The nuts and bolts of forgiveness

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?

21 thoughts on “The nuts and bolts of forgiveness

  1. Wonderful stuff, Jennie. Like its parent love, the decision to forgive is one that has to be taken daily.

    Although the ending is more frightening than comforting, I am always helped in this regard when I call to mind the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18

  2. One barometer is how quick we are to forgive. Andree Seu, writing for World magazine: “Forgiveness is a brutal mathematical transaction done with fully engaged faculties. It’s my pain instead of yours. I eat the debt. I absorb the misery I wanted to dish out on you, and you go scot-free. Beware the forgiveness that is tendered soon after injury; be suspicious. Real forgiveness needs a time lag, for it is wrought in private agony before it ever comes to public amnesty. All true acts of courage are thus done in secret.”

    Speaking for myself, I often feel that I must extend forgiveness immediately (and vice-versa), or else I’m somehow only compounding things, short-circuiting the process. But, forgiveness is a process, and one that often takes time.

    (For those interested, read the whole article here:

  3. I was helped greatly recently by attending a course run by Peacewise and reading a book by Ken Sande called “The Peacemaker”. I highly recommend both the book and the course.

    The whole book is very helpful in terms of providing a biblical framework for thinking and acting christianly in conflict situations, and there is a particularly helpful explanation of the act of forgiveness.

    I found these points in particular useful:

    – forgiveness is not a feeling, it is an act of the will
    – forgiveness is not forgetting; forgetting is a passive process, whereas forgiving is an active process that involves a conscious choice and a deliberate course of action
    – forgiveness is not excusing, it begins with an honest acknowledgment that a wrong has been committed.

    Ken Sande suggests that forgiveness may be described as a decision to make four promises:

    (1) I will not dwell on this incident.
    (2) I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.
    (3) I will not talk to others about this incident.
    (4) I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

    So it may be some time before you can honestly get to the position of making these four promises.

    Also, in the situation where the person is wronging you in an ongoing way, Sande helpfully points out that to keep forgiving that person may be not be the right thing to do for their sake. (Actually, if it is an ongoing wrong, you can’t really make those four promises. You are really ‘overlooking’ the wrong, rather than ‘forgiving’.) In other words, quite often it is important to challenge the behaviour for the good of the other person (both for the sake of their godliness and the sake of their relationships with others). This then paves the way for repentance and forgiveness to follow.

  4. The peacewise material is excellent, and so are the conferences they run on Peacemaking.  The biggest issue for people seems to be the issue of forgiveness when there is no repentance.  I suspect the divide is an outworking of our understanding of the atonement.

  5. Ian,

    “…to keep forgiving that person may be not be the right thing to do for their sake.”

    My instinct is to agree with that, but I wonder what we do with Luke 17:3-4 in this context. Any thoughts?

  6. Nick

    I meant that we should talk to them about their ongoing damaging behaviour, and call on them to repent, rather than just overlook and forgive without talking to them.

    Luke 17 certainly applies if they are genuinely repenting and trying to change. In that situation, yes, show repeated grace. But that wasn’t the situation I had in mind.


  7. Jennie.  This is the best article on forgiveness I’ve read.  I’m still reeling actually.


  8. Your small blurb at the start caught my attention immediately, Jennie. I’ve been wrestling with the exact same questions for a while & always end up feeling guilty for the occasional feelings of hurt, even after apologies have been made. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not an oddball.

    The points for self-assessment are very helpful. Thanks for a great post. Hope you wouldn’t mind me sharing this with my friends.

  9. I love Jennie’s article and feel what she’s saying, but how much is forgiveness possible when there’s no repentance? In the case of someone who, in their very essence, hurts us – someone who is perhaps clueless about the extent of the damage they have done and continue to do – if this person has not repented (expressed responsibility, sorrow and a desire to change) maybe forgiveness is not something that is possible. I’m wondering if we need to look for other biblical instructions for dealing with such a situation. A few ideas: turning the other cheek, loving enemies, praying for those who persecute you, forbearance, getting rid of bitter and angry thoughts, leaving vengence to God…

    Such things are not all that different to forgiveness, but they are things that are achievable from one end. If the other person hasn’t repented, a real reconciliation and restoration of the relationship that forgiveness implies can’t happen.

    What do you think?

  10. Spot on Simone.  I found “From Forgiven to Forgiving” by Jay Adams (no smirking please) very helpful.

  11. Spot on Simone.  I found “From Forgiven to Forgiving” by Jay Adams very helpful.

  12. I agree with Simone. Contrary to the last point that Ian mentioned (i.e. I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship), forgiveness might not lead to restoration of relationship & it might be for the best interest of both parties. And it is frustrating when someone is clueless of the extent of hurt. However, forgiveness is still possible on our own part.

    What I’ve found helpful is instead of being concerned about the other person’s repentance (or non-repentance), focusing more on our own hearts of forgiveness. We are ultimately accountable towards God for that, regardless of the state of the other person. God will be the judge of both our hearts in the end. I’ve found that in doing so, I learn to let go more easily of the hurt & forgiveness becomes easier too.

  13. Jess, I think you have confused forgiveness with not becoming bitter or seeking revenge.  As Simone said, there will be times when we MUST NOT forgive, just as God does not forgive us until we repent.

  14. Hey Jennie,

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful reflection on the realities of hurt and the dealing with such hurt.

    You said -“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?”

    I’m just wondering what exactly you think about these responses.  Do you think that forgiveness and, say, feeling pain are mutually exclusive conditions?

    I guess I’m also thinking about the situation you were talking about of persistent sin, but also in the ‘single instance’ variety.

  15. Dear ‘Kutz’,
    Thank you for your very perceptive comment!  Yes, you’ve picked up on a loose word there, or cluster of words really, because I think both pain and fear flitter around difficulties in relationships, and the decision to forgive someone and bear the pain of their actions or words is painful.  So, I don’t think feeling pain (or fear, for example) and forgiveness are mutually exclusive conditions. 

    What I was aiming for was a sense that we don’t ‘go back’ to that moment when we were first hurt, etc and live there.  For some sins, and especially ongoing ones, that moment will keep coming back or keep flicking us in the face and we will keep needing to ‘absorb the evil’ (Leon Morris’ phrase I think from Lord From Heaven).  And the pain will trail our steps like a litter of recalcitrant, unattractive puppies.  But choosing to forgive means saying ‘no’ to revisiting the pain intentionally and feeding it, stopping it from growing into a wild, savage pack of wolves ready to destroy, even ourselves.  (Personally, I’d always prefer my footsteps to be dogged by puppies rather than wolves…)  But Jesus’ way is to look past the pain and forgive the person. 

    I think this is a tremendously brave choice.  And like many brave choices it brings it own peculiar pain, particularly as you mention, in the case of persistent sin. 

    Looking forward to further thoughts and comments.

  16. Thanks everyone for your comments.  It’s been great to watch the discussion unfold; I’m glad that it isn’t just me who struggles with this!

    I appreciated Gordon directing us to Matthew 18. I always find that passage sobering and it slows me down in my anger and frustration towards others.  It’s the kind of passage that I think I always need to keep coming back to, especially when I’m thinking about forgiveness.

    I was glad that Michael and Ian had some specific sources to recommend.  (And confess to really enjoying the poetry in the Seu quote… eating the debt, absorbing the misery really captures something of the demands of forgiveness). 

    It has been interesting watching the unfolding discussion about the place of repentance in forgiveness and I think the issue is of such significance as to be worthy of its own post.  (I think I’ve talked my lovely husband into writing it, so watch this space!)  This isn’t an attempt to shut down the discussion – but just to say that the whole thorny issue will be raised again soon, hopefully, and give a new forum to nut out the issue at length.  Thanks Simone for raising it so eloquently and David, Jess and others for great responses – I think in a couple of short comments between you you’ve raised a lot of the issues at stake & I’ve appreciated seeing them laid out again. 

    Dear Al & Jess – so glad it was useful for you.  And yes, by all means make further use of this with your friends if you’d find this helpful.

  17. Jennie.  Looking forward to what you and your husband can contribute to the ongoing conversations.

    Thanks again.

  18. Looking forward to Mark’s post! I’m not sure if this would be helpful to think about…

    Matthew 18 & the whole gospel itself leads me to believe that forgiveness is in some sense possible without repentance.

    A relationship involves 2 parties. In the case of our relationship with God, we sin against God but God chooses to forgive us by sending Jesus. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8). He initiated the act of forgiveness. The acceptance of that forgiveness is another issue. If we don’t accept God’s forgiveness, is His forgiveness still on offer? I’m tempted to say both yes & no. Yes – God will not retract his offer of forgiveness. No – God’s wrath is still upon us until we repent. I guess I’m still onto my previous comment about there being two kinds of ‘responsibilities’, if you like, which can lead to reconciliation.

    As you can see, my thoughts are still incomplete. I’m not sure if we can translate God’s forgiveness into ours (like Jennie says in her post, our forgiveness is imperfect). Furthermore, we can’t look at God’s perfect forgiveness without understanding His perfect justice.

    Happy to be corrected if I’m on the wrong track. Or this might be a whole different topic altogether. smile

  19. “What I was aiming for was a sense that we don’t ‘go back’ to that moment when we were first hurt, etc and live there.  For some sins, and especially ongoing ones, that moment will keep coming back or keep flicking us in the face and we will keep needing to ‘absorb the evil’ (Leon Morris’ phrase I think from Lord From Heaven)”

    Thanks for that response Jennie. smile T’was very helpful.  I may comment again if I have something helpful to contribute.

    PS.  I remember you and Mark from ye olde Unichurch Qld days, and Fooksy and Emma’s wedding, though I’d have probably have been too young and twerpy for you guys to have remembered me…

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