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What is Forgiveness?

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Some people collect stamps. Some collect antiques. And others, it seems, collect offenses. Ask them what any person has done to offend them and they can rattle off the list. They get historical in a hurry.

What is Forgiveness? Here's a Helpful Lesson I’ve Learned

(Photo by oomph)

After a talk I gave one time, a woman came up to me with a determined look. She asked: “So you’re saying all a person has to do for forgiveness is believe in Jesus Christ—and all their sins are forgiven?”

“That’s what the Bible says, yes—.”

“I can’t accept that,” she interrupted. “Some things just can’t be forgiven.”

I paused and looked into her eyes. “Who has hurt you deeply?” She gave no answer, except for the tears that welled up immediately.

The problem with forgiveness is the debt is real. Someone has taken from us and hurt us deeply. In order to forgive, it feels like we must give even more than has already been taken.

This is hard. Very hard. So, what is forgiveness?

What is Forgiveness? A Promise, not a Feeling

One woman admitted, “I know my husband has forgiven me, because he tells me every week of my life he’s forgiven me.”

What is forgiveness? Not that. God says:

I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remem­ber their sins no more. —Heb. 8:12

How can an omniscient God forget our sins? God knew about our sins and chose to pay for them all at the cross of Christ—even before we were born.

So in what way does God remember sins no more? He chooses not to count it against us.

What is Forgiveness?

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I like how Jay Adams puts it:

If forgiveness were merely an emotional expe­rience, we would not know that we were forgiven . . . What does God do when He goes on record saying that our sins are forgiven? God makes a promise. Forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is a promise! —Jay Adams

In the same way, when you choose to forgive, you make a promise not to use someone’s offense as ammunition for the future. You also promise yourself that you refuse to dwell on the offense over and over in your mind. Forgiveness frees you from the prison of bitterness, but the bruise from the offense may remain for a while—or indefinitely.

What is forgiveness? It is a promise, not a feeling. It’s a decision.

Why We Forgive

If the person who has hurt you shows up in your daily life—as a boss, or a spouse, or a coach, etc.—and he or she continues to hurt you, what then?

When Jesus said we must forgive 70 x 7 times, He didn’t mean after 490 offenses we now have the right to bear a grudge (Matthew 18:21-22). He gave us the reason why in the story He told immediately following: a master forgave his servant an enormous debt and expected the servant to grant that same forgiveness to a fellow servant (Matthew 18:23-35).

To what extent should we forgive? Jesus made the answer plain: “To what extent has God forgiven you?”

When answering “what is forgiveness?” we begin by realizing why we forgive: because God forgave us (Matt. 6:12, 14-15; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).

What is Forgiveness?

(Photo by Andre Koch, via

How to Forgive: a Helpful Lesson I’ve Learned

Like you, I’ve faced a lot of pain in life—both while growing up and as an adult. And while people can betray us and hurt us viciously, there is still a way to forgive them.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Philemon, he urged him to forgive a servant who had betrayed him. Here’s the reason why:

For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. —Philemon 15-16

The contrast between “for a while” and “forever” reveals Paul’s conviction something higher was happening. The temporary pain and betrayal served as only a means to a permanent and better result God intended.

Don’t Just Look Beyond the Offense

I can look back in my life at times people have hurt me and see good things God has used from it, that I could have obtained no other way. But some good things we won’t realize until eternity (Romans 8:28).

What is forgiveness? Forgiveness means we look not just beyond the offense but above it.


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