There is an old story Gary Inrig retells in his book, Forgiveness, of a man who complained to his counsellor:
Every time we argue, my wife gets historical.
Do you mean hysterical?
No, I mean historical. She drags up everything I’ve ever done wrong.
You can almost hear the rim shot, but getting “historical” can be a real issue when couples argue. Getting historical betrays a number of realities:
- How wounded we still are; unaware how forgiveness can be part of the process of our own healing since “bitterness is an acid that destroys its own container.”
- A lack of understanding about what needs to be forgiven, how to forgive/how to be forgiven, and even, who to forgive.
- How prone we are to hold on to past time bombs, only to drop them in a new fight (how manipulative we can be without knowing it).
- The problem with the “fight” metaphor: Not everything needs a fight; and some disagreements/arguments can give us a clue to reveal our true values about an issue.
What Forgiveness is Not:
Forgiveness is not excusing an act. If it can be excused, it needs to be understood, not forgiven (forgiveness is about the inexcusable).
Forgiveness is not ignoring or denying sin, turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of another, pretending it didn’t happen. Such a response indulges sin, rather dealing with it surgically by the hard work of forgiveness. By keeping it in darkness, we allow the harm to remain unchallenged, even putting others at risk.
A few years ago a famous actress was charged with shoplifting. Her publicist described the support her client received, saying, “Hollywood is such a forgiving community…” Inrig’s response to that was, “Hollywood isn’t a forgiving community – it’s a condoning one. There’s a huge difference, because it does not really take sin seriously (unless, of course, the offence violates current standards of political correctness).”
Forgiveness is not trivializing sin, trying to put it in the best possible light. C.S. Lewis said, “Real forgiveness means steadily looking at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice.”
Forgiveness is not about burying sin under the naive assumption that “time heals all wounds.” Mark McMinn restates this aphorism more correctly:
Time heals clean wounds. Soiled wounds fester and infect.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting; in fact the only way to forgive is by remembering – but it is a remembering of a different kind: it is the remembering done with Jesus’ forgiveness in our own lives; it is the remembering that goes deeper into the pain in order to go through the other side of pain; it is remembering that seeks restoration – not retaliation (it is not about getting historical).
So… what is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is costly. Period. Full stop. Catch your breath. Forgiveness is equally, and sometimes even more costly, than the harm/sin done against you. What on earth would cause you to forgive?
Forgiveness is unnatural. “It has about it,” writes Philip Yancey, “the maddening quality of being undeserved, unmerited and unfair… I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to Him the residue of what I thought I committed to Him long ago… a cease-fire between human beings depends upon a cease-fire with God.”
The scandal of forgiveness confronts anyone who agrees to a moral cease-fire just because someone says, ‘I’m sorry.’ When I feel wronged, I can contrive a hundred reasons against forgiveness.
Forgiveness means the forgiven are a forgiving people. When you understand that you – Yourself – have been forgiven, you recognize the part of the “Lord’s Prayer” that applies to you: “forgive us AS we forgive those who have sinned against us.” “Forgiven people,” writes Ingig, “are grateful people, overwhelmed by the gracious forgiveness of the Lord Jesus that has set them free of condemnation and guilt.”
Forgiveness comes with “Godly sorrow.” In II Corinthians 7:10,11, the Apostle Paul distinguishes between this and “worldly sorrow.”
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.
I wonder if forgiveness is even possible without “godly sorrow,” without taking responsibility for the harm you created, or without, at least, trying to make amends? One thing I do know, there is no forgiveness for those who will not forgive – and the paradox of forgiveness is – you won’t be able to forgive until you receive forgiveness yourself.
Besides Gary Inrig’s book, Forgiveness (noted above), I highly recommend Philip Yancey’s “What’s so Amazing about Grace?”
I wrote this post with marriage in mind, but of course, you can consider virtually every strained relationship you have. And more, we live in a time when the need for forgiveness looms large on every world stage. We would do well to contemplate the paradox of forgiveness (note the parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18).
Forgiveness: it’s catastrophically expensive, because the cost of restoring ruinous relationships is so high.
Therefore, may you come to know both – Forgiveness and the Forgiver. May you find in this knowing, the generousity to be able to forgive others, because forgiveness is a gift that can only be paid forward.