Let’s Clarify What Forgiveness Is

There has been quite a bit of discussion around the recent announcement that somewhere between $10k-20k of student loan debt may be forgiven those who owe it. Some celebrate this while others are quite offended by it. Since forgiveness is such a central Christian topic, I thought I’d write up a few quick pointers to help us understand it a little better.

1. Forgiveness means someone owes you a debt.

What’s so great about the student loan forgiveness conversation becoming popular is that it is a perfect example of the word forgiveness. It’s not just a metaphysical, emotional conversation about sin, but a tangible one that we can all see in a physical dollar bill. You took out a loan, and now you must pay the loan back. If you do not do so, the loanee will lose out entirely. They will have taken a risk on you and lost. You are now at fault and owe them a debt, which, throughout history has ended in enslavement, court cases, criminal activity, and death. Such evils are found in the fruit of unforgiveness, which is a toxic and dangerous thing.

That being said, most cases of forgiveness that we run into in the day to day are more spiritual in nature. Someone has sinned against us and done injustice and now they owe us something in return. We have the right to hold their invisible debt over them if we want, but Jesus tells us not to do so. He knows our bitterness and hatred will always lead to some form of death for ourselves and others. As it’s often said, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

2. Forgiveness means you’re cancelling the debt owed you.

Jesus came around and told his followers to stop responding to debt in death-like ways. Instead, if we find ourselves in situations where someone owes us something they can’t pay or they refuse to pay, we are to forgive them. He explains in a parable that it doesn’t matter if someone owes us a zillion dollars or five bucks—if they are in need of forgiveness, we are to forgive. The same is true not just of financial debt, but of sin. When people commit injustice toward us, they rack up a spiritual kind of debt. This too is toxic and dangerous and we need to let go of it before it takes root in us.

3. Forgiveness means leaving vengeance in God’s hands.

Paul calls us to never take vengeance, but to leave such matters to God. Vengeance is unforgiveness lived out in its fullness and it’s what many naturally want, but the Bible wants us to recognize that God is a God of justice and that one day everything we’ve ever done will be exposed. Even if the person who sinned against us gets away with it in this life, they will not in the next, for God’s grand court date with the world is coming. In the meantime, we are to recognize that there is no such thing as holy vengeance among humans—only God is capable of judging us rightly, for in his omniscience he knows everything about us.

4. Forgiveness can still mean justice now.

While Jesus commands us to release others from the debt they owe us, this doesn’t necessarily mean there can’t be any consequences now. For example, Brandt Jean was able to use a prophetic hug to forgive Amber Guyger for unjustly killing his brother. Amber still had to face a 10 year prison sentence as punishment for her sin, but she would now do so under the spiritual release of the debt that she owed Brandt. Forgiveness and just-consequences can go hand in hand. Weighing what kinds of consequences still must be faced when we truly forgive someone can be a tricky conversation and needs to be addressed uniquely with each situation.

5. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay.”

If someone owes you a debt, then by definition, something is not okay. Be it physical or metaphysical, someone has wronged you and for that reason, injustice has been declared. Deciding to release someone from the physical or spiritual debt they owe you is not as though to say, “It’s okay. No problem. It’s no big deal.” No, it was a big deal. What they did was wrong. They do not deserve forgiveness—you are just offering it to them to allow a heavenly world of love and life to break in and stop your world of hate and death from manifesting. Jesus knows that forgiveness is hard. Indeed, traumatic forgiveness is probably the hardest of all forms of forgiveness. Our oppressors committed great injustice against us. They would lose in a court case. They owe us an extreme debt. It’s not okay. But despite how hard this is, we are to ask Jesus to help us to forgive them anyway and allow healing to come.

6. Forgiveness is not forgetting.

“Forgive and forget” is one of the most unfortunate expressions we toss around today. Forgiveness and forgetting are two very different things. We always need to forgive, but we don’t always need to forget. How dangerous it would be to forget that someone abused or molested you. Doing such a thing would just throw you right back into the same dangerous situation. Yes, forgiveness is forgiving someone as many times as they sin against you, but it is not forgetting what happened so that you keep falling back into a situation where you can be afflicted by them. Perhaps in the spirit of true forgiveness, we need to attempt to get to the place where we treat such people as though we have forgotten, but we not therefore to actually forget—nor are we to return to oppression.

7. Forgiveness is not fair.

This goes without saying, but seems worth stating anyways: by nature, forgiveness isn’t fair. Someone owes you a debt. If you forgive it, there’s no fairness involved. Indeed, forgiveness that is classified as somehow “fair,” probably isn’t real forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about “what can I get out of you?” Forgiveness is about, “what am I deciding to lose out on?” Forgiveness also tends to be rather extravagant in nature, since it’s the big things we struggle to let go of the most. Therefore, much of what we forgive feels extravagantly unfair.

8. Forgiveness is not reconciliation.

There is a stage beyond forgiveness known as reconciliation, but it doesn’t always happen. While reconciliation is the gold star of forgiveness lived out, it takes two to tango. If the other party continually hardens their heart against you, there is nothing you can do but keep offering the chance to reconcile. If they do not take it, it cannot happen. But you are not responsible for their spiritual maturity—only yours.

It should be said, however, that some relationships are altogether shut off from reconciliation. In recovery groups, for example, you generally don’t try to make amends with an abuser. Some people you need to forgive from afar and move along. After the intensity of what they did, there is no need to try to create a reconciliation that could go wrong all over again. All relationships need to be forgiven, but some specific relationships just need to be turned over to God. It takes discernment to know when such serious moments occur.

9. Forgiveness is not guaranteed to “work.”

One of the big reasons people reject the idea of forgiveness is because there’s no proof that it will work. It doesn’t guarantee the other person will learn their lesson. It doesn’t guarantee reconciliation. It doesn’t necessarily fix your situation. If someone owes you $10k, you’re for sure not getting it back if you forgive them! Why forgive if it doesn’t work?

But the truth is that you can’t see all the effects of forgiveness. And though it may not always work on the person you’re forgiving (indeed, they may reject your forgiveness) true forgiveness will always work on your heart; for the forgiveness of someone else is also for you. Eva Kor, an Auschwitz survivor, teaches this well in forgiving the nazi doctors that experimented on her and her twin sister. “What I discovered was that the act of forgiveness had a tremendous impact on me,” she says. “It gave me power. No one could stop me from doing it, and I didn’t need anyone’s permission. It was self-liberating and self-healing at the same time. I am no longer a victim.” She goes on elsewhere: “Above all, remember that Forgiveness is a seed for peace. Anger is a seed for war.”

10. Forgive as quick as you can.

I get it—we can’t heal from everything overnight, but Jesus was apt to push us to forgive as quickly as possible. This is because he knew just how toxic unforgiveness truly is. It doesn’t take long for it to settle in us, and once it has there is no telling what might happen—especially when great trauma is involved. Paul tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger because it gives the devil a foothold—let it go before the days ends.

If you haven’t done demonic deliverance ministry before, I can’t tell you how often forgiveness ends up being a key component of kicking demons out. We often ascertain from the demon what legal rights it has to be present in the person’s life. Whenever the theme of unforgiveness comes up, we lead the person in a prayer that releases their offenders from the debt they owe and the demon loses its right to stay and we can then kick it out. Leading people through forgiveness is one of the most common things we deliverance ministers do. Even I myself once sat depressed at my kitchen table, upset by the way someone had been hurting me. Suddenly I felt moved to say, “I forgive them,” and it felt like something fell right off my back.

Unforgiveness is a breeding ground for demonic activity. They are false guides that want to break into your life in attempts to teach you how to best deal with your newfound pain. The more we listen, the more we find ourselves caught up in a web of lies that we need to break. But the Holy Spirit is graceful and will meet us in that mess to guide us out with his life-giving tactics.

11. Jesus is the ultimate example of forgiveness.

Jesus is the only human being who has never sinned. That being said, he did us no injustice whatsoever and therefore, owes us no debt. Yet we married the electric chair of capital punishment with the lynching tree and murdered him on the cross in his innocence. We literally hung God upon a cross for no reason. By all means, we should be screwed when it comes to forgiveness—every last one of us cast into Hell for this atrocity. But Jesus put his money where his mouth was. Before he was killed, he washed our feet. Before he was killed, he decided to openly give his life as a sacrifice on the cross. And then, while he hung on a cross, he proclaimed forgiveness over us, trying to fight for us in our judgment case: “God, please forgive them for this sin. They don’t actually know what they’re doing by putting me here.”

That being said, when we can’t forgive others their sins, we are rejecting the central act of Christ himself. We are essentially missing the point entirely.

12. Forgiveness is offensive (I guess).

Over the last few years I have seen a few major instances of forgiveness go viral, and each was followed with the ticked off dialogue of non-Christians and Christians alike. Non-Christians are usually upset when a sinful injustice is forgiven while Christians are upset when a financial injustice is forgiven. It’s a rather strange enigma. Because I grew up in the church and have heard the cross-shaped gospel since the day I was born, I have always seen forgiveness as the most beautiful news there is. Indeed, when I went to see Disney’s live action version of Cinderella, I literally had the breath stolen right out of my chest when she looked at her wicked stepmother and said, “I forgive you.” I couldn’t breathe.

We need to get comfortable with forgiveness. We cannot live as though the only good forgiveness is the kind that is offered us personally through Christ. No, we also need to extend that kind of forgiveness to others, every time, as often as we are sinned against—and that’s according to Jesus himself, and solidified by his actions on the cross. Indeed, he tells us that if we don’t forgive others, he won’t forgive us either.

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