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How Can I Forgive?

I recently received a lengthy question about forgiveness which I have summarized as follows:

“How do I forgive someone who is not sorry -- and, in fact, may even despise me and take delight in harming me? I do not respond with malicious behavior. My default response is to shut down my heart and block them out.”

In my own reading and research on this topic, I have found a few things beneficial to mention that eliminate a lot of false guilt as it relates to forgiveness and unforgiveness while simultaneously helping to explain what forgiveness actually looks like.

First, forgiveness is not forgetting. There are a handful of Bible passages that people will quote to justify the claim that you should forget the wrongs against you, but they are taken out of context by and large. You shouldn’t leverage past failures against someone, so to speak, but you will not and cannot forget what happened. Forgiveness means that we no longer hold someone’s sin over them as a guillotine ready to drop when convenient.

Second, the pain you experience from someone’s sin against you will not disappear even after forgiveness. If someone took your child from you through violent means, you won’t simply “get over that.” We are emotive beings and we will still feel the pain of sin.

This means that as God absorbs wrath and suffering in order to forgive us, there is a sense in which you cannot forgive without suffering. You are deciding to absorb that pain rather than exacting it from another person.

Third, forgiveness determines to withhold a justifiable response of revenge and to trust that God will deal with it; to trust that vengeance is ultimately the Lord’s. Forgiveness does not mean you stop longing for justice to be served, but it does mean that you trust God to deal with it (either through the law or through his own means on the day of judgment).

Fourth, forgiveness does not mean that you open wide the gates and willingly invite continued abuse or further action. Setting boundaries in the relationship (if one continues) is healthy. Forgiveness does not mean inviting abuse. On the other side of this, it means that although we do not open up the gate for them to do evil to us, we do open up the gate for us to do good to them.

Romans 12:17-21 commands, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,’ says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.”

In her autobiography, Chasing the Dragon, Jackie Pullinger, a missionary in Hong Kong, tells the story of a young man named Ah Ping who had joined the Triads when he was only twelve years old. He soon came to be supported financially by a fourteen-year-old prostitute. When Jackie showed up and began to reach out in mercy and kindness to Ah Ping and his associates, he told her: “You’d better go. Just get out of here. We’re no good. Go find some people who will appreciate what you’re doing and be grateful for your kindness. We will only hurt you and exploit you and kick you around. Why do you stay? Why do you care?” Said Jackie, “I stay because that’s what Jesus did for me. I didn’t want him either. But he didn’t wait until I got good and wanted him. He died for me while I was his hateful enemy. He loved me and forgave me. He loves you, too.”

“No way,” shouted Ah Ping. “Nobody could love us like that. We rape and fight and steal and stab. Nobody could love us.” She explained how Jesus didn’t love what they did, but that he still loved sinners and was willing to forgive them. Ah Ping was shattered. He sat down on the street corner and received Christ as his savior. Not long after, Ah Ping was attacked by a gang of youths and was beaten with bats. When his friends vowed revenge, Ah Ping said “No. I’m a Christian now and I don’t want you to fight back.”

What transformed Ah Ping? What accounted for his readiness to forgive his evil, unrepentant enemies? It was his realization that “God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners [and evil enemies], Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”