You just found out someone has been spreading untrue and damaging rumors about you to all your friends, and now you know why most of them have been avoiding you.
What conditions need to be met in order for you to forgive that person who has done serious and maybe permanent damage to your reputation?
Questions about forgiveness seem to have different answers in Sunday School than they do in real life. it’s easy to say we need to forgive freely as a hypothetical situation when things are going our way, but let someone step on our toes, really stomp on them hard, over and over again… with a smile on their face, and the concept of freely forgiving goes out the window.
Oh, we’ll forgive all right, as long as certain conditions take place:
- I won’t forgive until that person admits he did this to me.
- I won’t forgive until he makes up for what he did.
- I won’t forgive until he shows remorse and asks for my forgiveness.
- I won’t forgive until I get even.
And I’m sure we can think of others. We all have our minimum set of criteria: “Do this, and I’ll forgive you.” If we make our standards high enough, then we don’t even have to worry about the unpleasant idea of letting someone off the hook.
But just suppose someone meets every qualification for your forgiveness, and you say you forgive him, have you really and truly forgiven from your heart? Is the relationship between you the same as it was before? Has it improved? Or are you now holding that person at a greater (and safer) distance from you than before?
Conditional forgiveness. A concept that we all practice to some degree or the other. But it shouldn’t be this way. Forgiveness should not be conditional. Or at least, it should not be based on the conditions we normally think of.
Real forgiveness actually does require some conditions to be met:
- In order for you to forgive someone, that person must have offended you in some way.
Obviously, you have no right to forgive someone who has not sinned against you personally. If I offend my brother, I need to go to him for forgiveness. I can’t just ask God to forgive me and think everything is back to normal.
But a point just as important is so obvious that we usually miss it. The main qualification for forgiveness is that the person must not deserve it! Forgiveness cannot be earned. If it could, it would be an issue of justice, not forgiveness (i.e. “Ok, you satisfied my conditions, here’s the forgiveness I owe you. Now we’re even.”)
Forgiveness is so unconditional that you do not even have to wait for the person to show any signs of repentance. Stephen, while he was being stoned, said, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). Jesus, while dying on the cross, forgave those who crucified Him while they were still gloating over Him (Luke 23:34). If real forgiveness is to happen, you may have to take the initiative.
- In order for you to truly forgive someone, you must understand to some degree the benefits you received when God forgave you.
All of us who have been saved can now enjoy the benefits of direct, intimate fellowship with God Himself. Our relationship with God has been completely restored. He does not hold our past against us to the slightest degree. This is the meaning of the verse:
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.
– Ephesians 4:32 (NKJV)
‘Be kind to one another’, ‘tenderhearted’, words and phrases that express the true meaning of forgiveness. Fellowship is restored just as if the sin never happened. And because of this, each time someone sins against you, it is just as if it happened for the first time. And your forgiveness needs to be offered again, just as freely and just as full:
“And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”
– Luke 17:4 (NKJV)
Forgiveness is about restoring relationships at your own expense. Sometimes this is painful, because you can be taken advantage of. Forgiveness is like love – it’s very risky. There will be those who will offend you again and again. But there will also be those who have a true change of heart. And the change of heart has the potential for being the greatest when the forgiveness is the greatest (Luke 7:41-43). You won’t know how many more really close friends you will have until you practice true forgiveness.
So forgive freely. You are not responsible for the results. You are only responsible for your part: reflecting the character of your heavenly Father, who forgives you freely.