Forgiveness can be emotionally and spiritually messy. The process is often long and brutal, stretching and growing us in a method we didn’t anticipate. God places the imperative of forgiveness on us and while the process may be painful at times the end results are quite beautiful.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Colossians 3:12-13
In these two verses Paul, the author of Colossians, is addressing Christ followers and thus the instructions given do not apply to non-believers. Those who do not walk with Christ are not able to participate in the wondrous and sanctifying process of forgiving others. They first need to seek forgiveness from Christ and be overwhelmed with His unconditional love. Until then, nonbelievers can only be offered a pardon and common grace. For those who are Christ followers, Paul gives a short and challenging list of character qualities of how we are to interact with others: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
There are significant reasons these characteristics are listed out for us. We are sinners and we need to be reminded of how we are to conduct ourselves, especially in conflict. The Scripture reads “if one has a complaint against another,” right here we see conflict enter and thankfully we are reminded in the prior verse how we are to respond. The verse continues to instruct us to offer forgiveness as God has forgiven us. Personally, I struggle with these on a daily basis and I’m ever so grateful God is always willing to forgive me each time I fail.
When do we forgive?
Some will say God openly forgives everyone and nothing is needed from us. In other words, repentance is not required for forgiveness. I can’t jive with that as it is contrary to what scripture tells us. Jesus tells us none come to the Father but through Him (John 14:6). If repentance is not required then we have no need for the cross. There is no greater gift than what was accomplished for us at Calvary; through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus, our sins were wiped away. To state that God doesn’t require repentance would be disregarding the gospel as a whole. We cannot be in relationship with Christ without first coming to the foot of the cross in full recognition and repentance of our sins and it is there that we seek the forgiveness which is so freely and sacrificially offered to us. This, my friend, is love ––a love like no other, and a love lavished on us that we don’t deserve and cannot be earned.
The 3 M’s of Forgiveness
Mistake: Everything bad that occurs is not necessarily a sin, therefore it does not require one to repent or offer forgiveness. An example of this would be when a guest in your home spills coffee on your beige carpet and exclaims profusely how sorry they are. While they may use the words “I’m sorry,” no sin was committed thus you do not need to offer forgiveness. One might respond to a mistake by saying, “Oh, it’s okay.” Be careful when using such a response so as to not shrug off something which may be a larger offense. Ask yourself if what has happened really is okay or if repentance is needed.
Minor Offense: When a minor offense occurs, we are offered a great opportunity to immediately forgive. A minor offense would be a situation where you are mildly offended, but you do not feel an apology is necessary for you to move forward. It is something you can easily let go of, giving the person the benefit of the doubt. Keep in mind though, what may be minor to some is major to others so we cannot assume someone is overreacting if they feel the offense we have given is not minor. We also need to be cautious and not exaggerate a situation. A serious heart and motive check is needed by all parties involved.
Major Offense: These offenses can lead to deep soul pain, wounds which cut deep and leave scars. These are the offenses which bring tears, can cause a person to withdraw, and feel unsafe with their offender. We are all guilty of committing such offenses. We have all had this type of offense committed against us. So what are we to do when such a major offense has been committed against us? To answer this question, we must first look at what forgiveness from Christ looks like.
What happens when Christ forgives us?
When we fall to our knees at the foot of the cross, seeking forgiveness for our sins we are then forgiven and adopted into God’s family. Once we have been brought into God’s family, no matter how messy we are, we won’t be discarded. However, it is crucial to understand that even as Christ followers, when we sin we are disconnected from God until we seek forgiveness (Isaiah 59:2, Romans 6:23). Our inability to not sin shows us our constant need to come to Him in repentance (Isaiah 59:1-2, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32). The good and gracious news is that Christ is always waiting for us with open arms. He will not turn his back on us nor will He renounce us as His children, but we must admit our sin and have godly sorrow.
Forgiveness and love go hand in hand. Through God’s forgiveness and love for us, He chooses to move forward and not bring up our forgiven sin (Isaiah 43:25). We need to mirror His example as we forgive others and remember that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5). Forgiveness, like love, is a choice, not a feeling. While emotion certainly does have notable involvement, it is not what we are to base our response on. It isn’t here to make us feel good, it’s about being obedient to Christ and mending a wrong we committed. Forgiveness does not wipe away the consequences of our sin, but acknowledges the wrongdoing and moves forward in gospel-centered love.
Knowing that Christ does not forgive us of our sins unless we come to him in repentance helps us to better understand how and when we are to forgive others. Christ instructs us in Luke 17:3-4;“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Like Christ, we forgive when the offender has come in repentance and sought forgiveness. As hard as it may be for us, nothing is unforgivable.
When the offender doesn’t seek forgiveness
In all situations, ascertain whether or not the offender is aware they have harmed or offended you. In order to accomplish this, Matthew 18:15-20 needs to be put into action. Lovingly tell the person what has occurred and then give them the opportunity to respond with repentance. Continue reading in Matthew until the start of chapter 19 because it’s not an accident the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant begins in verse 21.
In the event the offender is not repentant, it may be helpful to approach forgiveness as an extended process. Read Mark 11:25, Luke 6:28, and Acts 7:60. These verses portray a beautiful likeness of what it is to love those who harm us. We are offered the opportunity to commit to moving forward with a loving heart that does not wish harm or malice against the offender. We can be kind and pray for them while being careful not to cast our pearls among swine (Matthew 7:6). We can ready our hearts with forgiveness in the event they approach in repentance, forgiveness can be gifted to them immediately, just as it was for us when Christ was nailed to the cross.
Regardless of whether someone repents or not we are required by God to have a forgiving heart towards the offender. We are to love them with a gospel-centered love and forgive them as Christ forgives us. Forgiveness is absolutely a beautiful hot mess.
Questions for Consideration:
1. Are there people who have sinned against you whom you have not yet confronted?
2. Have you sinned against others and not yet sought their forgiveness?
3. Is your heart prepared to forgive those who have not sought forgiveness?
4. Have you allowed unforgiven sins of your own or others to bring division in your relationship and relationships with others?
5. Are you letting bitterness and unrighteous anger take hold where forgiveness has not been given?
1. Pray about and think through your hurts from others and ask yourself if they are a mistake, minor or major offense.
2. Go to those you have hurt and seek their forgiveness.
3. Approach those who have hurt you and not yet repented to you.
4. Take practical steps, such as conversations, prayer, seek wise counsel, to help bring you towards restoration and reconciliation.
5. Read your Bible! Staying in the Word is a huge part of working through any of the struggles we face. Focus on the forgiveness that God has blessed you with for your own sins when you are struggling to forgive others.