What is our calling with regard to forgiving those who have harmed us? If forgiveness doesn’t require forgetting, what does it require? How do I know if I’ve forgiven someone for harming me? These are some of the questions we explore in today’s episode. The Bible’s treatment of the subject of forgiveness is far more nuanced and complex than many people acknowledge.
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First, I want to take a few minutes to follow up on last week’s subject of Forgive and Forget.
If there is still some lingering doubt about maybe we really are called to forgive and forget, consider Jesus for a moment.
Jesus is immensely forgiving, however he knows nothing of forgive and forget.
Consider the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus in Luke 22. Peter denies Jesus three times… [pause]
Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends. There’s a sense in which you have to pause and just let that sink in.
Q: What would it be like for you if one of your closest friends betrayed you? Sadly, I know that for many of you this is not a hypothetical question. You’ve experienced it.
And Jesus experienced it.
In Luke 22 we read that Peter was questioned three times by people who knew he was associated with Jesus.
And after Peter says, “I don’t know him, I don’t know this Jesus”, v. 60-61 says And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And Jesus turned… and looked… at Peter.
Q: Do you not sense the intensity of this look? I’m not saying it was an unkind look.
The eyes Peter saw were immensely kind, but this couldn’t be further from forgive and forget.
In fact, this look that Jesus gave Peter actually tells us quite a bit about what forgiveness is. It’s not forgive and forget. It’s forgive and redeem.
So, put this thought on hold for a minute. Because we are going to return to it, but first I want to identify the core elements of forgiveness. What is forgiveness?
#1 — Naming the harm that was done.
You can’t forgive what you have not named as harmful and wrong.
Now, I’m not saying that you need to tell the person who harmed you what they did. Please don’t. Not yet.
I’m talking about naming the harm that was done to yourself. Just admitting it to yourself.
This first element is about you and you. It’s not about having a conversation with the person who harmed you.
I often hear the following two sentences from people. “I’ve forgiven my father. He did the best he could.” Those two sentences can’t both be true.
If he did the best he could, you have nothing to forgive.
If you’ve forgiven your father, then he had to do something to need forgiveness. You don’t forgive someone for doing the best they could.
So the first step in the process of forgiveness is really confession. By this, I mean that in order to forgive another person, first you must confess what happened.
The Greek word for confession is the word Homo legaio—speaking sameness. To confess is to speak sameness with God about what is true. About what actually happened.
Saying the same thing as God—this is the opposite of denial. You have to say the same thing as God not only about the ways you’ve harmed others (your sin) but also about the ways others have done harm to you.
If you refuse to confess the ways that others have harmed you then you are living in denial just as much as if you refuse to confess your own sin.
We go to great lengths to avoid truthfully acknowledging how our heart have been wounded. Many of us would rather spend a week in jail than truly acknowledge the nature of how we have been harmed.
We minimize our wounds, we ignore them, we say things to our heart like “love covers over a multitude of sins.” Oh, the excuses are legion.
You can’t forgive until you’ve named the harm. And the harm is almost always much worse than you think.
So, the first part of forgiveness is naming the harm that was done… but please hear this next two words… with particularity.
You have to be specific.
It’s impossible to forgive your father for hurting you. [pause] It’s impossible. Why?
Because “hurting you” is so abstract that it’s meaningless and becomes a form of denial. You can only forgive particular things.
You can forgive your father for getting drunk the day you graduated from high school and missing your graduation. But you can’t forgive your father for hurting you.
You can forgive your father for making comments about your developing body as you sat on the stairs in a beautiful dress waiting for your boyfriend to pick you up for prom. But you can’t forgive your father for hurting you.
You can forgive your father for leaving his stack of pornographic movies in a place where you would find them as a 12 year old. But you can’t forgive your father for hurting you.
We can’t forgive another until we admit how much they have hurt us.
God models this throughout the OT when he repeatedly and relentlessly and thoroughly names how much he has been hurt by Israel.
We also see the necessity of naming the harm that was done in the story of Jospeh.
The story of Joseph is the longest and most detailed forgiveness and reconciliation story in the Bible. It spans 13 chapters in Genesis.
And in Genesis 45, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, do you know how he does it? This is what he says, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!
“The one you sold into Egypt”? Come on Joseph. Why are you still so bitter? It’s been years since they betrayed you.
Why haven’t you forgiven them? It looks like you’ve been harboring a root of bitterness all this time in Egypt.
What about forgive and forget Joseph? Why are you throwing their sin back in their face? What about grace?
To be clear, Joseph is not launching into a tirade or recounting a litany of his brothers’ mistreatment of him.
But he is identifying himself to his brothers who have kept a secret.
If you are interested in pursuing the process of forgiveness and reconciliation with someone who has harmed you, you can follow Joseph’s footsteps. The first step is to name yourself well the way Joseph names himself well.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting you speak it aloud to the person who has harmed you like Jospeh did. I’m just asking, Can you name yourself to yourself?
I am your cousin, the one you sexually abused.
I am your son, the one you neglected so you could work all the time.
I am your daughter, the one you made sexually suggestive comments about.
Q: Can you do that? Can you name the truth unflinchingly? Again, unlike Joseph, I’m not suggesting that you say any of this to your abuser. That’s a different podcast.
How to engage others with the hope of reconciliation is another matter.
Joseph is very gracious to his brothers, but he does not shrink back from naming the harm that was done to him.
Many people today consider this “blaming” others. But there is a difference b/t blaming and naming.
Indeed, the narrative structure—that is, the sequence of events (sequence is very important in Hebrew narrative)—suggests that you cannot forgive until you have named.
Forgiveness and reconciliation will come in Genesis 50, but first there must be naming of harm.
So that’s the first component of the process of forgiveness—naming the harm.
Element 2: The process of forgiveness requires a remembering not only of how the other has harmed us, but a remembering of the gracious welcome and embrace of God in the midst of how we are presently doing harm to others.
The motivation for forgiveness cannot be obligation. God is no more interested in obligation than he is in oppressing the poor.
The motivation for forgiveness is a remembering of the reconciliation between us and God and therefore a burning desire for reconciliation between you and the person who has done harm.
In other words, we can put it in a simple phrase: the motivating force behind forgiveness must be a violent hatred of evil.
Only the energy of hatred can propel you on the journey of forgiveness.
When you hate evil, then you will likewise hate all things that divide and damage, all things that work against a restored and honest relationship.
This is especially important in sustaining the desire to forgive when the one who harmed you isn’t repentant or interested in true reconciliation.
This is a good place to return to the story of Peter and Jesus. Summarize what you said earlier.
Now, how does the story unfold? What happens precisely because Jesus refused to forgive and forget?
What happens is that Peter is cut to the heart about what he has done… and he goes outside and weeps bitterly.
But that’s not the end of the story.
After Jesus’ resurrection he and Peter have a very intense, and quite lovely, conversation. It is a “forgive and remember” kind of conversation.
In the conversation, Jesus appoints Peter to be a shepherd to the people of God, to the earliest Christians.
Here’s the point: Forgive and forget precludes the possibility of repentance and therefore redemption.
But if you are willing to forgive and remember, then it leaves open the possibility of redemption: there might be a moment in which your eyes meet the eyes of your betrayer and they are cut to the heart like Peter and weep for how they have harmed you.
But that moment can never come if you forgive and forget, which is not forgiveness at all.
If you forgive and remember, then there is the possibility that your offender may be willing to receive the pearl of you naming how they have harmed you… which opens the possibility for true repentance and therefore redemption.
We can put it this way. Forgive and remember makes redemption possible which means that evil does not win.
This whole discussion about forgiveness has to be heard under the category of How Much Do You Hate Evil.
Forgive and forget allows evil to run rampant… unchecked.
Forgive and remember creates the possibility for true repentance and redemption, which is another way of saying the reversal of what evil intended.
So, your understanding of forgiveness is as simple as “How Much Hatred Do You Have In Your Heart?” How much hatred of evil. How committed are you to undoing the work of evil in this world?
Element 3: The third element involved in the process of forgiving someone is to continually attend to the posture of your heart toward the person who has hurt you.
What do I mean by the posture of your heart?
Well, your posture can be one of contempt, or it can be one of longing for their repentance and imagining them owning their sin and confessing it to you and weeping over how they have harmed you.
Forgiveness is a refusal to make the other person pay. It is a refusal to have a posture of contempt and condemnation for the offender. This is the costly part of forgiveness!
In forgiveness, you are cancelling the debt owed to you. Canceling the debt means “I will engage you without you owing me anything.”
But here’s the thing: you can’t cancel the debt until you have faced the size of the debt itself.
You can’t cancel the debt until you have named and seen the cost of the full weight of the harm done to you.
As Dan Allender puts it, “you have to enter into your own heartache for the wound that was caused. And you have to enter into your own anger for the wound that was caused.”
And most of us have very little interest in really sitting with and owning the significance and scope of the debt, the heartache and anger that result from the harm done to us.
If you can’t honestly name the horror of what’s happened to you, then it’s going to impossible to forgive.
But, let’s be clear, what’s blocking you is not a spirit of unforgiveness, it’s not hard heartedness or bitterness; it’s that you don’t want to feel the searing pain of the wound inflicted upon you.
And you can’t possibly forgive your offender until you feel the full weight of the harm done.
So, a simple summary sentence: Forgiveness is costly.
If forgiveness is so costly, why is it a good idea to forgive? Well, a lot of reasons. But one of them is that it is far, far more costly not to forgive.
When you refuse to forgive your offender, your heart will become hard and cold.
A common alternative to forgiveness is to attempt to cut the offender out of your life, out of your awareness. It is to cut them off from humanity.
But if you do this, you have turned your heart away from desire and cut yourself off from your own humanity. It’s a posture of “they don’t even matter to me. I don’t care about them. Forget them.”
This posture of “I don’t even care about them” is actually an attempt to numb your desires:
your desire for the offender to own up to the harm they’ve done,
your desire to hurt the other person, your desire for vengeance,
your desire for reconciliation… whatever combination of desires you have with regard to this person who has hurt you.
And when you begin to shut down these desires, your heart is beginning to harden.
Whenever you do that, you become someone who is less human, someone who is controlled by the harm done against you.
A heart to forgive is a heart that desires to do good—that moves into the heart of another to do good, to name truth, and to invite repentance
Here’s how pastor Tim Keller puts it:
“Many people would say [that forgiveness] feels like a kind of death. Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong death of bitterness and cynicism. Forgiveness means bearing the cost instead of making the wrongdoer bear it, so you can reach out in love to seek your enemy’s renewal and change.
Do you hear the desire in that sentence? You are longing for your enemy to be changed!
So, element #3 of the process of forgiveness is continually refocusing the posture of your heart toward the other person.
Element 4 of the process of forgiveness is simply the word “Repeat.”
Keep on doing elements 1, 2, and 3. The point is that forgiveness is a process.
Dan Allender says it like this: “Forgiveness is not a snapshot, it’s not a photograph; it’s a movie… it’s not a mere event.”
Let me read a paragraph from Christian neuroscientist Curt Thompson. I’ll read it and then unpack it. This is how Curt Thompson puts it:
So often the very idea of forgiveness is reduced to something we practice as a brief abstract mental function, a 2.5-second sweep of our mind in which we think or utter the words “I forgive you.”
We frame forgiveness as something that consists of a single act that happens in a finite (and brief) period of time; once it’s done, it’s done.
From the perspective of memory and emotion, much of this is our attempt to reduce the felt pain of the wound we have sustained. It is an attempt to avoid the emotional distress that remembering fosters.
What’s he saying?
First, he’s saying that forgiveness is not a 2.5 second mental act in which we say to ourselves, “I forgive my father for hurting me.” That’s not it.
Why? Because that’s cheap. It doesn’t honor the severity of the wound.
Second, he’s saying that forgiveness is NOT a single act that happens in a moment of time. It’s NOT that. You can’t “forgive someone and then it’s over.”
Third, he’s saying that the reason we are attracted to a 2.5 second, “I forgive my father for hurting me” is because 2.5 second forgiveness allows us to avoid the pain of remembering.
As Robyn said last week, if we are not called to forgive and forget what are we called to? To forgive and remember.
There can be neither forgiveness nor reconciliation without remembering.
I want to talk about one more reason that forgiveness can never be a one time event.
Whatever act of harm you are forgiving, it is likely that you are going to understand more about that harm next year than you do this year. And so you’re going to have something else to forgive.
As you continue to engage your story, you are going to come to realize that those sexually suggestive comments that your Dad made when you were 14 years old were actually far more damaging and dark than you realized, they have tentacles that extend into more areas of your life.
And that they have wreaked havoc in your relationships, in your sexuality… that they weren’t “no big deal” that is wasn’t just “Dad being Dad.”
Perhaps you’ve named that it was wrong for him to snap your bra as you were headed out to school, but you haven’t yet named that he knew you were sleeping with your boyfriend and didn’t say anything because he actually liked it.
The more you engage your story, the more you will understand the harm done to you and the more you will be called to forgive.
You never stop forgiving. Forgiveness is never past tense.
Why? Because I know more about the ways my parents sinned against me now than I knew even a couple years ago.
So, I had forgiven them for many things but now there are new levels of forgiveness required.
Let’s address some common questions that often come up when we engage the subject of forgiveness.
Q: If I truly forgive someone, does that mean that I won’t hurt anymore? Of course not. If it’s been five years and you don’t hurt anymore, then you have lost compassion for yourself and others.
Q: If I truly forgive someone, does that mean that I won’t be angry anymore? Boy, I hope not.
The desire for revenge is not all bad. Part of what’s driving your desire for revenge is actually quite holy—because it grows out of a good longing for justice.
So, depending on the severity of the harm and depending on whether or not there has been repentance on the part of the other, anger can be quite holy.
If the other person has not repented, and you have lost all sense of anger, then your once-hot desire for justice has cooled off. And in that sense, you have lost your connection to God’s passion for justice and righteousness.
Please hear the implication: much of what is considered godly in our modern churches couldn’t be further from it.
If you’ve lost anger in the name of forgiveness, then you’ve lost a heart for justice—other Christians may extol you for this, but it’s actually quite tragic and is evidence not of your holiness but of your ability to deaden your heart and disconnect from what is actually quite glorious about you.
Now two closing comments.
# 1 This is not anything close to an exhaustive treatment of the subject of forgiveness. There is much more to say than can be said right now.
# 2 This episode is NOT about reconciliation.
Reconciliation is another topic.
There can be no reconciliation without a heart to forgive, however, there can be forgiveness without reconciliation.
In fact, as Dan Allender puts it, “forgiveness may bring peace, but it may bring more war.”
That’s up to the other person. And that’s another podcast episode.
If you want to understand how to engage with those who have harmed you, I recommend taking a look at the last three chapters of the book Bold Love by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman.