What is forgiveness?

I suspect that, for most of us, forgiveness is a difficult and even painful subject. While we may be grateful to receive God’s unmerited forgiveness for our own many sins and shortcomings, forgiving others sometimes seems an unpalatable and unreasonable requirement. And make no mistake about it; forgiving others is absolutely mandatory for the child of God. We probably all realise this, and may even pay lip service to the principle, but how we apply this requirement in our lives often says more about us than it does about the offender.

What is forgiveness?
The precursor to forgiveness is that an offence has been committed either by omission or commission. There are always at least two parties involved: the offender and the offended. (There may, of course, be more than one offender/offended but we’ll get to that later.)

God is completely sinless, holy and righteousness so He is NEVER the offender. We may not understand His will or His timing but to imagine that He would ever need our forgiveness amounts to blasphemy. As far as we’re concerned, every single one of us, without exception, is an offender before God. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:22-23)

In human relationships, however, we may be either the offender or the offended so, at times, we’ll either need forgiveness or we’ll be called upon to forgive and, sometimes, both together at the same time. (We’ll get to that later too!)

In the New Testament, three Greek words are used to describe an offence.
Opheilema : debt – in the sense of what is owed. (Mathew 6:12)
Paraptoma : trespass – making a false step, a violation of moral standards, wrongdoing. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Hamartia : sin – the action as well as its result, any and every departure from righteousness. (Luke 11:4)

The dictionary defines forgiveness as:
to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offence, flaw, or mistake
to no longer feel angry about or wish to punish (an offence, flaw, or mistake)
to cancel (a debt)

Forgiveness isn’t a choice, neither is it a matter of opinion or personal preference; it’s a matter of obedience. God’s Word is the sole, infallible rule of faith and practice and the Bible makes it absolutely plain that we are to forgive each other as Christ forgave us.

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

So, for the child of God, forgiveness is a compulsory act of obedience. It involves the deliberate act of letting go, or writing off, a debt or offence and giving up feelings of anger and blame together with any claim to be compensated for whatever hurt or loss we have suffered.

What forgiveness is not
While we need to understand what forgiveness means, it’s also important to understand what there are a number of misconceptions about it.

1. Forgiveness is not an offender’s right
As much as we are required to forgive – and we most definitely are – nevertheless, the offender has no automatic right to be forgiven. This is a gift on the part of the offended party and it’s often a very costly one. You only have to think of the price Christ paid for our salvation to understand this point.

We have to forgive because God forgave us but just as our forgiveness was undeserved so also the offender needs to understand that is their forgiveness is also undeserved and, therefore, is not a right. This has implications for the offender’s attitude when forgiveness is offered; i.e. an attitude of remorse, repentance, humility and gratitude – just as we have to approach God’s forgiveness.

2. Forgiveness does not excuse the offence
Sin ALWAYS has consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the offence and certain consequences may still be inevitable. God forgave King David a whole series of sins, but He didn’t shield Him from some pretty devastating consequences. What’s more, God also brought David’s most flagrant and heinous sins (adultery and murder) into the public arena and recorded them for posterity. (See 2 Samuel 12:9-13)

So forgiveness doesn’t minimise the sin or the hurt but, rather, it chooses to let it go.

3. Forgiveness is not a mandate to re-offend
Forgiveness doesn’t imply any kind of implicit permission for the offender to re-offend. There are two instances recorded in scripture where Jesus makes this very plain. The healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–15) and the woman taken in the act of adultery. (John 8:3–11)

The exhortation to ‘Go and sin no more‘ doesn’t imply sinless perfection because that’s simply not possible this side of eternity. It is, however, a clear instruction to change our ways and not to re-offend. This has particular implications when it comes to habitual offenders.

Suppose, for example, a friend or loved-one borrows money and, for no legitimate reason, does not repay. You may choose to write off the debt and let the matter drop but it would be foolish to trust that person again without clear evidence of changed behaviour.

4. Forgiveness is not a one-off event
We’re exhorted to settle disputes quickly. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. (Ephesians 4:26) It is, however, sometimes difficult to process what has happened and complete forgiveness may take time. That’s not to say we shouldn’t begin the process of obedience, prayer and dialogue as soon as possible, but both parties have to understand that healing, in almost any situation – mental, physical and emotional – is rarely instantaneous. Forgiveness then is a process rather than a one-off event.

5. Forgiveness is not an over-reaction to every imagined slight or minor infraction
Sometimes we need to ask ourselves if an offence really has taken place. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of human relationships and to misunderstand the situation. Also, it may be that, even if a minor infraction did indeed occur, we need to act in a mature manner and resist the urge to over-react. The Bible is very clear on this matter and cautions us, time and again, not to be quick to take offence.

Do not be quick to take offence, for the taking of offence is the mark of a fool. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)
Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult. (Proverbs 12:16)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)

6. Forgiveness does not automatically mean reconciliation
As much as complete restoration and reconciliation is the aim of forgiveness, the two are not the same thing. Forgiveness is a gift on the part of the offended party but reconciliation can only occur when the offender repents and accepts forgiveness. This is quite a large topic in itself and will be the subject of a later post in this series.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the Bible model for forgiveness and consider some reasons why we find this such a difficult discipline.