The Process of Forgiveness

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. Click here to see all the posts in this series.

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As I sit here this morning, I’m thinking of the precious people I know who are hurting today. Their faces parade through my mind as I feel the weight of their pain. Some of them are suffering the pain of life in a broken world, facing aggressive illnesses, sudden death, burying children or parents, waiting for news in hospital rooms. 

Others, though, are walking through pain inflicted by the wrongdoing or carelessness of other people. Thoughtless words of friends that hurt instead of comfort. Infidelity that makes blackened rubble of a marriage. Injustice sanctioned or ignored, innocent lives crushed in the jaws of indifference. Abuse perpetuated by ones who should protect and nourish. Many of us wear the scars. We all have our stories. And somewhere in the healing process, we come to the point we must consider forgiveness. 

For those of us who claim the name Christian, we are a people marked by forgiveness. We believe God, in Jesus Christ on the cross, paid himself the debt we owed. We are forgiven—and, even more, we are welcomed into the family of God, reconciled, once-severed relationship made whole. In the Bible, we are called in no uncertain terms to extend forgiveness to one another, just as we have received undeserved, unmerited forgiveness and mercy.

I will not sugar coat or underestimate the challenge of this calling. It can be incredibly difficult—particularly when the offending party doesn’t repent. 

Forgiveness is a costly activity. When you cancel a debt, it does not simply disappear. Instead, you absorb a liability someone deserves to pay. Similarly, forgiveness requires that you absorb certain effects of another person’s sins and release the person from liability to punishment.”

- Ken Sande, Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict

Forgiveness is also often misunderstood, and this misunderstanding can lead to more pain, perpetuating guilt, or putting someone in a position for further abuse to occur. When we're ministering to someone in pain, it's important for us to understand what forgiveness is—and isn't—as we encourage the person to pursue it. 

Forgiveness is...

  • Canceling a debt
  • Giving up the sense “you owe me”
  • Giving up the “right” to get even

Forgiveness is not...

  • Forgetting
  • No consequences
  • Pretending unacceptable behavior is acceptable
  • Excusing
  • No longer feeling pain or grief
  • Trust
  • Reconciliation

Reconciliation refers to a restored relationship. Part of the beauty of the Gospel is that we are not only forgiven by God but also reconciled. He has not only canceled our debt (forgiveness) but has also restored our relationship (reconciliation). 

In our human relationships, reconciliation should be a goal, if possible, but it isn’t automatic. It is possible to forgive without being reconciled. For example, someone in an abusive relationship may forgive the abuser (not holding the abuse over him, not seeking revenge, not dwelling on it continually, refusing hatred, taking healthy steps to move forward), but she does not have to put herself back into a vulnerable position by remaining in the same level of relationship or trust as before. 

For reconciliation to take place, there must be forgiveness and restored trust. It can only come fully after repentance and a commitment to change—and from there a trusting relationship can be rebuilt. 

This can be described as a two-stage process. 1) We commit to God to forgive, releasing our vengeance and choosing not to dwell on the situation. 2) Then, based on the repentance of the offender, we can exchange forgiveness and rebuild trust and relationship. 

The first “stage” is what we strive for (and I believe what is commanded in the Bible). It sets us free from the bondage of bitterness and revenge. It allows us to move on. It puts us in a position that, if the other person would come to us, asking for forgiveness, we would already be in the place to say, “Yes, I forgive you.” 

Forgiveness is a process, and it takes time. For most of us, it isn’t an isolated one-time event but rather a discipline of continuing to choose forgiveness day-by-day. It’s figuring out how to start over, how to move forward. It’s a continual act of obedience.