Forgiveness is a problem for many people due to their misunderstanding of what forgiveness involves and confusion about what forgiveness really is. Part of the issue is that sometimes we are unable to distinguish between forgiveness and feeling forgiven. Sometimes our feelings can get out of sync with the reality of forgiveness.
Once a man came to talk to me about feeling greatly distressed because of his guilt. He said that he had committed a particular sin and had prayed and prayed about it but hadn’t received any relief. He wanted to know what he had to do to experience God’s forgiveness. But since he had confessed his sin and begged God to forgive him, I told him that he needed to ask God to forgive him for a different sin—the sin of arrogance. God says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). When we don’t believe that God has in fact forgiven us when we have confessed our sin, we are calling into question His faithfulness. We are saying that God’s promise cannot be trusted. That is supreme arrogance, so we need to ask God’s forgiveness for our refusing to believe His promise.
There is more to this problem of forgiveness. When we sin, one of the most difficult things for us is accepting free, gracious, merciful forgiveness. We are creatures of pride. We think that God’s forgiveness is fine for other people, but when we do something wrong, we want to make up for it. However, this is absolutely impossible for anyone to do. God requires perfect holiness. Once perfection is lost, we cannot regain it. We are debtors with a debt we cannot pay. This is difficult for us to accept because we want to be able to pay our own way. It’s because of our pride and arrogance, both fruits of our sinfulness, that we refuse to accept the forgiveness of God.
Back to the distinction between forgiveness and feeling forgiven: forgiveness is objective but the feeling of forgiveness is subjective. I can feel forgiven but not be forgiven because I haven’t repented. I can excuse myself when God has not excused me, and that false feeling of forgiveness can lead me astray. But I can also not feel forgiven even when I actually have been forgiven. If God declares that a person is forgiven, that person is in fact forgiven. Our lack of feeling forgiven does not negate the reality of what God has done.
What is the authority in our lives? Our feelings, which are subjective, or the Word of God, which is objective truth? The Christian must live practically each day by the Word of God rather than by his feelings. The issue of forgiveness is not whether we feel forgiven, but whether we have repented. If we confess our sin and ask God for forgiveness through Christ, we can be assured that He forgives us.
Sometimes we don’t forgive ourselves even though God has forgiven us. But who are we to refuse to forgive one whom God has forgiven? What makes us so wicked that God’s forgiveness is not enough to cover our sin? In effect, we’re saying that we’re so evil that even the grace of God can’t help us. No, we’re so proud that we refuse God’s grace.
Now let’s look at what forgiveness is. The Bible teaches that when God forgives us, He forgets our sins. This doesn’t mean He erases them from His memory. It means that He doesn’t hold them against us anymore.
How many times has someone told you that he has forgiven a sin you committed against him, and then, the next time you have a fight, he brings up what you did the last time? That person has, in a sense, rescinded his forgiveness. God doesn’t do that. If I am pardoned by God, it is settled and is never to be brought up again. God puts those sins aside and will never speak of them. However, we often reopen old wounds. We allow them to disturb the relationship. If I have forgiven someone, I should never again mention that sin. Forgiveness means not bringing it up.
There is another issue to look at, and that is our obligation to forgive others who sin against us. If such people confess their sin and repent, it is our moral obligation to forgive. However, if they don’t repent, we are not required to forgive. We may forgive, as Jesus did for those who killed Him (Luke 23:34). But in doing that, Jesus didn’t command that we must always forgive those who don’t repent. You can go to those who have wronged you and tell them they have offended you (see Matt. 18:15). If they repent, you have won them. But you are not called to forgive if they don’t repent. You are not allowed to be bitter or vindictive. You have to be loving, caring, concerned, and compassionate, but you don’t have to forgive. You can still talk about it and seek public vindication.
Here is one last problem related to forgiveness that we deal with often as elders in Christ’s church. A husband or wife commits adultery, repents deeply, and then asks his or her spouse for forgiveness. In such a situation, the offended spouse must forgive the guilty partner. However, that spouse is not obligated to stay married to that partner. The Bible makes a provision for the dissolution of a marriage in the event of adultery. The person is required to treat the repentant person as a brother or sister in Christ but not as a spouse.
Another example is a man stealing from us fifty times in our office and repenting each time. We must forgive him, but we can ask for restitution. We don’t have to keep him in our employ, but we must still treat him as a brother in Christ. This situation is an important practical application of the concept of forgiveness. We can have forgiveness and restored relationships, but that does not necessarily mean there are no lasting consequences for our sin.