remember that we live in a fallen world, under the dominion of the devil, who desires to form breaches in all relationships. Since the fall of Adam and Eve we are heirs to sinfulness:
“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23”
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
It’s easy to be blind to our own faults, but even if we feel that we have not contributed to the problem, in this case it’s clear that we are to forgive. Christ tells us that He forgives us when we come to Him in faith and confess our sins:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).
So, Christ expects us to forgive others, just as He has forgiven us. There is the expectation from Christ that if we confess our sins and receive His forgiveness, we do not try to sin again. In the same way, a restoration of a human problem should result in better behavior in the future.
A second case of forgiveness occurs when a wrong has been committed against us and there is no direct apology, but there may be indications by a person’s attitude or further behavior that they are resolved to improve relations. I have had this happen to me when a person has been bad tempered or rude because of some circumstances completely unrelated to me and they have been conciliatory afterwards. Some people are more sensitive than others. Some have no idea that they have been hurtful. In the same way I’m sure I’ve hurt others without realizing it. Again, we live in a fallen world where words or actions can be misconstrued. Even when they realise that there is a problem, some people have a “least said soonest mended” attitude and don’t want to discuss it further.
In this case I would suggest that it’s best to take it on the chin and forgive and move on. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church, takes issue with brothers who are so concerned with the justice of some situations that they are taking their brothers to court:
“Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?” (1 Corinthians 6:7).
If an event is out of character for a person, or is a rare occurrence, it’s sometimes best to let it go, forgive, tell God how you are feeling in prayer, and move on. God knows and understands and will bless you for being a peacemaker. However, if the behavior which caused conflict or hurt continues, it’s time for a frank discussion to clarify what is causing the problem, with the goal of improving relations.
The third case for forgiveness is the one which causes the most pain and is most grappled with by Christians and non-Christians alike. This is the case where we have been deeply hurt or wounded by a conscious act of someone else who has the intent to hurt or wound us. In this case there is no remorse, indeed the act may be part of that person’s desire to make themselves feel good by making someone else feel bad. It is the very essence of bullying. It could be an act which the world regards as criminal. How are we then to respond?
There is a school of thought which says that without repentance, there can be no forgiveness. After all, God requires repentance when we come to give our lives to Him. However, when Peter came to Jesus and asked Him "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus responded “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!…” (Matthew 18:21-22). Jesus, as He was suffering for our sins, stated of his murderers “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34), a request reiterated by the Christian martyr Stephen as he was being stoned to death. (Acts 7:60).
This is intensely different to the “eye for an eye” attitude of the Old Testament, or David’s impassioned pleas to God to pour out His wrath upon David’s enemies. What does the example of Jesus mean for us?
Forgiveness centres upon prayer to God. Jesus and Stephen were not speaking to their persecutors directly. Each was directing their thoughts to God. Their final thoughts and words were to their Heavenly Father. In this vein of thought, we can come directly to God in prayer with the situation which has caused us so much pain and ask for the ability to forgive. I believe that in such a case forgiveness is merely asking God to take over the situation and that I am giving over any right I might feel to pass judgement on another person. Otherwise I could well spend the rest of my life reliving a horrible event and passing a judgement that will never be received by the other party.
Forgiveness is not negating an event or trivializing it. For something to require forgiveness, it is in itself wrong. Forgiveness is not excusing the wrongdoer, nor does it require that we resume former relationships with the wrongdoer, even if that is possible. Forgiveness is primarily for the person sinned against, in order for them to experience peace and healing and freedom from the bondage of sin that another has imposed upon them.
God is just. He will answer your prayer. The apostle Paul tells us
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”. (Romans 12:14) And “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
We are all of us on a continuing journey with God throughout our lives. Forgiveness allows us to continue in the present and look to the future without being bound in the past. It leaves the other person for God to deal with. How wonderful if in years to come that person should come to you and tell you they are now a Christian and say they are sorry for the past. It may be your attitude and prayers that have contributed to this.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank You that You are there and that You care so much for each one of us. Thank You that You know everything I have experienced. Help me to forgive (detail the person and situation)
Lord, if I am finding it hard to let go, help me to be willing to forgive.
Thank You Father, that You have forgiven me my sins, through the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross.
I pray now for (name) that they will come into a knowledge of You through the revelation of Your Holy Spirit.
I release this situation into Your hands Father and thank for the wonderful gift of fellowship with You. Thank You for the many blessings You give every day.
In the precious name of Jesus,