What Does It Mean to Forgive?

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One evening, my wife said something to me that I thought was unfair, and I took offense at it. In the instant I took offense, I began pulling away. My words no longer flowed. My thoughts became troubled. I no longer wanted to linger in her presence but instead retreated behind plastered walls that resembled the barriers I had erected in my heart. The evening became artificially silent—voices no longer filled the air, but the atmosphere around us nevertheless crackled with felt insult and accusation. I waited for the apology I thought I was owed, unaware that my waiting—the feeling that an apology was required before I would be willing to forgive and once again extend my love—was just as off-putting as the act that I had taken offense at in the first place! By my own internal logic, my wife would have as much reason to wait for my apology as I had to wait for hers. And so we each waited, and waited, and waited, every moment making it less likely that anyone would ever apologize for anything.

Had you been a guest in our home that night, you might have felt to grab my collar and say, “Grow up, Jim! Let it go! Forgive her—she didn’t mean anything by what she said. And even if she did, forgive her anyway!” Your counsel would have been good and wise. But it would have been unlikely to help. Why? Because in that moment and all others like it, I am misunderstanding what is meant by “forgiveness.”

The word itself sets us up for misunderstanding. To “forgive” someone sounds like such a gallant act—a favor dispensed upon another despite his or her despicable mistreatment or thoughtlessness. And if I view it this way, I will be tempted to wait for some act of contrition on the other’s part that I would be willing to accept in exchange for the love I am withholding. In the story I just shared, the price I had placed on receipt of my love was an apology. That price was increasing moment by moment, meaning that I was withholding my love more and more as my wife persisted in not apologizing! I was speaking less, looking at her less, being with her less. If she too took offense, then her demanded price would increase each moment as well. Each of us would insist that we were willing to forgive, but we would be blind to the deal we were actually offering: that we would be willing to extend our love to the other once again only after that person paid the price our offended selves had set for it.

Our idea of forgiveness in such cases is a small and miserly and decrepit thing. It must be earned, we insist, blind to our own unwillingness to pay the purchase price. We have sucked all the light and divinity from the redeeming act of forgiveness and are using it instead as a crass currency of exchange. As if love must, or can, be purchased. Does Christ withhold his love from us? Does he not, rather, come to us, and bid us come to him, “without price”?

Any withholding of love is itself a sin. So to have held it back on account of what another has done is itself an act for which we must repent. Sometimes, the act that precipitates this repentance is for the one who has harmed the other to come and beg the harmed party’s “forgiveness.” I think it may be partly for this reason that we call the aggrieved party’s act an act of forgiveness. But make no mistake, when I as the harmed party respond to this request by giving up my resentment and my grudge, what I am doing is repenting—repenting of my failing to love. Forgiveness is simply the word we use to describe this kind of repentance.

This kind of repentance—the repentance that we call forgiveness—is the most crucial kind of repentance of all. The Lord teaches us that if we don’t repent of withholding forgiveness, then we ourselves will not be able to receive the mercy that we need in order to be redeemed.

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