What is Forgiveness?

Here's a Helpful Lesson I’ve Learned

Some people collect stamps. Some collect antiques. And others, it seems, collect offenses. Ask them what any person has done to offend them and they can rattle off the list. They get historical in a hurry.

What is Forgiveness? Here's a Helpful Lesson I’ve Learned

(Photo by oomph)

After a talk I gave one time, a woman came up to me with a determined look. She asked: “So you’re saying all a person has to do for forgiveness is believe in Jesus Christ—and all their sins are forgiven?”

“That’s what the Bible says, yes—.”

“I can’t accept that,” she interrupted. “Some things just can’t be forgiven.”

I paused and looked into her eyes. “Who has hurt you deeply?” She gave no answer, except for the tears that welled up immediately.

The problem with forgiveness is the debt is real. Someone has taken from us and hurt us deeply. In order to forgive, it feels like we must give even more than has already been taken.

This is hard. Very hard. So, what is forgiveness?

What is Forgiveness? A Promise, not a Feeling

One woman admitted, “I know my husband has forgiven me, because he tells me every week of my life he’s forgiven me.”

What is forgiveness? Not that. God says:

I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remem­ber their sins no more. —Heb. 8:12

How can an omniscient God forget our sins? God knew about our sins and chose to pay for them all at the cross of Christ—even before we were born.

So in what way does God remember sins no more? He chooses not to count it against us.

What is Forgiveness?

(Photo via oomph.com)

I like how Jay Adams puts it:

If forgiveness were merely an emotional expe­rience, we would not know that we were forgiven . . . What does God do when He goes on record saying that our sins are forgiven? God makes a promise. Forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is a promise! —Jay Adams

In the same way, when you choose to forgive, you make a promise not to use someone’s offense as ammunition for the future. You also promise yourself that you refuse to dwell on the offense over and over in your mind. Forgiveness frees you from the prison of bitterness, but the bruise from the offense may remain for a while—or indefinitely.

What is forgiveness? It is a promise, not a feeling. It’s a decision.

Why We Forgive

If the person who has hurt you shows up in your daily life—as a boss, or a spouse, or a coach, etc.—and he or she continues to hurt you, what then?

When Jesus said we must forgive 70 x 7 times, He didn’t mean after 490 offenses we now have the right to bear a grudge (Matthew 18:21-22). He gave us the reason why in the story He told immediately following: a master forgave his servant an enormous debt and expected the servant to grant that same forgiveness to a fellow servant (Matthew 18:23-35).

To what extent should we forgive? Jesus made the answer plain: “To what extent has God forgiven you?”

When answering “what is forgiveness?” we begin by realizing why we forgive: because God forgave us (Matt. 6:12, 14-15; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).

What is Forgiveness?

(Photo by Andre Koch, via oomph.com)

How to Forgive: a Helpful Lesson I’ve Learned

Like you, I’ve faced a lot of pain in life—both while growing up and as an adult. And while people can betray us and hurt us viciously, there is still a way to forgive them.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Philemon, he urged him to forgive a servant who had betrayed him. Here’s the reason why:

For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. —Philemon 15-16

The contrast between “for a while” and “forever” reveals Paul’s conviction something higher was happening. The temporary pain and betrayal served as only a means to a permanent and better result God intended.

Don’t Just Look Beyond the Offense

I can look back in my life at times people have hurt me and see good things God has used from it, that I could have obtained no other way. But some good things we won’t realize until eternity (Romans 8:28).

What is forgiveness? Forgiveness means we look not just beyond the offense but above it.

Question: What has helped you to forgive? To leave a comment, just click here.

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I'd love to hear your thoughts. Just keep it kind and relevant. Thanks!

  • Rev. Bill Reeves

    The overwhelming sense that God has forgiven me.

    • That’s a huge motivation, isn’t it, Bill? When I think of all God has forgiven me—and does daily—how can I hold a grudge? The scales just don’t balance. Thanks for your comments.

  • Sandy Smith

    Thanks, Wayne for your timely and insightful thoughts on forgiveness. This is what has helped me forgive in the past – knowing that forgiveness releases YOU from being a prisoner to your
    bitterness. (Matt 18:21-35) Forgiving won’t make the offense all right,
    it will make YOU all right. Neil Anderson says “Forgiveness is
    a choice, a crisis of the will. Since God requires us to forgive, it is
    something we can do. (He would never require us to do something we cannot do.)
    But forgiveness is difficult for us because it pulls against our concept
    of justice. We want revenge to offenses suffered. But we are told
    never to take our own revenge (Rom 12:19). ‘Why should I let them off the hook?’,
    we protest. You let them off YOUR hook, but they are never off God’s
    hook. He will deal with them fairly – something we cannot do. If
    you don’t let offenders of your hook, you are hooked to them and the past, and
    that just means continued pain for you. Stop the pain, let it go.
    You don’t forgive someone merely for their sake; you do it for YOUR sake,
    so you can be free. Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences
    of another person’s sin. Forgiveness is costly; we pay the price of the
    evil we forgive. Yet you’re going to live with those consequences whether
    you want to or not; your only choice is whether you will do so in the
    bitterness of unforgiveness or the freedom of forgiveness. That’s how
    Jesus forgave you – He took the consequences of your sin upon Himself.
    All true forgiveness is substitutional, because no-one really forgives
    without bearing the penalty of the other person’s sin.” (quote is from The Bondage Breaker by Neil Anderson pg 196)

    • There’s a lot of truth in that quote, Sandy. It reminds me of what Anne Lamott wrote: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Thanks a lot for your comments. God bless.

  • Munanga Munsaka

    Thanks Mr. Stiles for sharing on forgiveness. Most of the times if not all, I forgive people because God has forgiven me. God bless

    • You’re welcome, Munanga. Your motivation for forgiveness is a great one—and very biblical. Thanks for your comments.

  • I don’t know if God forgets our sins. But if the pain we go through because of them reforms us, I think then our sins are no longer held against us. I read somewhere that God only cares about who we are today, not who we were yesterday and not who we say we will be tomorrow.

    Believing in Jesus Christ means that you forgive those who you previously thought you couldn’t. I’m not very well versed in Bible topics, but I have read it. And as far as I recall it says that if you want to be forgiven you have to forgive in kind.

    • It’s always important, Evo, that we base our beliefs on God’s Word rather than on what seems best to us. Our sins are forgiven only when we believe in Jesus who died to pay for our sins. All of our sins—past, present, and future—can be paid for only through faith in Him. That is where forgiveness begins. If you’d like a great book in the Bible to read about this, read the Book of John. God bless.

      • Hi Wayne, my understanding is that we need to live by the teachings Jesus outlined for us.. or rather, if we believe in Jesus, then we would be compelled to live by his teachings.

        • Absolutely, yes, Evo. But we don’t live by these teachings in order to be forgiven. We could never earn forgiveness; it is only given by faith in Jesus who died for our sins. We obey Jesus’ teachings out of gratitude and love in response for what He has done for us.

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