There is an old and familiar adage that we have been using in the English language for at least 500 years. Its Latin roots may go back even further than that. The adage seems to have been initially used in regard to the formulation of military strategy but quickly began to be applied to other areas of life as well. This well-known saying goes like this: “to be forewarned is to be forearmed.” And what we mean is that the more we know about a situation or an event ahead of time, the more we will be prepared to face it if and when it actually comes to pass.
This is true of most things in our lives, and it is true of forgiveness as well. The more we know about the circumstances and considerations that make forgiveness so challenging, the more we can be on the lookout for those things when we face actual disagreement and conflict. The more aware we are of these circumstances and considerations, the better armed we will actually be to forgive when the occasion arises. With this in mind, we will give our attention to examining three main characteristics of forgiveness that contribute to making it so difficult—it is relational, costly, and humbling—and then we will look more closely at some of the practical questions that these things raise. In this post, we will consider the first two characteristics of forgiveness, and, in the next post, we will wrap things up by looking at the third characteristic and then give attention to some practical scenarios that all three of these characteristics raise.
Forgiveness is relational
One of the things that makes forgiveness so challenging is the fact that it involves relationships. What I mean is that, in the Bible, forgiveness and reconciliation always go together. Forgiveness is always unto reconciliation. It is never an end in itself but always a means to the end of restoring a relationship that has been broken or damaged. The grand example of this would obviously be God’s forgiveness of us in and through Jesus Christ. This forgiveness is not an end in itself. God doesn’t forgive just for the sake of wiping the slate clean. He forgives in order that you and I might be reconciled to Him and restored to fellowship with Him forevermore. Reconciliation is the ultimate end that God is after. But reconciliation is impossible until and unless forgiveness has taken place, because, without forgiveness, you and I are still at enmity with God as a result of our sin against Him.
This is precisely what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, for instance, when he explicitly links forgiveness and reconciliation: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Reconciliation, according to Paul, is impossible for anyone if God is still “counting their trespasses against them.” Those trespasses must first be forgiven. Then restoration or reconciliation can rightly take place. Forgiveness is, therefore, always unto the restoration of a relationship or, as we have said above, forgiveness is always relational.
We see the same idea implicitly in passages like Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17, both of which cite the beautiful reality expressed in Jeremiah 31:34, namely, that God will “remember [our] sins no more.” Now, we know these verses don’t mean to suggest that God will wipe our sins from His memory bank. That is not possible. God is omniscient; He knows everything—everything that has happened, everything that will happen, and everything that could happen. When God says He will remember our sins no more, He is not saying that He ceases to be omniscient when He forgives. He is speaking relationally. He is telling us that He will not hold our sins against us in terms of how He relates to us. He will not treat us in light of our sins but will treat us as if we had never committed any of them, because He has forgiven them already. This means that forgiveness must be a relational category. It is unto the restoration of the relationship that has been broken by our sin.
If God’s forgiveness of us is relational and if that forgiveness is the paradigm for our forgiveness of others, as passages like Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 clearly state, then our forgiveness of others must be relational as well. This is precisely what we see expressed in New Testament passages like Luke 17:3, for instance. Here Jesus is speaking to His disciples and tells them: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Besides teaching that forgiveness takes place between “brothers”—ie, those who have a restored relationship with God and, thus, with one another in Christ—Jesus is signaling the relational aspect of forgiveness by highlighting the necessity of repentance: “if he repents, forgive him.” Repentance is necessary precisely because forgiveness is relational. A relationship has been broken or damaged, and it must be restored. Restoration can’t happen until and unless there is forgiveness. And this forgiveness is incomplete, so to speak, until and unless the relationship is fully restored. That’s when we will have “remembered their sins no more.”
It is precisely because forgiveness is relational that it is so hard. Relationships involve knowledge—the more knowledge, the more intimate the relationship. The more intimate the relationship, the more risk there is for us to be hurt when conflict or injury occurs. And the more hurt we experience, the more complicated forgiveness will be. Anyone who has ever been married or who has been in any kind of long-term relationship can certainly attest to this reality.
Forgiveness is costly
But forgiveness is also difficult because it assumes that an injury or offense has occurred which needs to be forgiven. Someone has hurt or offended us, either by saying or doing something that we feel ought not to have been said or done or by not saying or not doing something that we feel ought to have been said or done. Either way, pain has been inflicted. The more egregious the offense or the more intimate the relationship, the greater the pain we will feel. That pain makes forgiveness hard.
The Bible frequently speaks of injury and offense in terms of a debt that has been incurred. We might think immediately of the words of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Or we might think of Luke 13:4, where Jesus uses the same word “debtors” as a synonym for “sinners” (in verse 2). The translators of the English Standard Version do not use the term “debtors” when they translate this verse. They prefer to call those upon whom the tower in Siloam fell “offenders” rather than “debtors.” But in the original Greek it is the same word that Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12. Undoubtedly, they translate it “offenders” in Luke 13:4 because it is occurring in parallel with the word “sinners” in Luke 13:2. Once we realize that it is actually the same word “debtors” in the original Greek, the idea from both passages would seem to be clear: every sin or offense involves the incurring of a debt. And this means that sinners are debtors.
This is perhaps easier to see if we think about a thief who breaks into our home and takes something that belongs to us. Such a person has obviously incurred a debt. He or she owes us what has been taken from us. The more the thief takes, the more he or she owes. This is not always so easy to see when we are talking about relationships, but the point is just the same. When I hurt another person, I take something from that person. I take wholeness or wellness. I take emotional health and stability. Assuming that I have a relationship with this person, I ultimately take right relationship by damaging or breaking it or by introducing division or separation.
As Christians, we are obligated to be in right relationship with one another. This is part and parcel of what Paul is saying when he uses the body metaphor and applies it to believers in places like 1 Corinthians 12:12-27: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (v. 12). Every member of the body of Christ is connected to one another by virtue of being connected to Christ and, therefore, every member has a vested interest in one another: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (v. 26). That means that when I hurt or offend a brother or a sister in Christ, I inflict a wound upon another member of the body and am obligated to make that right. I have incurred a debt both to God and to that brother or sister. I have brought division into the body by setting one member (myself) over against another member.
The point I am getting at here is that because forgiveness involves the incurring of a debt it is, therefore, inherently costly. When we forgive a debt, we take the cost of that debt upon ourselves. We eat the loss of what we are rightly due. To pick up on the example that I mentioned earlier of thieves who break in and steal, it means that I give up the right to get my belongings back when I forgive their offense. I take the cost of those missing possessions upon myself and give up the right to be made whole. This is yet another reason why forgiveness is so challenging. It carries a cost because it involves the incurring of a debt. The greater the debt, the greater the cost, and the harder it will be to forgive.
CS Lewis has rather lightheartedly said that “forgiveness is a lovely idea, until [we] have something to forgive.” Lewis is helpfully emphasizing the fact that most of us like the idea of forgiveness as a concept. We embrace it from afar, so long as it is someone else’s issue. But when it becomes a personal matter, it is a different thing altogether. We don’t like actually having something to forgive, because having something to forgive means that we have been hurt or offended. It means that a debt has been incurred. Having something to forgive signals the fact that something is not right. Pain or loss has come into our lives, a friend has betrayed us, a relationship that is near and dear to us has been broken. Forgiveness is difficult precisely because we have something to forgive.