The Word of the Lord from Matthew 6:12 (NIV)
“And Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Over and over, I have come face to face with a problem. How do I explain what forgiveness is? I have had many people attempt to explain it to me, but it seems like they focus more on what forgiveness isn’t rather than what it actually is.
To be fair, it probably is best to begin with what forgiveness isn’t, simply because we have developed so many damaging misconceptions about it. You know, well-meaning phrases like, “forgive and forget” seem to abound, flying around and tearing people’s souls to shreds. After all, how can we forget when someone does something so awful that it leaves scars that seem impossible to heal?
Forgiveness is not forgetting. God gave us memories for a reason. Memory serves as a warning signal, reminding us who is safe to trust and who isn’t. We remember for our own protection, because God does not desire for us to continuously and needlessly expose ourselves to abuse.
Forgiveness is not pretending the injury did not happen. Denial generally prolongs and compounds our wounds. We must acknowledge and work through our hurts in order for the Lord to be able to heal them. We cannot give a burden to Him if we refuse to acknowledge that it exists.
Forgiveness is not saying that what the other person did is okay. Whether the other person’s actions are intentional or unintentional, a wound is a wound. It is not okay to wound one another. You do not have to give people permission to hurt you in order to forgive them.
Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation. Just because you forgive someone, that does not mean you are required to trust that person again or expose yourself to potentially being wounded again, especially if the person remains unrepentant. Again, forgiveness is not giving that person permission to hurt you.
Now that we’ve talked a little about what forgiveness isn’t, let’s move on to what forgiveness is.
Now, I don’t typically use the NIV for devotional reading or for serious study. I’m not knocking it. It just isn’t my preference. So, I was quite blown away when I heard the Lord’s Prayer read from the NIV recently, and it provided me with a huge metaphor for understanding what forgiveness actually is.
When we are wounded by someone, we use the terminology of “holding something against” that person. That language is the language of debt. The reason we feel the way we do and use the vocabulary we do is because there is a debt that person owes to us. Whoever wounded me has taken something from me, and he or she owes me restitution—the restoration of that which I lost when the violation occurred. That is also why we hold on to grudges so desperately. We feel that we have a right to demand the repayment of what is owed to us. Most often, the person who hurt us is not even capable of repaying such a massive debt even if he or she is willing to do so.
That is where the student loan metaphor comes in.
Unfortunately, I have student loans. I owe a debt. Sometimes, I get these weird letters in the mail telling me that some other company has purchased my debt and they will now be “servicing” my loans. Well, here’s the rub. If another company purchases my debt, the first company can’t come to my door and demand repayment. They no longer own rights to collect on that debt.
Isn’t that the way forgiveness works? Someone owes us a debt that he or she cannot pay. Jesus offers to purchase that debt from us, able to restore everything that we have lost. Indeed, the way to complete restoration can only be found in Christ. But, in order to gain that restoration, we must be willing to turn that debt over to Jesus. He will purchase it, and we will be restored, but the rights to collect on that debt will no longer be ours. We cannot go to that person who wounded us and demand repayment.
The right to collect on that debt will belong to Christ alone, and the decision on how to satisfy that debt is between Him and the person who wounded me. The person who hurt me may very well decide to seek forgiveness and trust in God’s grace. If that happens, Jesus will certainly choose to declare that debt satisfied. Often, that is the reason people do not wish to forgive. They feel there has been a terrible injustice because the person who wounded them did not get what he or she deserved.
But, isn’t grace (undeserved favor) exactly what we want for ourselves instead of justice (getting what we deserve)?
Patricia Taylor is a member of the Seedbed Farm Team and is the editor for the Soul Care Collective.