Forgiveness: A Lifestyle of Freedom
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. ~ Acts 3:19-21
Forgiveness is a delicate topic, especially for us who carry stinging wounds. We've been deeply, personally harmed. Our stories – yours and mine – are different, but we share the experience of having been sinned against, and it has affected our entire lives and choices. Sin has begotten more sin, and we suffer under the weight of it. It feels as though our burden is multiplied by the repetition of violence in the world we live in, both to ourselves and to others.
Ultimately, all sin is against God, whether the sin was committed against you, or you committed sin against someone else:
Against You [God], You only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in Your sight,
so that You may be justified in Your words
and blameless in Your judgment. ~Psalm 51:4
In the midst of our misery, however, there is great hope which begins to dawn as we turn our faces upward to God who returns our gaze in compassion. Not only have we been sinned against; we have sinned also. We have sinned greatly, and each sin has greatly offended a pure, holy, sinless God who made us for something much better than wallowing in a quagmire of despair. Because relationship is so important to God, He made a way for us to come back: through Jesus. He looks on us with lovingkindness, offering us both pardon from our own sins, and escape from the weight of sins committed against us (1 Cor. 10:13). This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Forgiveness: God's Heart Toward Us
We have no reason or power to forgive others until we fully embrace the meaning of Christ's forgiveness toward us. Living in the freedom of forgiveness starts with a full comprehension of our human condition apart from the grace of God: we ourselves are capable of the most heinous crimes imaginable because of our sinful nature (Psalm 51:5). There's no such thing as "good people" (for a fascinating read, see THIS RESOURCE). We humans all share the same make-up and propensity toward disintegration in our minds, bodies, and behaviors. This is why it's so encouraging to see how Jesus interacted with humans: He made it clear that He came to look for – and save – us lost, wandering, sinful people (Luke 19:10).
When we acknowledge our own depth of depravity, we can more fully appreciate Christ's forgiveness (Luke 7:47). Now, we don't have to strive for the elusive idea of perfection – we can rest in being fully loved even as we are fully known by the One who forgave us. What freedom awaits those who arrive at this revelation!
I'd like to park here for just a minute, because the truth I'm going to share can radically transform your life. If you're looking to others for acceptance, belonging, validation, and affirmation, you've got the wrong god. That idol is called "the fear of man" (Proverbs 29:25). Only by resting in the God who is capable of fully loving you (because He made you!) can you find what your heart longs for: the fulfillment of your core need for belonging (Psalm 139:15). From this place of acceptance and forgiveness, we are free to accept and forgive ourselves, and we are free to love and forgive others. It does wonders for our personal relationships!
Finding Freedom: Our Heart Toward Others
Before we go further, I want to acknowledge that forgiving others can be a process, particularly if the wound was life-altering. There is no time when we are able to forgive in our own strength. Forgiveness, like faith, is a gift from God. Because it is God's will for us to forgive others, and because He is the source of all forgiveness, we must rely on His supernatural power to release others from their debt against us.
The only path toward forgiveness is drawing deeper into our relationship with God, and experiencing the comfort of being completely forgiven by Him. One of the gospel authors, Matthew, describes how Jesus answered Peter's question on this subject (Matt. 18:21-35). Jesus showed that no matter how great others' sins are against us, our sins against God are far greater. No one person could ever sin against us more than we naturally sin against our Creator. Because God freely offers His pardon to us, we have the freedom to forgive others.
Forgiveness is a commitment of faith. It costs us something. We have experienced loss, from small to great, and we grieve. This is why, though we can (and should) determine in our hearts to forgive, it often requires time to experience forgiveness in layers. We need God's grace to see as He sees and to forgive as He forgives. When we forgive, we are opening our fists one tightly clutched finger at a time until we completely hand over this ugly thing (sin against us) to God so that He can handle the justice part. And He will.
The Big Bonus
All of these maxims have an element of truth:
- Unforgiveness is like drinking poison while expecting someone else to die
- Forgiveness is more for you than for the other person
- Forgiveness is letting go
When we forgive others, we are set free. We are no longer in bondage to the memory of others' sin against us. We have reflected the character of God by forgiving others as He forgave us (Eph. 4:32). We have obeyed God and received forgiveness ourselves (Matt. 6:14).
When we forgive (or are in the process of forgiving), we are walking in repentance. We are refusing to hold offenses, instead trusting God in faith to handle them righteously. We come into a greater understanding of the love of God and what it means to be conformed to the image of Christ, and we reflect His character. Holding onto others' sins begets bondage and bitterness. Giving them over to God brings peace and freedom.
The Truth Hits Home
Everyday, God sends us opportunities to practice forgiveness. Small offenses that trigger large wounds have the propensity to cause bitterness on our part. We take things personally. We think we know the meaning behind others' actions because of how their behavior affects us. We reinforce our own beliefs by interpreting others' messages through our own broken lens. Soon, our relationships are deeply rifted. We hesitate (or deliberately refuse) to have an open conversation with the party with whom we're offended, and voila! We have the perfect recipe for anger, bitterness, chaos, and bondage.
Now we're at a crossroads, and we have some choices to make. For those with whom you choose to have a relationship, you need a resolution. Much conflict comes about when both parties affirm their being right, holding this in greater importance than the relationship itself. Remember, the WE is more important than the ME. Here's a rubric for getting back to peace and freedom:
- Is the offense something you can let go of without a conversation? See 1 Peter 4:8
- Is the offense something that needs to be addressed with the other person? See Matthew 18:15
Some people are unsafe; they are dangerous to be in relationship with due to their toxic behaviors (controlling, manipulative, passive-aggressive, wrathful, vengeful, deceitful). For those who are "unencouragable", that is, who are uninterested in authentic relationship, or for those who are out of your life, forgiveness on your part will look differently. It's not always emotionally safe for you to broach an issue with someone who is capable of causing more harm to you. However, forgiveness on your part is necessary because God is interested in justice (more on God's justice in a minute). A conversation or confrontation with the offender may be unadvisable or impossible. In these cases, you "give over" the offenses to God alone.
For the wicked and ungodly who have no desire to walk in repentance and faith, judgement awaits (Rom. 12:19-21, Deut. 32:35). Justice for you already happened at the cross, when Jesus freely forgave your sins. God's justice for you continues to happen as He delivers you from bondage (the bondage of enemy oppression AND the bondage of unforgiveness). Psalm 91 gives us great insight into how God rescues us when we place our faith in Him. In God's power and strength, we can give Him the burden of our trauma and live restfully (see Matt. 11:28-30).
How Do I Know If I've Forgiven?
To forgive is to not recall. Whether the offense toward you was committed by a person you are in a relationship with, are not in a relationship with (rude driver), or were in a past relationship with, you will know you've forgiven if you aren't bringing up the offense in you mind. If it does come up, you make the conscious effort to dismiss that thought and replace it with something true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or commendable (Phil. 4:8).
Choosing Relationship Over "Rightness"
God created us for community and relationship. When we realize the priority of healthy interaction with God and others, we can take steps to walk in peace and freedom (Rom. 12:18) by exercising forgiveness. Take time to develop communication skills that invite a rebuilding of relationship (see resources HERE and HERE). Honor the other person over yourself (Rom. 12:10). It's safe to assume you don't have all the information necessary to make an informed judgment over another person, so give others the benefit of the doubt or ask non-challenging questions to interrogate reality. It takes forgiveness to stay in relationship, and it's worth it!
Living In Freedom
Practicing forgiveness daily produces peace and freedom. God will send multiple opportunities to remind us to lean into His power to forgive others as He has forgiven us (Matt. 6:12). When we set others free (by giving offenses over to God whether they ask for it or not), we are set free ourselves! We find rest for our souls as we trust in our Sovereign creator (1 Pet. 4:19).
For a broader view on the topic of forgiveness – what it is and what it is not – see THIS previous article.
Note: if you are in an abusive relationship, the first priority should be your safety. God does not call us to return to the bondage of sin and oppression (Romans 8:15).
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©2023 Julianne Knapp. First published 5.30.23