Few actions in life are more unnatural to human nature than forgiveness. For me there is nothing so beautiful, so arresting as when I see unconditional forgiveness extended in life.
Several years ago, a person in my life wronged me, and when I spoke with her about it, she did not respond as I had hoped. I was left struggling to forgive her and not quite able to let it go. I found myself having to decide to forgive her again—over and over—every day, for months on end. What I really wanted was a confrontation. I wanted to tell her face-to-face how much she had hurt me. I wanted to hear why she would behave as she had. I wanted to know she understood my pain.
One day as I was praying about it, I felt God ask me a question: “Natalie, do you love her unconditionally?”
“Yes, Lord,” I said.
“Then I want you to forgive her unconditionally.”
Working things out is a luxury in life. Sometimes due to lack of repentance, or miscommunication, or woundings, or anger, or a physical distance, or even a death, we don’t have the ability to talk things through, but we can forgive anyway and experience the same measure of freedom without the other party participating in a more helpful way.
In my life I have spent far too much time treating forgiveness like it is a package deal with something else: Forgiveness + Working Things Out; Forgiveness + Reconciliation; Forgiveness + Restoration of Trust. Increasingly I am learning that it is not.
The Bible gives a beautiful image of God’s forgiveness of us. When God forgives, He sends our sin—the ways we wrong Him—as far away from us as possible; as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). On earth, north and south meet at fixed places. It’s possible to walk so far north you end up going south again without changing direction. East and west, on the other hand, never meet. To send my sin away from me as far as the east is from the west means to send it infinitely away; every day it is farther from God’s mind than the last.
I found myself wondering how I—who call myself a Christian, literally a small visage of Christ on earth—could embrace the unconditional forgiveness of God and yet not extend it to others? So I chose to forgive her, unconditionally this time, and in doing so I gave up the hope or the desire to ever talk about it with her. I don’t need to talk about it again, because there is nothing to talk about. I love her. I forgave her. When I look at her I no longer see the way she wronged me. In my eyes it is as far away from her as the east is from the west, thus I am able to interact with her just as though the offense never happened.
The truth is: we can only forgive because God first forgave us. True forgiveness is an extension of pure, unconditional love.
To paraphrase Luke 7:47, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much, but he who has been forgiven little, loves little.” I think you could also read that: “He who has been forgiven much, forgives much, but he who has forgiven little, forgives little.”
God does not expect us to model what we have not experienced. I know I would not have been able to forgive others if I hadn’t first experienced forgiveness—particularly God’s forgiveness. If you are struggling with forgiving a person, ask God for a new revelation of the forgiveness He extends you.
I am sure there are people out there who are naturally gracious and feel like extending forgiveness right away, but I am not one of them. Forgiveness is a choice. I would never forgive anyone if I waited to do so whenever I felt like it. Personally, I never feel like forgiving a person, at least not at the beginning. Every single time I start the forgiveness process it is despite my feelings, but God is honored by my obedience. The act of forgiveness is an act of worship.
It is important to remember that forgiveness is not the same as trust. Forgiveness is a gift that can only be freely given; trust must be earned. There are people in our lives who are unsafe because of their inability to control themselves—they may be alcoholics, addicts, abusers, molesters, angry, controlling, or another dangerous behavior. It is good to forgive the wrongs they have done—even the heinous ones. It is unwise, however, to then treat the unsafe person as though he or she will never be unsafe again. I have friends who were molested and yet, by a miracle of God, were able to forgive completely, but they would never leave a child alone with that person in the future.
The act of forgiveness does not validate the wrongdoing; it does not call evil “good”. When God forgave me, He didn’t put a gold star on each of my sins and pretend they were something other than wretched and depraved. When we forgive others who have hurt us, we are not denying that they sinned, or that their sin against us wasn’t hurtful or evil. We are simply releasing them because God asked us to do so; because if we don’t, the unforgiveness will eat us alive like a vicious cancer.
Forgiveness is a deeply personal and individual response; there is no set formula. It is possible to extend complete forgiveness to another, to get to the point where the wound in our heart to be so healed it’s easy to forget it’s even there. But that is no more valid a response than the person who is still choosing to forgive minute by minute and hour by hour.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the forgiveness process—experiencing God’s forgiveness, choosing to forgive despite your feelings, laying down your offense daily—as long as you stay in the process. God is faithful, and somehow, in a great mystery, He will bind up your heart and set you free. All He cares about is your heart. If you choose to forgive, He will take care of the rest.