5 Lies We Believe About Forgiveness
We’ve gotten forgiveness all wrong in our culture. I know this because I see people, Christians even, who are trapped in their own bitterness and resentment because they have failed to embrace a life of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is difficult, and we like to think that things should be easy if we’re supposed to do them. But God asks us to take the best way, not the easiest way. I have experienced that the best is often not the easiest at all. This is particularly true for practicing forgiveness in my life.
As Christians, we're aware that God tells us to forgive one another but knowing how, when, or why to forgive can be confusing. We often approach forgiveness from a human perspective instead of God's perspective, which causes us to believe lies regarding forgiveness. These lies cause us to bear a burden of bitterness instead of embracing the beautiful freedom we receive through forgiveness.
God is always for our good, and if he tells us that we should pursue forgiveness then we are wise to listen. So, let's break down some of the lies we believe so we can live in the fullness of God's truth.
Lie #1: forgiving means forgetting
For most of my life, I had this idea that forgiveness was just trying to forget what happened. If I could just forget the ways people hurt me, I’d be okay. But all that does is push the pain beneath the surface where it grows into bitterness and resentment. The pain becomes a personal, perpetual torment.
Through the atonement of Jesus Christ, God has forgiven us of all our sins and “remembers them no more” (Hebrews 8:12). But remembering them no more is not the same as forgetting. God cannot forget our sins and we are not expected to forget the sins of others either.
We can remember the hurts without replaying them in our minds, allowing them to hurt us over and over again. Ruminating on what people did to us causes us more harm.
So, forgive. Remember the hurt but also remember the freedom you felt when you handed your bitterness to God and let him handle justice.
Lie #2: we forgive when we feel ready
It is not often that we feel ready to forgive someone for the hurt they caused us. But we are told to forgive because God has forgiven us, no exceptions. Forgiveness is an act of obedience; it surrenders our need to enact justice on God's behalf. We are told to forgive whether we feel like it or not.
The story of Corrie Ten Boom and her family, documented in her book The Hiding Place, tells of her life hiding Jewish people from the Nazis in Holland and her eventual imprisonment. One of the most notably cruel guards she suffered by eventually became a Christian and attended a church service in Munich where she was speaking on the subject of forgiveness. The guard did not remember her, but she vividly remembered him. He approached her after the service, with hand outstretched, to ask for her forgiveness on behalf of the prisoners at the internment camp. She says this of the encounter:
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
We mistakenly believe that the emotion precedes the act, but what if it's the act of forgiveness that brings about the emotion? When we give the hurt over to God, we release bitterness towards the person and embrace sadness about the sin. It releases our need for control and allows God to carry the weight of our woundedness.
Lie #3: forgiveness is a one-time act
I don't think I'm alone in wondering why I can't seem to forgive and be done with it. I know I've given people and pain over to God; I know I've released resentment through warm tears. And yet... there's that feeling of bitterness creeping up again.
In some parts of my story, the pain and the person who hurt me are so far removed that forgiveness provided much needed closure. But in other situations, the people who hurt me are still in my life or the pain they caused still has repercussions today. In those cases, needing to forgive again doesn't make me a failure, it makes me faithful.
Having to forgive someone again and again does not make you a bad Christian. It makes you a normal person who is suffering the consequences of someone else's sin. Instead of feeling shame that you can't seem to make forgiveness "stick," remind yourself that God is faithful to bring you peace every time you let go of bitterness.
So forgive again, and again, and again. As much and as often as you feel hurt.
Lie #4: forgiving someone lets them off the hook
Forgiveness should never be confused with not seeking justice. In situations that warrant it, the proper authorities should be involved. Forgiveness does not mean we release our responsibility to ensure the safety of ourselves or others. We should forgive people while we allow the full consequences of their actions.
Forgiveness doesn't let the person who hurt you off the hook, but it does let you off the hook. By choosing not to forgive, you choose to commit your own sin.
Forgiveness is ultimately between you and God. When we forgive, we let God handle justice for the person who hurt us and we accept God's mercy for ourselves.
Allow the proper authorities to handle legal situations and allow God to handle justice in his realm. You are only responsible for your own sin.
Lie #5: forgiveness means the relationship is restored
If you are afraid of forgiving someone, it might be because you believe this lie. When we picture forgiveness in our minds, we likely picture crying and hugging and relational mending. Sometimes, someone has hurt us so terribly that we fear that forgiveness will give permission for that person to be close to us again. But, as I said in the last point, forgiveness is between you and God.
Sometimes, forgiveness comes with an apology from the other person. When the person who hurt you has genuinely repented (meaning, shown change in his or her actions, not just words), then sometimes the relationship is restored. It might never be the relationship that it was before, but trust and love may grow over time.
However, if the person who hurt you has not confessed and made things right, then there is no reconciliation with your forgiveness. Your forgiveness remains between you and God--for your own healing. The relationship cannot be healed until both sides have done their part. And if you have been hurt by someone, you are not unloving to keep your distance, you are wise.
Even in the ugliest situations, God is pleased when we allow our hearts to be open to reconciliation--believing that God will transform the person so fully that the relationship could be restored one day. It is good to hope.
Practicing forgiveness has been one of the most challenging parts of my life, but it has healed me in incredible ways. I don't believe that I would have such a strong sense of hope, joy, peace, or purpose if I was still living in constant fear and resentment. Learning to forgive those who hurt us frees us from the bondage of bitterness so we can live in the fullness of Christ.
So, forgive people even if you don't feel like it. One day, you may find your heart so transformed that you can pray for that person's good, with no desire for their harm. God honours our obedience and transforms us to be more like Christ.