Forgiveness is something God tells us in scripture we are to give to one another. The best way I can describe the process of forgiveness is to say it is a beautiful hot mess.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Colossians 3:12-13
There are a few aspects which jump out at me in these two verses. The first is who is being spoken to, Christ followers. Unbelievers are not being instructed here, which lends me to believe unbelievers cannot participate in forgiveness because they themselves do not have forgiveness from God, therefore they are only able to offer a pardon. Second, Paul, the author of Colossians, begins to list out character qualities Christ followers must possess toward each other; compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
There is good reason these characteristics are listed out for us. We are sinners and we need to be reminded how we are to conduct ourselves, especially in conflict. The scripture reads “if one has a complaint against another,“ right here we see conflict enter and thankfully we were reminded in the prior verse how it is we are to respond. The verse continues on to instruct us to offer forgiveness as God has forgiven us.
What does it look like to forgive as God has forgiven us?
To answer this question I believe we need to look at what was accomplished for us on the cross at Calvary; through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus our sins were wiped away. Jesus tells us none come to the Father but through him. (John 14:6). What does this mean? Simply put, this means we can not be in relationship with Christ without first coming to the foot of the cross in full recognition and repentance of our sins and it is there we seek the forgiveness which is so freely and sacrificially offered to us. This my friend is love. A love like no other. A love we don’t deserve nor can we earn.
Some will say God openly forgives and nothing is needed from us. I cannot agree with this line of thinking. If this were correct then we would have no need for the cross and Christ was brutally murdered in vain. I believe we would be disregarding the gospel as a whole. In order to be forgiven we are required to repent of our sins and ask Christ directly for his forgiveness.
What happens when Christ forgives us?
When we have come to the cross on our knees seeking forgiveness for our sins we are then adopted into God’s family and we are forgiven. Once we have been invited into God’s family, no matter how messy we are, we wont get kicked out. However, it is important to note when we sin we are separated from God (Romans 6:23), which shows us our constant need to come to him in repentance when we do sin (Isaiah 59:1-2, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32). The good and gracious news is Christ is waiting for us with open arms. He will not turn his back on us nor will he kick us out of his family, but we must admit our sin and have a godly sorrow.
In Isaiah 43:25 we see where God promises us he will not remember our sins, but it is important to note, God is not saying he can’t remember our sins. He is choosing to move forward and not bring up our forgiven sin. In 1 Corinthians 13:5 we are instructed about love; love keeps no record of wrongs. Forgiveness and love go hand in hand. Forgiveness does not wipe away the consequences of the sin. It acknowledges the wrong doing but moves forward in gospel-centered love.
Please take note of the pattern which we are seeing here about forgiveness. Thus far it has been shown to us in scripture forgiveness, like love, is a choice. It is important we understand forgiveness is not a feeling but we must make the intentional decision to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t here to make us feel good, it’s about being obedient to Christ and mending a wrong we committed.
The 3 M’s of Forgiveness
Mistake: Everything bad that occurs is not necessarily a sin therefore it does not require one to repent or offer forgiveness. An example of this would be when a guest in your home spills coffee all over your beige carpet and exclaims profusely how sorry they are. While they are using the words “I’m sorry” it needs to be noted no sin was committed therefore you do not need to offer forgiveness. This is what we would call a mistake or an accident. We need to tread lightly here and check our hearts. Mistakes can easily become minor offenses and we need to carefully discern if we are dealing with a mistake or minor offense. If it is indeed a mistake then a simple pardon is required. One might rightly respond to a mistake by saying, “Oh it’s okay.” Be careful when using the word’s “It’s okay” so as to not shrug off something which may in fact be a minor or major offense. Ask yourself if what has happened really is okay or if repentance is needed.
Minor Offense: When a minor offense occurs we are offered a great opportunity to immediately forgive. A minor offense would be a situation where you are mildly offended but you do not feel an apology is necessary for you to move forward. It is something you can easily let go of, giving the person the benefit of the doubt. Keep in mind though; what may be minor to some is major to others so we cannot assume someone is overreacting if they feel the offense we have given is not minor. We also need to be cautious and not turn a minor offense into a major one. A serious heart and motive check is needed by all parties involved.
To help illustrate a minor offense a recent encounter with a friend comes to mind, we’ll call her Beth. This gal is great lady whom I’ve known for years. Beth is also a writer and I sought her insight on some of my writing, she agreed to take a look. It’s been a few months and I’ve not heard from Beth on this.
I have a few choices in how I choose to respond. I can respond in my emotion by becoming upset Beth didn’t follow through with her word. Doing so would invite bitterness to make itself at home in my heart along with many other presumptions of the situation to roll around in my head. Another option I have is choosing to see this as a mistake or even a minor offense and just let it go.
Before I proceed with my decision I need to stop and discern how I am feeling and ask myself if my response is out of emotion and selfish ambition or if I am genuinely hurt. Every situation, regardless of how small, needs to be bathed in prayer and because I too am a sinner I need to check my heart and see where I have sinned. I also need to remind myself if this is festering it would be good for me to speak with her. Not one of these choices came into play.
I prayed about it and acknowledged to myself how I felt, disappointed she hadn’t responded with feedback. I know Beth well enough to know her life is really full right now and she is a very kind and gentle soul who usually doesn’t neglect people or commitments. While I was disappointed because I value Beth’s input, I chose to just let it go. As I was writing this article today I ended up getting a random message from Beth asking me to forgive her because she realized neglect had taken place. I assured her I was simply disappointed but not offended. This could have been a deep wound, but I’m thankful it was a barely even light scratch.
Major Offense: These offenses can lead to deep soul pain, wounds which cut deep and leave scars. These are the offenses which bring tears, can cause a person to withdraw, and feel unsafe with you. We are all guilty of committing such offenses. We have all had this type of offense committed against us. So what are we to do when such a major offense has been committed against us? How does God call us to offer forgiveness and what does this look like?
Christ does not forgive us of our sins unless we come to him in confession. As we see in Luke 17: 3-4, Christ instructs us: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” This is a big part of what I believe it to mean when we are told in scripture to “forgive as Christ forgives you,” –we forgive when the offender has come in repentance and sought forgiveness. Nothing is unforgivable.
Are you thinking, “Okay, I hear what you are saying but what about when the person doesn’t repent?” In all situations you first need to be certain they are aware they have harmed or offended you. You need to put Matthew 18:15-20 into action. You need to lovingly tell them what has occurred and then give them the opportunity to respond with repentance. And if you are reading Matthew 18:15-20 you should just keep reading until the start of chapter 19. You see it’s not an accident the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant begins in verse 21.
In the event the offender has not come to you in repentance you may need to look at forgiveness as a process. Read Mark 11:25, Luke 6:28, and Acts 7:60. These verses paint for us a beautiful picture of what it is to love those who harm us. We are offered the opportunity to make a commitment to God we will move forward with a loving heart which does not wish harm or malice against our offender. We can pray for them and be kind to them. We can ready our hearts with forgiveness so should they ever approach in repentance forgiveness can be gifted to them immediately, just as it was for us when Christ was nailed to the cross.
Regardless of whether someone repents or not we are required by God to have a forgiving heart towards our offender. We are to love them with a gospel-centered love. We are to forgive them as Christ forgives us.