The forgiveness that frees

How do we approach the situation of someone hurting us?

How do we balance the need to gently but clearly raise our concern with a person who has wronged us (eg. see Matthew 18:15), with …

…God’s call for us to be people who are “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you? (Ephesians 4:30)?^

Jesus on forgiveness

The Bible speaks a lot about forgiveness. Jesus taught us about forgiveness when he gave us ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ – “…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12 NIV). Do I really want God to forgive me the way I ‘forgive’ others? No! I hope I get treated with much better forgiveness than I too often treat others with!

But Jesus immediately drives home at the end of the Prayer how serious it is for me to be ready to forgive others. He says:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

Again, on another occasion when Peter asks “How many times he shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? – Up to seven times?”, Jesus answers:

“I tell you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

He then goes on to tell the story of a servant who is completely forgiven an unbelievably great debt, only to go out and threaten a fellow servant who owes him something ridiculously tiny by comparison. In response, and greatly angered, his master throws him into jail to suffer the consequences of his lack of mercy.  Then Jesus warns us;

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

Each person who trusts in Jesus Christ is forgiven an astonishingly great debt – a debt we could never have paid ourselves. If that is true, how can I not forgive another person who has wronged me – something much, much, smaller than the vast debt that has been forgiven me by God!?

Jesus is saying he wants us to be people whose hearts resonate and reflect the kind of immensely forgiving spirit and nature that God has.

Four promises of forgiveness

But what does Christian forgiveness look like? And closer to home, what sort of forgiveness would I like to receive from God and from others when I sin? Ken Sande in The Peacemaker* says there are four promises involved in true forgiveness – the forgiveness that frees.

Let’s look at them from a personal point of view, imagining how they might apply when friends or family sin against us.

These promises are made against the context of our having either decided the incident is minor and can be overlooked as a conscious private choice to forgive (Proverbs 19:11), or us having raised an issue with someone because the issue needs addressing.

The first promise I’m making when I forgive someone is that, “I will not dwell on this incident.” In other words, I’m not going to let myself stew on what happened.   I’m not going to intentionally ruminate over what happened and hold a grudge . Instead, I’m going to consider the matter done and finished in my heart. This is my decision – a decision to forgive. (Now that sounds like a recipe for peaceful sleep in many circumstances in life!).

The second promise forgiveness commits me to is that, “I will not bring this incident up and use it against you.” How easy it would be to store away the memory of what someone has done, along with all their other sins and failings.  Then I can use it in a conversation somewhere: perhaps to score points in an argument, or to load their conscience or reputation up with guilt to crush them, or to make myself somehow look ‘better’ than them. But forgiveness doesn’t do this! Again, forgiveness is about making an intentional choice not to bring this up with the person with the aim of hurting them.

Note:  This doesn’t mean we can never raise something someone has done wrong again.   For example an ongoing pattern of wrong behaviour may need to be addressed – but the key is not to store things away and raise it for the purpose of using it against that person.   One time when it would, for example, be very important to raise past incidents is if it related to any kind of actual abuse – as to which we’ve written a separate article here.

The third promise I’m making when I truly forgive is that, “I will not talk to others about this incident – not to my friends or family or workmates or neighbours – no-one else.” How easy it is to gossip about something someone has done to us! Of course, we don’t call it gossip. We are ‘processing our experience’ with someone, ‘debriefing’, or giving our friends the benefit of our ‘experience’ and ‘wisdom’, or the ever-popular ‘sharing a matter for prayer’. But gossip it is, and it’s all about affirming ourselves by running down that person. This is not forgiveness. Forgiveness demands that I not talk about this incident with another person. The matter is private because I have chosen to forgive them.

I can make these first three promises of forgiveness whether or not the other person sees or admits any wrong on their part – the making of these three promises represent a gift from me to them of my full forgiveness towards them.

The fourth and final promise when I truly forgive is that, ‘I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.’ However, for this promise to actually be true in the reality of our relationships, each person needs to have first repented of and owned their part in the breakdown of the relationship and accept the consequences of their actions (including me)!  This means a conversation needs to have take place – a conversation that we hope will lead to both of us making the necessary apology and commitment to change – and mutual forgiveness extended.

And when this happens, the miracle of forgiveness becomes the even greater miracle of a reconciled relationship.

Even if there are consequences which might still need to be experienced by the people involved, any relational debt which we might feel was owed to us is now fully dealt with and released. The air is clear between us – we are reconciled.

But aren’t consequences incompatible with forgiveness?

The free offer of forgiveness and the experiencing of natural or necessary consequences of committing significant wrongs against each other are not incompatible.

Sometimes, a consequence will be a lower willingness to trust, which may need to be restored over time.  If the wrong involves say damage of some kind (eg. financial, material, reputational), it may well also be appropriate for the person to need to experience the consequences of their wrong and, if they are able, to make good.

If, as the offended person, we have a choice as to what consequences should result from an offence being committed, the key we need to carefully and prayerfully consider is what would most glorify God and demonstrate genuine love for the other person.

Challenging, but worth it!

When made and kept, these four promises described above wonderfully reflect the glorious and eternal forgiveness that God gives us when we turn to Him.

Forgiveness is not easy – especially when someone close sins against me. Nevertheless, I can extend forgiveness to a friend or family member (or other person) who wrongs me, even though I know it will be costly.

I know how easy it is for me to be judgmental and bitter. I know that when I see them again it would be very easy to continue being angry at them and try to punish them in some way.

But I can choose to forgive, because God has forgiven me much worse. I can choose to accept them, genuinely love them and continue my relationship with them. I can absorb the suffering forgiving them involves and release them from this ‘debt’, because that’s exactly what my Lord and Saviour did for me!

This article is by David Coy. David is married to Noreen, and they have four married daughters and three grandchildren. He trained and has worked as an Anglican minister. David connected with PeaceWise training in 2011 and is now working in biblical peacemaking through Turning Point Ministry Services.


*The “four promises of forgiveness” are presented by Ken Sande in detail in The Peacemaker- a biblical guide to resolving personal conflict

^The important topics of both:

  • forgiveneness,        as well as
  • how in practice I can learn to actually gently raise an issue with someone else who has wronged me

are addressed in detail our Everyday Peacemaking and Heart of Peacemaking one day training courses.  We offer these courses, across the country, to help you to learn lifeskills for how to respond in powerful and redemptive ways to the very real conflicts which we each face in our lives.

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