If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:9-10
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.– Ephesians 4:32
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. – Matthew 18:21-22
When I have worked with individuals and with families, forgiveness has often arisen as a stumbling block in the path of progress. It’s a simple concept, to forgive, but often so hard to truly do.
In marriages, the inability to forgive can begin to eat away at the foundation of the relationship to a greater extent than the act that needs forgiving, itself. For individuals, holding onto anger and bitterness towards others can dampen moods. Holding onto anger directed inward, even more so.
The inability to forgive acts like an anchor, keeping us from growing and living a more fulfilling life. To lift that anchor requires a muscle and one that needs to be strengthened. This muscle is forgiveness, and for most starting out forgiveness is not easy to do.
Often that first act of forgiveness is the hardest, but it gets easier with time. However, we will quite frequently need help and perspective on this journey. This is where surrounding yourself with good people and getting help in the form of therapy and spiritual wisdom can help.
What is forgiveness?
Before we continue, let’s look at what forgiveness really is. Forgiveness implies that a wrong has been done, and this is the act of making that action right. However, forgiveness does this with an unequal scale. We might “forgive” someone once they have made something right with us. They break something of ours, we forgive them when they replace it. I would argue that this isn’t really forgiveness, but a balancing of ledgers owed. God’s forgiveness is deeper.
God forgives us because we have sinned. He makes it abundantly clear that sin separates us from God, and nothing we can do can bridge the gap. Only he, as the party wronged, can forgive us and bring us back into fellowship with him. It’s a supernatural gift that allows for ledgers to be wiped clean. It’s not that we have paid off our debt, it’s that God makes it so that our debt is no more.
The problem is, though, is that we have a tendency to continue to sin. Fortunately, God continues to forgive. 1 John 1:9 states that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Notice, all we have to do is to confess to the sin, and God forgives. It’s not “confess our sins and make amends to all we have wronged,” because ultimately that will be impossible.
Further, the second element of that verse indicates that we are “cleansed from all unrighteousness,” implying that sin is an outpouring of unrighteousness. When God cleanses us, he makes us right and gives us the power to live in righteousness, and good deeds will flow from that. Then we can make amends. Forgiveness comes before we can do good work because forgiveness takes away the gunk inside of us causing us to sin.
God’s forgiveness is a supernatural gift. It doesn’t make sense in a rational “fair” way – he gives it freely and we do not deserve it. This goes against our human nature which states we should be seeking fairness. While forgiveness is a wonderful thing to experience, it can then feel like a burden when we must exercise it towards someone else.
Our human nature wants fairness, equality, and balance, but that is not what God does for us or calls us to. Forgiveness is the wiping clean of wrongdoing when we have every right to hold on to what is rightfully owed to us. This sounds scary to humble ourselves into forgiveness, but from God’s forgiveness comes freedom.
Why is forgiveness so hard?
For many, forgiving is hard. Accepting forgiveness can be just as hard at times too. Forgiveness is often a later step of an ongoing process of reconciliation between two people, you and God, or within yourself. The process of forgiving inherently means lowering ourselves.
We hold a certain power when we are in a place of being able to forgive. This means that somebody owes us something. True forgiveness, like God’s forgiveness towards us, means letting go of that power we hold over someone else, possibly at the risk of losing something ourselves.
When we don’t forgive, we are usually thinking in terms of “this person has wronged me, and I need them to make things right.” Maybe they owe you something physical, or there is emotional pain and hurt they have caused. We protect ourselves by asking them to give us what is owed to us.
However, when this doesn’t happen, the longing for what is owed turns to bitterness and resentment and ill will. While we might think it is only directed a one person, it is a heavy cloud that can sit over many aspects of our lives. The longer we take to forgive, the darker this cloud becomes and the harder it becomes to forgive, creating a feedback loop of negativity.
However, forgiveness often is a process that takes time. You might not feel ready yet to forgive, but the sooner you begin that journey the quicker you will be able to come to the place of forgiveness.
For many, even harder than giving forgiveness is receiving it. When we sit in a place of shame, shame tells us that we owe something we know we can never pay back. We experience the flip side of the difficulties of giving forgiveness and begin to feel that in order to be forgiven we need to make things right.
In many instances, that simply isn’t possible, and we get down on ourselves. What can be exceedingly difficult are situations in which the person who needs forgiveness no longer has contact with the person they wronged. While it might seem in a hypothetical world that that person is in the clear, many people, especially those dealing with depression, take on the job of punishing themselves.
Instead of living in God’s forgiveness, they don’t allow themselves to live free from guilt and shame. It’s one thing to know you have been forgiven, but another to internalize it, accept it from God, and then forgive yourself.
Regardless of where you are coming from, forgiveness is a difficult action to both give and receive. Luckily, we have a supernatural power and help from God in this matter. We are able to forgive because God forgave and because he forgave we can live free from the condemnation of sin and the power it has over our lives.
What does the Bible say about forgiveness?
When the Bible talks about forgiveness, it comes at it from mostly two angles. God’s forgiveness of us, and our call to forgive others. Forgiving can also be thought of as the gift of grace. God gives us grace, and it is not a gift we are to hold to ourselves. Further, it’s not a gift we can easily give unless God gives it to us first.
So by accepting grace from God, you can become empowered to give that grace out. This is to be a continual process, however. As our sin is an insurmountable barrier to being near to God and his grace is so great in comparison, so must the grace we pass on be as well.
First of all, we as Christians are called to “forgive… one another, as God in Christ, forgave” us (Ephesians 4:32). Note, there is recognition that we can only do this because God forgave us first.
Second, this is to be an outpouring that is greater than what is “fair.” Peter asks of Jesus in Matthew 18:21-22 ““Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.””
Though obviously not literally seventy times seven, Jesus sets the bar here for forgiveness to be abundant and innumerous. We are called to forgive indefinitely and above and beyond what is owed to us because this is what God did for us.
If all this feels like an impossible standard, that is because it is. But God enables us to do so through his power|. God is calling us to do something truly radical and inhuman, to forgive above and beyond how we have been wronged. And this isn’t a forgive but keep others at a distance, this is a forgiveness that is meant to bring you closer together.
Whether it’s a friend, family member, spouse, or acquaintance, God’s forgiveness brings you together. Turning this inward, forgiving yourself for the wrongs you have committed in the past lets you come closer to God and the self that you want to be. Holding onto your shame and guilt puts up barriers to your growth that only God can help you bring down.
Is God’s forgiveness for me?
One of the things I’ve noticed working with individuals and couples is that accepting something good in the context of a situation that is causing shame is often quite hard to do. It comes back to this question of, “am I worthy enough to receive this forgiveness?”
I would argue the answer we often give ourselves is no, but the reality is much more complex. In fact, on the surface, “no” might be the correct answer – but that is kind of the point, isn’t it?
There’s nothing we can do that makes us worthy of blessings and grace from God, but he has made us worthy and he has chosen us to receive his forgiveness. On our own, we are not good enough, but paradoxically we are good enough because God makes us so.
God’s forgiveness is for you, not because you did anything to deserve it, but because he gives it freely. How great is it that the price is free? And rather than needing to fix what is wrong to receive forgiveness, His forgiveness allows us to fix what is wrong.
There is no need to get bogged down trying to achieve goodness on your own, God will make it so. So God’s forgiveness is for you. Then, when you receive it, you can pass it on to those around you.
Perhaps you are reading this, and it doesn’t quite seem right. That’s ok! This is a strange concept that people often wrestle with. Things like depression and anxiety often whisper in our ear the opposite message than what I’ve tried to convey here, and that whisper can feel very loud. This is where therapy can come in.
By working with a therapist, you can try and figure out where you need to forgive, and where you need to accept forgiveness. Working through this can help you to relieve bitterness, shame, self-doubt, and bring you into greater connection with God and those in your life.
Further, often the hardest person to forgive is yourself. Holding onto past mistakes can hinder your ability to make the present a success. Therapists can help you to understand what you’re holding onto that maybe you don’t even realize.
If you feel unforgivable, know that God’s forgiveness knows no bounds. Take a look at Paul in the New Testament. He was a murderer and hunter of Christians, yet God forgave him and ultimately used him to author some of the most read passages in the history of humanity! Embracing God’s forgiveness can give you peace and open up your potential, so do not wait any longer to become the best you that you can be.
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