Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. - Ephesians 4:32
How do I forgive someone when they have done something very wrong to me? This good question reveals a cultural misunderstanding of what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is not ignoring an offense, or tolerating something or someone that has hurt you. Forgiveness is not pretending that something bad didn’t happen, nor is it saying, “It’s really not that big of a deal.” In short, forgiveness is not tolerance. Here are three ways that make forgiveness different.
First, forgiveness is truthful. The first step of forgiveness is a clear and honest assessment of the wrong committed. Forgiveness looks the wrong squarely in the face and affirms that it is sinful, and harmful. Now we must be careful to judge a deed according to God’s standard in Scripture and not simply by how we feel. But unlike tolerance, forgiveness does not tolerate evil. Forgiveness speaks truthfully about sin and the wreckage it creates.
Secondly, forgiveness is to “let loose.” Forgiveness means that even though I was hurt by this action, I choose to not hold onto feelings of bitterness or hatred. Unlike tolerance, forgiveness does not mean that I must trust a person or allow them to hurt me again. Instead forgiveness makes the hard, and difficult choice of choosing to bless our enemy instead of curse them. Every time hatred or bitterness arises in the heart, forgiveness chooses to give those feelings up to God in prayer and “let them loose” to Him.
Thirdly, forgiveness is love. We tolerate what we hate or dislike. I don’t like kale, but my wife does, so I tolerate it. God does not call us to tolerate our enemies but to love them. Forgiveness is how we express love to our enemies. Therefore there is more to Christian forgiveness than letting go of negative feelings. Scripture calls us to make a positive move of love toward those who have hurt us. The simplest way to do this is to pray for their blessing. In prayer, God will often reveal another way that we can show love. In 2006 a gunman massacred five Amish schoolchildren in their one room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA. He then turned the gun on himself. How did the Amish community respond? As they were burying their five murdered children, they began to raise money to help support the newly widowed woman and orphaned children of the deceased gunman. That is the supernatural love of Christ!
Unlike tolerance, forgiveness is difficult work that takes time and prayer. Furthermore it is impossible without the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit. Let us continue to pray for his grace and mercy to forgive others as he has forgiven us.
The Rev. Kurt Hein