What is Biblical forgiveness?
If you asked me what I’ve been thinking about lately, that would be the answer. What is Biblical forgiveness? What is it not?
There have been a number of situations in my life that have caused me to ponder this question. Each situation was unique, but they all had one common factor–the perpetrator did not repent or seek forgiveness for what s/he did.
It is easy (relatively) to forgive someone when that person repents and asks for forgiveness. Compassion and love eventually win over the hurt. We want to believe the person will change. We feel compelled to try to forgive. We know it is what we must do.
But then the time comes when someone does something terrible and doesn’t seek forgiveness. Maybe the person even is proud of what s/he did. What then?
The first thing I did was look at Jesus’ example. While dying on the cross, He forgave a number of people. One person He forgave was the thief hanging next to Him. The thief demonstrated repentance and a desire to be forgiven. Christ promised him eternal life (Luke 23:40-43). From this I gleaned the truth that we are to forgive even before the perpetrator demonstrates a change of action. If a person asks for forgiveness, we are to forgive immediately.
But thief repented. . . .
Then I looked at Jesus’ other act of forgiveness on the cross. Shortly before His death, He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He forgave His killers even though they were unrepentant. What was I supposed to do with that? What did that forgiveness entail?
At first, I was bothered by that occurrence. But as I thought about what happened there, I was reminded of what one of my favorite Bible teachers at MBU told me: “Forgiveness is not letting the other person off the hook for what happened, but instead putting your desire for justice in God’s hands and trusting Him to take care of what happened.” When Christ forgave His killers, He wasn’t asking God to let them all into heaven. He wasn’t asking God to bless the rest of their lives. Aside from repenting and placing their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, none of them could ever get into heaven. He was simply recognizing that it is not our place to seek vengeance. He was asking God not to pursue a vendetta against them.
Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook. It is about recognizing that bitterness hurts us more than the perpetrator. It is about letting go and turning my hurt and desire for justice over to God. It is about remembering that He forgave me; therefore I am called to forgive others likewise (Ephesians 4:32).
It is not about pretending nothing happened. It is not about tearing down all boundaries and throwing all caution to the wind. Rather it is about choosing not to be bound by the past so that I can move forward in the present. The perpetrator is still guilty. Someday s/he will face the consequences for his/her actions. In the meantime, I need to leave justice to God, discarding bitterness and vengeance behind me.