How can we forgive?

September 28, 2022

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Jesus offers his forgiveness as a gift—free of charge, without conditions or strings attached—and that's how we're called to forgive as well. But how can we learn to forgive and what does it actually entail?

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    Perhaps one of the most alarming things that Jesus ever said is that our ability to forgive others is connected to God’s forgiveness of us. When Jesus’ followers asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus instructed us to ask our Heavenly Father to forgive our sins “as we forgive the sins of others.” In other words, extending and receiving forgiveness go together. Forgiving is a little bit like breathing. You can’t take in another breath until you exhale. In a similar way, our ability to forgive others is the sign of whether we have received forgiveness from God. But how do we actually do it?

    What does forgiveness actually entail? Perhaps I could break it down in terms of three simple steps. In order to forgive another person, you must, first, condemn the wrong, then second, cancel the debt, and then, third, that creates the possibility to reconcile the relationship. 

    The first step is perhaps the most counterintuitive. It may come as a surprise, but in order to forgive, the first thing you must do is name and condemn the act as wrong. Forgiving someone is not the same as excusing or condoning what the other person has done. That's why it takes courage to say the words, “I forgive you,” because you are implying that what that other person did was wrong, and it was unacceptable. By naming and condemning the action, you spare the person. That's the only way to hate the sin while loving the sinner. 

    Once we condemn the action as wrong, it leads to this second step, which is to cancel the debt. Whenever someone wrongs you, it creates a kind of debt. There's a real sense in which the other person owes you. There are two ways that you can respond. You either make the other person pay the debt, or you pay it yourself. 

    Like a financial debt when someone has wronged you, it's not as if the debt simply floats into thin air when you cancel it. No, someone always has to absorb the loss. That is why forgiveness is so hard. When you forgive, you absorb the loss. But choosing to absorb the pain rather than dishing it back is the only thing that stops the cycle. Leo Tolstoy once said that when you forgive, you swallow evil and prevent it from spreading any further. 

    When you forgive you condemn the wrong and then you cancel the debt, and that at least creates the possibility to reconcile the relationship. 

    It's important to see that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. There's no reconciliation without forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn't always lead to reconciliation. Why is that? Because forgiveness only takes one. You are in control of forgiveness. You can choose to forgive regardless of how the other person responds. But reconciliation takes two. If the other person acknowledges their fault, admits the wrong, apologizes for what they've done, receives the forgiveness you offer, seeks to make amends, and takes proactive steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, then trust can be rebuilt and the relationship can be restored. 

    When people are hurt, they typically say, “I don't need to forgive the other person unless they repent–unless they confess and ask for my forgiveness.”

    But that's not actually how God forgives us. Jesus didn't wait for us to repent before he went to the cross. He takes the initiative. He goes to the cross first. And it is his act of forgiveness that enables our repentance. That's what transforms our hearts and cultivates a desire within us to want to change. He offers his forgiveness as a gift, free of charge, without conditions or strings attached, and that's how we're called to forgive as well.

    Written by Jason Harris
    Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
    Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker