Forgiveness: Participating in the Divine Life

Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors….For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:12, 14-15

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:13b

[NOTE:  The Sunday before last, November 2, I returned to teaching at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ after an eleven month rest. It felt rather odd but yet comfortable. (I know that doesn't make sense, but welcome to my world. :-) ).  I decided to return to teaching with a series on forgiveness that was stirred by my recent reflections on The Shack as well as my journey over the past year (and the cumulative effect of previous years). The four lessons are: (1) Receiving forgiveness, which I posted last week, (2) Giving Forgiveness, which is this week's post, (3) Forgiving Self, and (4) Forgiving God.]

Giving forgiveness is exactly that–it is an act of grace, a gift. Forgiveness is not owed; it is not a debt we must pay any more than it is a debt God must pay when he forgives us. As such, forgiveness cannot be demanded, coerced, or even expected by offenders. Forgiveness is something we give.

At one level, giving forgiveness is therapeutic and healthy. It does something for us and inside of us, including lowering blood pressure and decreasing heart rates. It releases negativity; it vents the poison that can corrupt our souls.  It is freedom from repressed negative emotionis. When we refuse to forgive we fuel a cancer that devours us. Consequently, forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. We forgive that we might live without resentment and bitterness.  We forgive for the sake of our own health.  The practice of forgiveness ultimately transforms.

But forgiveness is much more than a humanistic act of self-transformation. Forgiveness is participation in the divine life. It is being with others in the way that God is with us. It is to love as God loves. When we forgive we participate in God’s redemptive movement within the world. We stand with God as we forgive others; we participate in his own forgiving act.

Viewed in this way, forgiveness arises out of the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts. It arises out of our own experience of having received forgiveness from God, the empowerment of the Spirit to forgive as God forgives, and the sense of security/assurance that we are beloved by God no matter how others may treat us. Forgiveness is God’s work in our own hearts.

Remembering our own mistakes and sins empowers forgiveness; if God has forgiven us, then who are we to withhold forgiveness from others? Are we better than they? And, ah, that might be the very problem that hinders us….our pride, our sense of superiority, our self-righteousness.

What hinders forgiveness is our own resentment and bitterness.  We humans tend to wallow in self-pity, blame everyone else for how we feel, and fail to act positively with our negative feelings.  This resentment and bitterness leads to negative actions such as revenge so that we return evil for evil instead of forgiving the evil done against us.

Yet, when we have experienced hurt through the offense of another, anger is a natural and healthy response. There is nothing ungodly about a rape victim’s anger toward their assailant. There is nothing ungodly about a abused wife’s anger toward her husband. There is nothing ungodly about anger toward one’s sexual abuser. Part of the process of forgiveness may, in fact, involve confronting the other person with what they have done. Forgiveness does not mean that what the other person did is OK, but it does give the forgiver space to be OK about their past.  Forgiveness does not necessarily remove the hurt and pain of the past offense. Forgiveness prevents resentment or rids one of resentment, but the hurt may well remain. That hurt will take time to heal.

Actually resentment and bitterness arise out of our own woundedness.  Life has wounded all of us–we have been betrayed, neglected, and attacked by others and even (as it may seem) by God.  As a result we want to protect ourselves, rely on our own self-sufficiency, and blame everyone else rather than take responsibility for our lives.  Thus, we resent others when they hurt us.  We resent rather than forgive because this is how we think others have treated us. Our negative self-image, developed through childhood and other life experiences, yields a negative reaction to hurt in the form of resentment.  Unchecked, this resentment leads to revenge.

Forgiveness releases the other person to God. Instead of taking matters into our own hands or grabbing the offender by the throat with threats, we let go.  We let go and let God handle it. Anger becomes ungodly when it turns to revenge. When we return “evil for evil,” then we become an abuser rather than the abused. When we take vengenance into our own hands, then we become judge, jury, and executioner…we become God.

This does not mean that the forgiver must now reconcile with the forgiven. Reconciliation is a different matter altogether. Forgiveness–as an act of grace toward another–can happen without reconciliation since the other may not receive the forgiveness, may not think they need forgiveness, or may not want to renew (or begin) the relationship. It only takes one to forgive but it takes two to reconcile. While forgiveness may pave the way for reconciliation, forgiveness does not necessarily lead to reconciliation and reconciliation is not required for forgiveness.

Reconciliation may actually take much longer than forgiveness since reconciliation invovles a synergistic, cooperative process of mutual understanding. That takes time, intimacy, and trust.  Reconciliation assumes rebuilt trust and that is a painful, time-consuming process.

Forgiveness does not mean the offense was insignificant or that it did not hurt or there was no reason for anger. Rather, forgiveness is our decision to let God handle the justice, to let go of the other person’s throat, to let go of the resentment, and to let go any personal desire to punish. Postively, and more significantly, forgiveness means desiring for that person what you desire for yourself and treating that person the way God treats you. In short, it is to love them, even if they–in their minds–are our enemies.

We can only love when we feel loved by God. Our acceptance of God’s own forgiveness and our experience of the divine circle of love surrounds us with safety and security. We forgive out of that secure place–the place where we hear God say, “You are my beloved no matter what your past; you are loved.” That love overflows into forgiveness for others.

At bottom, “to forgive is divine” (Alexander Pope).

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32

Love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:8

P.S.  Here is a chart I designed to communicate the point of this lessson for the class I was teaching.



19 Responses to “Forgiveness: Participating in the Divine Life”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    boy oh boy
    john mark
    ya know john mark if i practiced what I stant for…

    its late for me i must leave to do some work

    i do hate a post like this

    all the issues i have .
    boy oh boy,
    sometimes i feel i must look for the perverbial rock to climb under.

    i wish you lived out here sometimes i just need someone to smak me right up the side of the head .

    and say whats wrong wtth you boy.

    blessings all

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    When I was a child I was always taught to ‘forgive and forget.’ While forgive is possible (and commanded), forgetting may be impossible. Several years ago I watched a show about a mother who met with the man that assaulted and murdered her daughter (the man was under the sentense of death). The mother was able to look her daughter’s killer in the face and tell him that she has forgiven him. What she taught me was that forgivness was not about forgetting but about letting go, not holding X,Y, & Z against the other person anymore.

    Great post!

    Rex

  3.   Stan Says:

    Wonderful thoughts. Thanks. I find it helpful to think of forgiving others who have hurt me as a process. It’s something I have to decide to do over and over again. In time the healing comes.

  4.   Charlie Says:

    Good stuff —

    Of course when it comes to actually foregiving someone I am reminded of something a co-worker of mine used to say.

    “Anything is easy unless you are the one who has to do it”.

    God Bless
    Charlie

  5.   weswoodell Says:

    Good thoughts, Rex.

    And the last two paragraphs of this post are especially powerful.

    Good stuff. :)

  6.   Gardner Says:

    The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation that you made was important to me. I’ve tried to help someone who is scarred and feels that there can be no forgiveness if there is no repentance. The individual mentions that forgiveness is conditioned on the offender’s repentance in Luke 17:3, “if he repents.” I’ve responded that without repentance there may be no forgiveness in the sense of saying that all is well, but there can and must be forgiveness in the sense of turning it all over to God and trusting Him to do what is right about the offence, casting our cares on him. I think your point about there being a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation may help me with this. Do you have any other points about forgiving those who refuse to repent?

  7. Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    The notion that one can only forgive another if and only if they repent does not fit God’s own life. Certainly there are many people with whom God is not reconciled, but I don’t think he resents or holds a grudge against any of them. He is grieved by those who do not repent, and his justice will ultimately do what it must do, but he does not resent them. God is not malicious.

    Those who wait for someone to repent before they forgive project on God a kind of bitterness and resentment that justifies their own smugness and self-righteousness rather than grieving as God grieves that someone has not repented.

    In any event, forgiveness is a path to healthy living. To hinge forgiveness (in the sense of letting go of the bitterness, anger and vengenance) on another’s repentance is to give them a power over my own inner self–it will keep me bitter. And then I also have to decide whether they have truly repented; they have to satisfy me before I forgive them. That becomes a cycle of destruction; and there is no peace in that approach.

    Luke does not say you can only forgive if they repent but that if they repent then you must forgive. There is a difference.

  8.   Johnny Melton Says:

    Your last statement in reply to Gardner is, I think, essential to this issue. The problem Jesus was addressing was the tendency to limit forgiveness even in the face of repentance (seven times in a day). Rather than the conditional phrases in verse three being translated as “if” clauses, I think they could be translated as “when” clauses. “When your brother sins, rebuke him, and when he repents, forgive him.” Jesus does not intend, in this text, to say anything about what one may do when faced with a brother who has sinned and refuses to repent. There is a sense in which forgiveness is a gift the offended gives to himself/herself. If I cannot forgive the one who has offended me unless he or she has repented, then I cannot release the offense and move on myself. (And don’t parse words by suggesting that you can’t forgive without repentance, but you can have a “spirit of forgiveness.” Just exactly what would I do if I have a “spirit of forgiveness” toward my offender, that I would not do if I actually forgave him or her?)

  9.   Gardner Says:

    I think you and Johnny Melton are right about Luke. Perhaps as well we can refer to forgiveness in two senses: (1) Saying that all is right with God, which can’t really be said w/o repentance, and (2) leaving the offence in God’s merciful hands, turning it over to him and making sure we have a loving heart towards the offender. Certainly forgiveness in the second sense, which is really the only type that we can control, is and must be unconditional.

  10.   weswoodell Says:

    Ooo … and I just looked at the chart (I didn’t before).

    That’s a keeper.

  11.   T Gagnon Says:

    I don’t regret what I did in order for my offender to finally truly repent. To not seek that repentance, to me, would have been tantamount to the Christian version of a frontal lobotomy. I went through the pain to extend the opportunity for mercy and forgiveness one last time. I believe it was worth it.

  12.   Josh Says:

    Thanks for blogging through your Sabbath. Many preachers and church leaders need to realize, as you have . . . that we are not the Messiah.

    :)

    JG

  13.   rich constant Says:

    JOHN MARK…
    GOOD MORNING

    Feelings fueled by our emotions are so transitory, all dependent on what we have learned to call our life experience.
    Our character attributes to a degree are predisposed to be shaped to some extent by one’s cultural ethic (mom, dad, family, friends, and TV). .
    This interaction of forms one’s psychological concept of what one’s real world is.
    We all learn what is good and what is bad and place an emotional value to that concept.

    AND THEN….

    THERE IS THE DIVINE NATURE ….

    THEREFORE, WE ALL, SO TO SPEAK, GET TO RETOOL OURSELVES.

    According to the expressed will of the father through his son’ by way of the Spirit, which is dwelling in us through faithfulness, which is to HONOR our father as the son has.

    Guess what this just doesn’t cut it

    Feelings fueled by our emotions are so transitory, all dependent on what we have learned to call our life experience.
    Our character attributes to a degree are predisposed to be shaped to some extent by one’s cultural ethic (mom, dad, family, friends, and TV). .
    This interaction of forms one’s psychological concept of what one’s real world is.
    We all learn what is good and what is bad and place an emotional value to that concept.

    THE FATHER SAYS TO EACH OF US WHAT PART OF ALL DIDN’T YOU GET.

    …..and sometimes I feel like climbing under a rock and at other times, throwing a few …hard.

    And by way faith, hope, and love, and experience,
    I know that in 5 five years the moment that I allow my emotions derived from my cultural ethic to control my feelings and I throw that proverbial ROCK…HARD.

    I AM NOT HONORING MY FATHER AS A TRUE SON, I BECOME THE ONE IN THE CROUD THAT SHOUTED CRUSAFY HIM!!!

    NOT THE ONE HONERING HIS FATHER SAYING FORGIVE THEM FATHER.

    MOREOVER, THE MEMORY OF THE MOMENT? IF THAT ROCK WAS BIG ENOUGH… WILL STILL BE THERE IN 5 YEARS, IN SO MANY WAYS…ON A PERSONAL LEVEL.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, I CAN LEARN TO FORGIVE AS THE FATHER HAS DONE THROUGH HIS SON AND HAVE MOMENTS OF AFERMATION BY THIS SPIRIT THAT I AM PARTAKER OF THE DIVINE NATURE.

    BLESSINGS ALL

  14. Profile photo of Alan Scott  Alan Scott Says:

    I will “Amen” your article on forgiveness. I struggled with the forgiveness issue almost from the beginning of my separation from my ex-wife in 1988. Holding on to my resentments gave me a feeling of power and control, but it was just an illusion. It did not take me long to realize that these feelings were consuming nearly ALL of my mental activity to the point that I was even dreaming about it. A trusted friend (RE accountability) asked me if I enjoyed spending so much time thinking about someone who had caused me so much pain and who wanted nothing to do with me. That was the wake-up call. I did NOT want to be so consumed with my ex-wife. I wanted to be consumed with the Lord, who was the only one who I could still rely on.

    But the resentments kept coming back – anniversaries of our marriage, our separation, other painful dates, and anything dealing with our children. When I went through divorce recovery classes, the group leader suggested a way to physically rid my self of the resentments. I wrote each and every resentment, “I resent you because you did…,” down on a piece of paper in a letter format. I took the UNMAILED letter and burned in my fireplace. As the flames consumed the paper, I prayed that God would consume my resentments.

    This worked for quite a while, but maybe my heart was not in it, because a few years later a situation came up that brought many of these resentments back to the surface.

    I was not happy with how my ex-wife was handling visitation times with the children. This went on for about a year before I took any action. For the next 12 months I wrote her several times expressing my dissatisfaction with the situation, letters which were unacknowledged and unanswered. After much anguish and prayer, I decided that my only recourse was to file a contempt motion against my ex-wife.

    The reaction was swift and heated. She accused me of plotting for 6 years to create a reason to get revenge on her in court. She convinced our children that this was my real motive. The heatedness and viciousness of her response shook me deeply.

    I decided to do an integrity check on myself to confirm that my motives were pure – I wanted time with my children and that was all. So I wrote my ex-wife a letter of several pages detailing every action she had made since our separation that I resented. But this time, after each sentence, “I resent you for what you did,” I also wrote, “I forgive you for …” I placed the letter in a envelope, sealed it, addressed to her, and went for a drive.

    My wife and I drove for 2-3 hours down the Texas coast until we reached the mouth of a river. We had stopped several times before, but each place we stopped just didn’t seem right. When we arrived at this beach side where the river flowed into the gulf, I knew this was the right place.

    We walked along the edge of the river and stopped along the bank. I dug a deep hole in the sand and buried this letter. We prayed over this “grave” and asked God to take away these resentments, just as the gulf takes away the waters of the river. We prayed that these resentments would be swept away into the gulf of God’s forgiveness. AND THIS IS IMPORTANT: I prayed that God would forgive my ex-wife of all that I forgave her for.

    I wept with my wife as I have seldom wept. But it was tears of relief. To this day I do not remember what was in that letter. God had taken them away.

    And I discovered a key benefit: I cannot stay angry with someone that I have forgiven and that I have asked God to forgive, even though they have never asked or indicated an interest in asking for forgiveness.

    This is symbolized by a recent event. My daughter just married last month, and my ex-wife was part of the celebration. We got along well, especially my wife and ex-wife (the two mothers-of-the bride). Later the same month, we were driving through my ex-wife’s home town and we stopped to drop off some pictures from the wedding, and she gave us some old baby clothes that had belonged to our daughter. We treated her to lunch, and she even hugged us both as we left. When we told our daughter about this, she was pleasantly surprised, and very grateful.

    The events that conributed to a peaceful reunion at my daughter’s wedding and afterwards could not have happened had I not forgiven my ex-wife years ago.

  15. Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks for your response. I have used the letter writing method as well, and it is effective…at least in my life. It allows venting, letting go, and letting God.

    I have also used the technique of praying for the one I resent daily, and by the end of the month my mind is oriented differently toward them. It is hard to pray for someone for a long period of time and still resent them. If so, it may indicate that there something in my own heart that is the problem rather than in their heart.

  16. Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Richard,

    I like the notion of honoring the Father the way the Son honors the Father by praying for God to forgive others and having that same attitude in our own hearts toward those who have sinned against us or offended us. It is, indeed, a participation in the divine life and where resentment remains and forgiveness withheld (even when we think they should repent first), it indicates that there is something in my own heart that is not yet fully participating in that divine life.

  17.   Keith Brenton Says:

    Alan’s comment illustrates a principle that my wife and I taught in single-again classes in two different churches in two different cities where we’ve lived:

    That forgiveness of others is a gift to one’s self, as well.

  18.   T Gagnon Says:

    I don’t believe a person’s hope that their offender will repent is a “smug” or “bitter” hope at all that is destructive or contrary to the hope of the Cross. I believe that is a real, purposeful hope of renewal of a broken heart searching for a way to repair the brokenness that is so difficult to find in this fallen world. To say that being proactive in seeking, no matter how painful, repentance from the one who offended some kind of heartfelt repentance or apology is an offense to the cross is nonsensical. I rely on the works of Dr. Dan Allender, Christian counselor, in his esteemed work, “The Wounded Heart” to provide guidance on this subject. He delves very deeply into recovery of the most painful of subjects, but it pertains to many. I hope you allow this so some who may choose to look into his writings.

  19. Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I have no problem with hoping for a person’s repentance. I have no problem with seeking to heal the wounds through dialogue with the offender. Indeed, I would encourage that where possible as long as the method is conducive to healing. My point was only that withholding forgiveness till someone repents or on condition of repentance adds to the woundness of that person. If I condition my forgiveness on a person’s repentance, then I have to become the judge of whether that repentance is genuine or authentic. I, of course, will decide whether to trust that person again or whether to reconcile with that person–and neither is necessary for forgiveness or godliness, but forgiveness is something I try to give whether they repent or not. It is, of course, difficult and thus we pray for the power of the Spirit to help and enable us to embrace the heart of God for others.

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