Forgiveness: Part 4 – What It Is

Forgiveness: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Do It

What forgiveness IS.

Extended with grace: God demonstrated the ultimate grace-giving act when he initiated the forgiveness and reconciliation process with us (Romans 5:6; Ephesians 2:4-5). Forgiveness is what one person gives to another. Those that need to be forgiven don’t necessarily “deserve” forgiveness. We certainly didn’t “deserve” forgiveness from God. We extend grace to others because we receive grace from the Lord. We have something in common with the person who wronged us. The same fallen nature that led to the offense is the same fallen nature we deal with in our heart.

Even if the one who caused the offense does not initiate reconciliation or admit to an error or offense, the one who has been offended must still grant forgiveness and extend it with grace. Granting forgiveness may feel unfair; however, grace allows us to grant it to even the ones who don’t seem like they deserve it. The one who offended may not have the repentance and remorse necessary to receive the forgiveness, but that fact does not preclude the granting of forgiveness. God offers forgiveness to everyone because of Christ’s death on the cross. Repentance is necessary in order to receive this forgiveness.

Grace does not deny the seriousness of the offense either. Forgiveness extended with grace both acknowledges the seriousness of the wrongdoing and releases our perceived “right” for vengeance or holding it against someone.

An intentional decision and a process: Forgiveness doesn’t happen by accident. Rather, you must make a choice to commit to the process. This process is empowered by the Holy Spirit and takes time to work through. Both parts, making a choice to forgive and committing to the forgiveness process over time, are necessary.

Hard work and multifaceted: Forgiveness takes courage and is personally demanding. Forgiveness has emotional, relational, spiritual and physiological components. It involves changing our attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and beliefs. We also need to learn how to calm ourselves down instead of getting ‘worked-up’ and reactive when we are reminded of the hurts. Working through forgiveness alters the emotions tied to the transgression that occurred. Instead of feeling anger, bitterness, or other feelings of unforgiveness, forgiveness allows us to experience the ‘forgiveness emotion’ of release when we think of the transgression.

A releasing of a debt: Often, when you have been wronged or offended, you have suffered some sort of loss. Whether it is as serious as losing a child to a drunk driver or a more minor slight that occurred in a relationship, hurts give us the feelings that something has been lost or taken from us. A debt has resulted. People often find it difficult to forgive because they want the offender to repay the debt. In other words, they want vengeance. Often, we want the offender to feel how bad we hurt. Sometimes we want the offender to hurt to a greater magnitude than could be repaid by the offender. Forgiveness is often the only way to settle a debt. We choose to release the debtor from his or her debt. This choice also releases us from holding on to something that could hinder our walk with the Lord (Hebrews 12:1-2). Forgiveness does not change the nature of the transgression from wrong to right; nor does it presume the transgression never occurred. Rather, instead of allowing the anger and hurt of the offense to bond us to the offender, forgiveness allows us to release and to detach from the wrong that occurred.

Some steps toward forgiveness using the acronym R.E.A.C.H.

R: Recall the hurt: The first step involves acknowledging that hurt occurred. The goal of this step is to accept that you have been wronged and to focus on moving forward. The extremes of either denial of the pain or of obsessively replaying the event over and over in your head are not helpful.

E: Empathize: In this step towards forgiveness, feelings such as anger or cold, detached feelings are replaced with empathy. For example, try to see the scenario from the other person’s perspective. In this step you want to try to understand what the other person may have been thinking, feeling and so on. Note that the more horrific the act of transgression was, the more difficult it is to show empathy. When empathy is too difficult, first try sympathy. For example, you can think, “How horrible it must be to have a conscience so seared that he could have done …” Another way to work through the empathy step is to remember that forgiveness is extended with grace and that we didn’t deserve forgiveness from God.

A: Altruistic gift of forgiveness: Humility and gratitude are required in this step as we realize that we need and have received forgiveness. Consider how you felt when you needed forgiveness. How did you feel after you had done something wrong and were forgiven by God and by others? Because we have received the gift of forgiveness from both God and other people, we offer forgiveness to others.

C: Commit to forgive: Make a firm commitment to forgive and set an Ebenezer to remember it by. An Ebenezer is a marker or memorial (described in I Samuel 7:12) that reminds us that God has helped us to get to this point. This is most effective if you tell someone else (e.g., the person who wronged you, your spouse, a friend, a minister, etc.) about your commitment to forgive so that you can come back to this when painful memories from the past come up again.

H: Holding onto forgiveness: If you occasionally remember things from the past incidents that you have worked at forgiving, don’t get discouraged. Recommit to forgive, commit the event and the person to God, and go on. Having a memory of a hurtful event that sometimes comes up does not mean that you haven’t forgiven.

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  1. Robert Jeffress, When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2000), Chapter 2.
  2. Everett Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  3. Ibid., 102.