Forgiveness is taking our hurts to God so they may be cancelled by God’s compassion and love.
One key question many Christians face in our real lives: “Why should I forgive?” Here are some good reasons:
1. Acknowledging our own humanity first enables us to live in honesty with ourselves and others. Admitting that we, too, are in debt because of our personal failures and mistakes empowers us to live with integrity. Honesty is central to a life of integrity and authenticity, which, in turn, are crucial to healthful living. When we live in alignment with who we are and what we value most, we are more deeply fulfilled and satisfied and enjoy meaning and transformation.
And that personal honesty about our own shortcomings, combined with our willingness to receive forgiveness from God and others who offer it to us, empowers us to be forgiving, gracious people to those who are in our debt. Each of these two experiences needs the other to exist. To receive the gift and yet not pass it on is the highest form of insanity and ingratitude.
No wonder, in Jesus’ story of the ungracious steward (Matt. 18:22-34), the King responds in absolute shock and anger when he finds out that the servant whose infinite debt he just canceled went out and refused to forgive a colleague’s miniscule debt. It’s inconceivable that this should ever happen. Our ability to forgive is directly proportional to our ability to both admit our own indebtedness and to accept free grace and forgiveness for it. Doing both is living in honesty.
2. Forgiveness aids our own recovery. Forgiveness doesn’t just benefit the receiver, it also benefits the giver. Revenge, anger, hate, and bitterness take their toll on our feelings. To live an unforgiving life is to live in continual pain, a pain that will never heal itself. Continually demanding payment from the wrongdoer turns bitterness inward. It’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
In his book Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes puts it this way: “The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. Forgiving stops the reruns of pain. Forgiving heals your memory as you change your memory’s vision. When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life . . . and the prisoner you set free is yourself.”1
3. Forgiveness releases the wrongdoer’s power over you. If you and I are living a life of anger and resentment from our hurts, we’re still being controlled by the person who hurt us. Revenge, anger, bitterness, and hatred bind us like glue to the person. We might as well be Siamese twins, joined at the heart. Because everywhere we go, we’re taking them with us.
But when we choose to release that person from debt, when we no longer demand payment from them, when we forgive, we engage in one of the most empowering acts possible. We choose our freedom.
Jesus described this reality this way: “ ‘If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles’ ” (Matt. 5:41, NIV). Jesus is referring to the hated practice by Roman soldiers of demanding that a Jew carry his load for him. Imagine feeling the helplessness and powerlessness of being forced to do something against your will. If you’ve ever been raped or sexually abused or physically or emotionally taunted or tormented by someone stronger or having more power and authority than you, you understand this feeling.
So when Jesus tells them to go the second mile, the Jews shake their heads in anger. “Forget it! We’re not going one extra inch for them!” But think about the dynamics here. Paul and Barbara Sanders make this point in their book: in the first mile, the soldier has you under his control. You’re trapped. If you stop there, you walk away in anger and bitterness. You lose!
But when you choose to go the second mile, you’re under your own control. In the first mile, he has you. In the second optional mile, you have him. Your act of power, responsibility, and choice sends you away in freedom.
4. Forgiveness doesn’t mean the hurt was right! Jesus isn’t talking about cheap forgiveness. It’s not cheap with God. God paid an infinite price to offer forgiveness to us, showing that he refuses to minimize our debt. The king, in Jesus’ story, swallowed a multi-million dollar debt. His willingness to forgive the debt meant that he took the loss.
Forgiveness is never cheap. It always looks directly and honestly at the hurt and at the one who caused the hurt. And it calls sin for what it is: What you did to me was wrong! Unacceptable! You owe a debt to me, and I have the right to demand payment! Only realists can be forgivers.
That’s why forgiveness is so difficult and so few do it. As the Sanderses put it, forgiveness faces the pain and the struggle of humanity. We wrestle with the hurt and with our own weaknesses. We stop making excuses for ourselves or for others. We face our own needs and responsibilities as well that of others. We acknowledge and feel and embrace the pain caused to us and call it for what it is. We don’t deny it or sweep it under the rug or pretend it never happened or simply pass it off. Impossible and ineffective! We face it squarely and are willing to hold the debtors responsible.
But then, as we did with our own sins and shortcomings and failures, we do with theirs. We take them to God and let them be cancelled by God’s compassion and love. We let them go. We let go of our demand for our right to debt payment from the ones who hurt us by giving them to God’s compassion and love. This is forgiveness at its most expensive and effective level. By doing this, we liberate ourselves from our own prison of anger, resentment, hate, and bitterness., 2