Two unforgiving people sat in my office, defiant and afraid. Their lives had just been shattered. Janet had discovered a few days before that her husband, Gary, was involved in an affair with his secretary.
The painful revelation had magnified their differences and deepened the chasm between them. Now, it seemed the only thing they had in common was the inability to forgive.
Janet admitted with clipped irritation: "I know I should forgive him, but I can't do it." Gary quietly murmured, "I just can't forgive myself for the pain I have caused my family." The relationship seemed doomed.
Every day we face both transgressions that cry for forgiveness and God’s unrelenting demand to forgive. Most of us struggle to forgive those who harm us. And the greater the damage, the more difficult it is to forgive.
We often feel confused about what it means to forgive: "Should I just ignore the affair and somehow live as if it didn't happen?"
Other times we feel helpless to forgive those who have exacted a pound of flesh at our expense: "I’ve tried, but I just can't get rid of my bitterness."
Our confusion is natural. God’s relentless demand to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to offer one’s coat to an enemy is at times infuriating, at other times seems illogical, and is always costly. No wonder the requirement to forgive is often seen as noble but impractical, or, just as tragically, applied without wisdom or understanding.
Forgiving others is not an easy concept to understand, let alone to apply. But there is not a more important subject in the Christian life. Let us then explore (I wish I could say answer) the question, What does it mean to love my enemy: the one who sexually abused me; my angry and insensitive spouse; my friend who gossiped behind my back and dam- aged my reputation; or even my child who snarls at my offer to go for a walk?
Perhaps the best place to start in understanding what forgiveness is all about is to look at the way God forgives. God’s forgiveness of us is a passionate movement of strength and mercy toward us, the offenders.
His bold strength is the force of His holiness, which will not rest until all sin is destroyed and His glory shines as the sun. His bold mercy constantly beckons us to return to His embrace, a place of rest and joy. He forgives our sin, but strongly moves to destroy the cancer within us that limits our joy and vitality; simultaneously, He extends arms of mercy to receive us as we turn back to Him. He fully faces the damage we have done while offering us a taste of kindness intended to lead us to repentance and reconciliation.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus uses a dramatic picture to portray this kind of forgiveness: A master mercifully cancels an incomprehensible debt, freeing the debtor from imprisonment, shame, and destitution. The only debt that remains is to offer others a taste of redemptive love (Mt. 6:12-15; Mt. 18:21-35). Let me state a working definition of forgiveness, based on the scriptural picture of God’s forgiveness. To forgive another means to cancel a debt in order to provide a door of opportunity for (1) repentance and (2) restoration of the broken relationship.
But understanding what forgiveness means and finding the strength within ourselves to offer it are two different matters. How can we get beyond an intellectual understanding and learn to forgive in the way God does? First, we need to get a glimpse of the frightening, surprising wonder of having been forgiven.
After Janet discovered her husband’s affair, she became cold and indifferent toward him. Her energy was directed to survival. She could not bear (or so it seemed) to allow herself to feel the passion and tenderness required to forgive because her heart ached so deeply. But although she intended to remain aloof and superior, her occasional outbursts of punitive rage mocked her efforts.
The only prospect of forgiving Gary came when she realized divorce was the only other option. She was trapped between rage and reality. Rage allowed her to detach and survive; reality called her to an awareness that she did not want to raise her children, support herself, or face life alone. Forgiveness seemed like the only way back to a normal life, but forgiveness also seemed like a door that would open her heart to death.
Janet’s desire for a return to normalcy was not strong enough to provide the energy to forgive. Assume for the moment that she is a Christian and knows something about God’s forgiveness. What will it take for her to offer true forgiveness to Gary, a forgiveness that goes beyond pragmatic concerns?
When Jesus told His disciples that He expected them to forgive someone who hurt them time and time again, they knew instinctively that they didn't have the strength to obey. "Increase our faith!" was their reply to his admonition to forgive "seventy times seven" times. He then promised: "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you" (Lk. 17:3-6). What does faith have to do with forgiveness? What did the Lord mean when He said that even puny faith is sufficient to forgive again and again and again? Let me add one more thought before we tackle this question.
A forgiving heart offers to others a glimpse of the mysterious wonder of God’s character. The energy to serve others a taste of God will be no greater than our own taste of God’s forgiveness. Jesus said to an arrogant legalist, Simon, the Pharisee: "He who has been forgiven little loves little" (Lk. 7:47). Jesus seems to be saying that the energy to forgive is directly related to our awareness of how much we have been forgiven, of how deeply we deserve God’s condemnation. Simon was impressed with his own command of godliness; consequently, he was not drawn to the One who can forgive sin. The same is essentially true for us. What kind of faith, then, energizes both our ability to receive and offer forgiveness?
A true view of ourselves. Faith, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, makes us "certain of what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1, emphasis added). The truth is that I am far worse than I appear; I am far worse than I even know. I need faith to see my own sin because my deceit makes me compare my sin with that of others and blinds me to my own need for forgiveness. Faith occasionally enables me to glimpse the depths of why I need God’s ongoing mercy.
A true view of God. I also need faith to face the most incomprehensible fact: His glory moves toward me at the depths of my greatest rage against Him. He moves toward me with searing kindness and strong, open arms; with eyes that weep with delight at my return. Through faith I see beyond the veil of my presumption of innocence and into the heart of the Father who forgives sin.
Once we have experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness, we will find the energy to cancel others' debts. A glimpse of His mercy quickens my faltering steps to offer to others a taste of it. And we will not stop with offering forgiveness, but, following God’s example, we will pursue the one who hurt us for the purpose of reconciliation.
The driving passion of a forgiving heart is the desire to see, touch, taste, feel, and smell reconciliation. Most of us have experienced moments of tension with a friend. Though nothing is said, the air is heavy with an unknown, unstated offense. A forgiving heart seeks the kind of rest and joy we experience when the air is finally cleared and hearts are reconnected. Reconciliation is restored peace, true shalom, wholeness and health returned to something that was broken and diseased.
Reconciliation is costly for both the one offended and the offender. The offended forgives (cancels) the debt by not terminating the relationship, as might be reasonable and expected given the offense. Instead, he offers mercy and strength in order to restore the relationship. The cost for the offended is in withholding judgment and instead offering the possibility of restoration.
The cost for the offender is repentance. Reconciliation is never one-sided. (I forgive you and then you go scot-free, enabled to do harm again and again without any consequence.) Instead, forgiveness is an offer, but not the granting, of reconciliation.
Jesus said: "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,' forgive him" (Lk. 17:3-4). Is Jesus saying that forgiveness is conditional? That we are not to forgive unless the offender repents?
If that was His meaning, it would contradict His other teaching on forgiveness (see Mt. 6:12, Mt. 6:14-15; Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37). Clearly, we are to forgive, irrespective of the other person’s response. What I believe He meant in the Luke 17 passage was that we are not to grant reconciliation until the person repents.
We see a picture of this principle in Jesus' cry from the Cross, "Father, forgive them." When the Lord forgave those who crucified Him, did He grant to each of them, at that moment, a place of eternal intimacy with His Father? I don't think so. I believe He was freeing them from the immediate consequences of killing Him. They deserved the kind of judgment that occurred in the Old Testament when Israelites touched the Ark of the Covenant: instant death. Jesus forestalled their punishment in asking for them to be forgiven. But they would have had to respond in repentance and faith, as did the thief who was crucified beside Jesus, in order for God to grant reconciliation.
What can we learn here? We must always offer reconciliation when, in the face of a rebuke, the offender demonstrates repentance: deep, heart-changing acknowledgment of sin and a radical redirection of life. But we need not extend restoration and peace to someone who has not repented.
A forgiving heart cancels the debt but does not lend new money until repentance occurs. A forgiving heart opens the door to any who knock. But entry into the home, that is, the heart, does not occur until the muddy shoes and dirty coat have been taken off. The offender must repent if true intimacy and reconciliation are ever to take place. That means that cheap forgiveness—peace at any cost—is not true forgiveness.
It is the passionate desire for reconciliation that enables us to offer true forgiveness. Forgiveness that is offered without the deep desire for the offender to be restored to God, and to the one who was harmed, is at best antiseptic and mechanical. At worst, it is pharisaical self-righteousness. Forgiveness is far, far more than a business transaction; it is the sacrifice of a heartbroken father who weeps over the loss of his child and longs to see the child restored to life and love and goodness.
Further, a forgiving heart does not wait passively for repentance to occur. Instead, it offers the offender a taste of mercy and strength designed to expose and destroy sin.
A forgiving heart hates sin and longs for reconciliation. Therefore, it works to destroy sin and offers strong incentives to repent and return to relationship. It offers "good food" that exposes the sinner’s emptiness and tantalizes him to return to the Father’s fold.
Paul tells us to offer food and drink to our enemy: "In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Ro. 12:20-21). The idea of heaping burning coals on a head is a mixed metaphor that seems to symbolize God’s smoldering, hot justice (Ps. 140:9-10). Yet it is also a symbol of mercy: As a sign of favor, Bedouins gave hot coals to someone who was without fire. And it is a metaphor of shame—coals on one’s head turn the face red.
What is the point of this complex metaphor? I understand it to mean that offering goodness has two effects. It conquers evil by surprising and shaming the sinner, and it invites the evildoer to pursue life.
Surprise disrupts the enemy’s expectations. The enemy usually has an idea, even if it’s vague and unconscious, about how his victim will respond to his sin. Having his attack greeted with kindness and strength throws his perspective into disarray and foils his plans. The more radical the kindness, the more likely that his response will crumble in uncertainty.
Shame is the gift of exposure—it gives the enemy an opportunity to look deep inside to see what rules his heart. The curtain lifts, and he sees himself as the wizard of a sham kingdom. In that sense, shame is a severe mercy.
Every time we give our enemy a gift of "good food" we expose his sin in the light of God’s goodness. What does it mean to offer our enemy "good food"? Good food is any gift that simultaneously reveals both God’s mercy and strength. What will that look like in practice? The answer will likely be different in every situation. Let me give a few examples.
You might handle an angry, shaming attack directed against you by flight ("I'm sorry; I'll try and do better") or fight ("How dare you question my motives! What is your problem?"). In either case, the shaming attack worked—it unnerved you and gained control over your heart. In contrast, a response of "good food" would opt for neither flight nor fight. One woman said to her angry, shaming husband: "Honey, when you speak to me so angrily, it reminds me of how strong I know you can be. But when you try to bully me, it makes you appear weak." Her response pierced his rage and invited him to interact in a strong, passionate, and tender manner. Her words were strong—she exposed his hideous rage; and tender—with passion and grace, she invited him to move toward her. Good food is neither bitter (strong without mercy) nor saccharine (tender without strength).
I know a woman who struggles with her negative next-door neighbor. Every time her neighbor visits she finds fault with something. For months my friend quietly endured the assaults. Finally, after much thought and prayer, she respectfully and kindly asked her, "Jane, you always seem to be struggling with some injustice. How do you deal with all the inner pain you must feel?" My friend’s good food was redemptive curiosity that highlighted both the neighbor’s negativism and her inner struggle.
An enemy faced with the surprise and shame that result from being offered good food will respond with either fury or stunned disbelief. In either case, change will occur—either repentance or greater evil. The repentant heart comes out of the woods, declares defeat, and asks for honorable terms of surrender. The hardened heart comes out of the woods and brandishes a sword, declaring a call to arms. Evil can then be addressed and fought directly.
We are to offer others a taste of the Cross, which is a demonstration of both wrath and mercy. It is both a warning (God hates sin) and an invitation (embrace God’s goodness and come under the blood of protection). To offer forgiveness we must have the tenderness to show mercy and the strength to intrude into the cancerous arrogance of the heart, knowing that the sin, if left untreated, will destroy the sinner’s heart.
Forgiveness involves more than merely releasing bitterness or saying, "I forgive you." It requires us to deeply ponder certain questions: "What does it mean to give this person a taste of God’s character in both strength and mercy? How can I feed him a taste of goodness that will surprise and shame his wickedness?" Let me briefly describe what happened with Gary and Janet.
Janet was furious. Gary wallowed in self-contempt. The marriage was a mess. Yet over time the Spirit of God opened Janet’s eyes to see how often she subtly betrayed Gary by undercutting his strength and putting down his ideas. Gary began to see how often he set Janet up to make a decision and then hated her for being knowledgeable and strong.
Before the affair their relationship looked good on the outside, but it was riddled with hidden sin. The affair was a turbulent earthquake that brought the deceitful, decaying remains to the surface. It compelled them to face sin that would eventually have robbed their lives of joy and the energy to love.
Janet was able to forgive Gary when she realized her sin was just as grievous as his. She was not the cause of the affair, but her attitude had invited Gary to look elsewhere for involvement. Janet’s heart was softened and also strengthened. She began to note when Gary tried to put her in charge. She continued to forgive him—to offer him a good gift—by gently turning decisions back to him.
Gary came to see his inability to forgive himself as a subtle excuse to justify his self-serving insecurities. As long as he was self-pitying and weak, Janet would never expect him to take initiative. He saw God’s forgiveness as sufficient and chose to see that his angry wife had been injured by his cowardice. He began to show kindness to her when she treated him with contempt. The growing strength he demonstrated by getting close to her sin in order to hear her hurt stunned her and elicited quiet gratitude.
Gary’s gentle, strong intrusion was a gift of forgiveness. Janet’s openness to receive his involvement was a gift of forgiveness. The couple changed when they came to grips with the darkness of their own sin; the passion of the Father’s eyes and the strength of His arms; and the offensive, intrusive, disruptive goodness of offering bold love.