“Forgiveness isn’t about them – it’s about you!” Do you agree?
Your long-term friend has hurt you badly, you’ve been feeling resentful for months (years?), you’d like to ‘get over it’ and someone tells you to just ‘forgive for yourself so you can move on – after all, in the end it’s all about you not them.”
How do you feel about this advice?
What is forgiveness and why practise it? Although foundational to the Christian worldview, it’s a concept we frequently misunderstand, and even more frequently struggle to live out. But the choice of forgiving or not when people hurt us is one we face all the time.
One dictionary definition of forgiveness is the “act of giving up a feeling such as resentment, or a claim to requital or compensation; pardoning of a fault, remission of a debt and similar responses to injury, wrongdoing or obligation.”
But true forgiveness is more than just the act of giving up a feeling of resentment. True forgiveness actually involves more than this – it’s pardoning someone for the rightful consequences of their wrongdoing against us.
So this brings us to a key question – “Why would or should I forgive?” – and is it for me or for them?
Here’s a piece of ‘web wisdom’ on the subject:
You see, forgiving others isn’t about them; it’s about you. Holding on to anger can weigh you down no less than walking through life with a lead ball and chain around your ankle. The act of forgiveness is about deciding that you no longer want to carry the weight from a past event in to your future. It’s about declaring that you love yourself more than you loathe another human being. And it’s about extracting the learning, but leaving the anger behind. It simply no longer serves you… if it ever did. (Margie Warrell)
Is this the right way for Christians to think about forgiveness?
It is certainly true that when we forgive others, God in his kindness does give us freedom from the bad consequences for us of unforgiveness – the ‘lead ball and chain’ which can bring such bitterness, health problems and an inability to move forward.
But if that’s our only motivation for forgiveness (what we will get) then there’s still something missing.
It is when we forgive others’ sins in and because of what Jesus did for us – when we can truly realise, acknowledge and forgive because of the forgiveness we have ourselves received in Jesus Christ for our own sins – that our hearts and minds can be fully engaged in the active act of forgiveness.
In this kind of forgiveness, there is a true and intentional benefit and grace extended to the wrongdoer. And where the wrong doer is truly repentant and has asked to be forgiven, with this kind of forgiveness there is also the possibility of restored relationship with the wrongdoer.*
This kind of forgiveness comes from God, because God is love. Loving the person by forgiving them in Jesus Christ means we are becoming more like Him and by so doing glorifying God.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
So it is that we are called to forgive as Jesus forgave us – to have an attitude of willingness to forgive others that goes beyond our self and extends benefit to more than our self (Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32). And in the process, we approach forgiveness not as the world does, but in a way which transforms us to become more like Jesus himself. (Romans 12:2).
Knowing the amazing fact that God is love and that he loved us enough to forgive us all our sins (while we were still sinners!) is the ultimate motivation for us also showing love by forgiving those who sin against us.
We can do this knowing that God also delights in giving us the personal benefits of forgiveness as well! It might just be that he gives you back that long lost friendship too.
Next month, we’ll look at what forgiving someone actually looks like in practice – and how we can check if we have truly forgiven someone.
*see our separate article on the special case of abuse and how this interacts with forgiveness.