Luke 6:27-28

The Process of Forgiving

Forgiving is not easy. Forgiving means canceling a debt of justice that is rightfully owed to you. Forgiveness means treating the offender as if they owed you nothing. That can seem an impossible task. How to we overcome the pain they left us?

The task seems even greater once we truly understand the full scope of forgiveness. As Louis Smedes notes in his little book Forgive and Forget we know that we have forgiven another person when we can honestly, from the heart, wish them well. That costs the person who forgives. Forgiving also gives long-term benefits. And yet the short-term pain can stifle true forgiveness. And the larger the forgiveness needed the greater the pain.

So why forgive? Simply put, forgiving liberates us. Lack of forgiveness burdens us with the anger, even the justified anger, of our past. It can leave us bitter, wounded and depleted. If I am angry with another person I cannot truly treat them with full respect and love. That will bleed over into all our other relationships. If I can truly cancel their debt as if it never existed then I am free – free to act lovingly toward all, even the undeserving. This is, after all, how God loved us in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:13

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins…”

God, having forgiven us in Christ Jesus, treats us as if we had never sinned. He is free to treat us as sons and daughters.

How do we come to that place where we have truly and completely released another from such a debt? I believe that the answer lies in the words of Jesus in Luke 6:27-28.

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

This saying by Jesus implies several principles of forgiveness.

  • Condemn the Offender Jesus calls those we forgive “enemies”, “those who hate you”, “those who curse you”, and “those who mistreat you”. Those words identify the wrongs done to us. The principle is: You cannot forgive what you do not first condemn. Covering over the evil of others by ignoring, dismissing or minimizing it hides our true anger and keeps us from fully forgiving.

    We also need to note that forgiving someone does not depend on them turning from their sins, even the wrongs they do to us. Forgiveness can be a completely unilateral project where we forgive those who do not love us or treat us well.

  • Learn to Love the Offender Jesus gives us four responses to evil, listed in reverse order they are: “pray for them”, “bless them”, “do good to them”, and “love them”. This progression not only moves from easier to harder actions, but also expands our loving actions toward them. Here is the key to the process of forgiveness. Jesus calls us to engage in increasingly hard and more loving actions to come to the point of truly forgiving the offenders in our lives.

It's important to recognize that these actions are cumulative. We don't leave the first behind to begin the second. Rather we add the second to the first, the third to the first and second, etc. Let’s examine these actions in order:

  1. Pray for those who mistreat you If we can do nothing more positive towards those we hope to forgive, we can pray “for them”. That last phrase is crucial. It means to pray “for their benefit”. Praying for someone does not mean praying that they treat us better or “come to their senses”. It means asking God to do something good in their life.

    I don’t know about you, but I find myself very reluctant to pray for God to do something good to someone who did something bad to me… especially if they still have not repented from the wrong they did. Sometimes my first prayers (when I am honest) sound like this: “Father, I really don't like this person and I don't really want nice things to happen to them. However you call me to pray for them, so (through gritted teeth) please give them a good day today.”. Over time, as I continue to pray, I become more willing and more specific, actually becoming concerned with their welfare. “God, please heal Joe of the flue and give him the strength to complete his project at work.” Getting that specific prepares me for the next step.

  2. Bless those who curse you Moving from talking to God alone in your room, Jesus calls us to talk to others. Blessing them means talking well to them (giving them your blessing) and talking well about them to others. As we talk we come to affirm that God has placed in them some reflection of his Image.

    Again, it is vital that we become specific. It is not We recognize and affirm the gifts and goodness that resides in them, despite any harm they have done us. As we affirm their status as a creation of God, created and valued for his purposes, we can move forward to something more active.

  3. Do good to those who hate you By this time our prayer life will have grown to the point of curiosity about the other person’s needs. Now that we have reaffirmed their status as valued by God we can act on that value. We discern what would be good for them. This is important. Doing good to others means understanding what they perceive that they need. The issue is that we may or may not truly understand what they need. If we do something “good” for them as we see it, we may completely miss the mark. We need to ask (directly or by observing what they say and do) what good thing we can do for them. Finally, we can strive for love.
  4. Love your enemies This is such a high calling. Remember that Jesus also said,

    “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one’s friends.”
    (John 15:13)

    To do that for your friends is powerful. To do that for an enemy seems insurmountable, even if we think not simply as physical life, but as dying to our self for their sake. Yet, that is the call for every follower of Christ.

    “For if, while we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
    (Romans 5:10)

    By following the process we can grow toward this goal.