How do you know you have forgiven someone? How can you be certain that you’ve forgiven someone who has wronged you?
Most of the time I think there probably is a moment when we make the decision to forgive someone who has wronged us. Whether it is an immediate reaction, a belated decision or the realization at the end of a process, at some point we decide, “Yes, God being my helper, I will forgive that person”.
Sometimes it is relatively easy to be sure that we’ve forgiven once that decision has been made. What the person may have done is a contained sin that affects us possibly on several levels but, at the end of the day, it is something that can be left in the past. But sometimes it isn’t that easy. Sometimes we might forgive someone, only to find that the sin they committed against us continues to affect us in ways we might not have expected. Sometimes we see their sin affecting not only ourselves but others, for whom we care deeply. Often it happens that a person’s sin against us is not an aberration, but an expression of something that is an integral part of who they are. Even once we have forgiven them for that action, we find that all our interactions with them have the echoes of that sin within them. We realize that as long as we know this person, it is likely that they will hurt us in the same way again and again. It can feel a bit like we forgave too quickly: there was so much more to forgive! Are we still committed to forgiving? Do we have to start all over again?
Sometimes we might forgive or think we have, only to have the feelings of ‘un-forgiveness’ emerge in us—anger, an acute sense of injustice, outrage, fear, pain and so forth. What can we say about ourselves? Have we forgiven this person? If we thought we had forgiven them, has forgiveness fled? Is it transient? Do I have to go through the process of forgiving them all over again?
Two things have been particularly useful to me as I have been thinking through all this. (I’m sure you’ll have things to add that will help us as we reflect on this, so please add your comments.) One of those useful things was the realization that my forgiveness is not of the same quality as God’s forgiveness. God’s free and extravagant forgiveness of our sins in Christ is the basis of our forgiveness of each other. We don’t forgive because we are nice people or because pain doesn’t bother us; we forgive because Jesus died on a cross for our wickedness and we needed God’s forgiveness so desperately. Our lives depend on this forgiveness, and so because we value forgiveness for ourselves, we forgive others. This is the basis of Jesus’ instructions to us to forgive. But my forgiveness is not like God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of me is complete and irrevocable: it is a powerful word from God that changes my status for eternity. My forgiveness is imperfect and far less powerful.
So we are not automatically good at forgiving just because we are committed to forgiving others. Like loving others and every other virtue, it’s the kind of thing we have to work at and get better at. By the grace of God, as he transforms us, we’ll be better ‘forgivers’ the more we grow in Christ. So I might need to re-forgive someone for the same sin, or I might need to ask myself whether I have forgiven them at all. I may even find that I did forgive them, but that there was more forgiveness to give. Human forgiveness is an imperfect copy of God’s forgiveness.
I found this useful for understanding my forgiveness as it helped me realize that I need to check up on my forgiveness from time to time. I need to ask myself how I am going with maintaining an attitude of forgiveness towards this person or that person. I can’t trust the quality of my forgiveness. With God’s help, however, I can be committed to improving and sustaining my forgiveness of someone.
The second thing I realized was that forgiveness has a collection of activities associated with it. So I could pour energy into those activities and be assured that I was working at forgiving someone instead of getting caught up in the puzzle of whether or not I had forgiven someone and was struggling like a breathless fish in a net. Our hearts are mysterious things, and, with enough introspection, we can doubt almost everything about ourselves. So I’ve found that once I’ve made the decision to forgive, I need to look outside of myself and focus on my attitudes towards and treatment of the person who wronged me. I can strengthen my desire to genuinely forgive by acting in ways that move in that direction. Not seeking vengeance but seeking good for another person is one example. It moves away from trying to ‘pay back’ the wrong or looking for them to be taught a lesson, which are the kinds of actions that not forgiving produces. Asking myself whether I really want the person I am forgiving to receive God’s blessing is a good diagnostic question here because that is where forgiveness turns our hearts. We can’t simultaneously forgive someone and seek vengeance at the same time. So I could pour all my energy into praying for this person and thinking of good things to ask God to give them, and know that I was working hard at forgiving. The prayer is not for God to change them or make them a better person, but for him to bring them good things (being very specific about what those ‘good things’ might be). (I am not sure that I could pray like this if I hadn’t made a decision to at least want to forgive someone.)
Associated with this is constant prayer—partly because this kind of forgiveness is a Christian activity and no-one can do anything Christian all by themselves. We need to depend on God to transform us by his Spirit through his word. Prayer is a practical way of depending on God. And we need what God gives us—his comfort, his peaceable wisdom, his encouragement and his truth—as we imitate his forgiveness in order to persevere. Something like true forgiveness for a sin that has really hurt us is not an easy thing for anyone. We must not think it cost Jesus nothing to say “Father, forgive them” as he was unfairly executed. Platitudes, external motivators, guilt—none of these will genuinely help us here. Only the supernatural kind of help that God gives us can help us persevere with this supernatural activity of forgiveness.
Have I really forgiven X? Have you? How would we know? What do you think?