Undoubtedly in your ministry, you’ve encountered people who hold on to grudges tightly or who are embroiled in conflict. In these cases, forgiveness must be a key focus of your pastoral care. But how do you explain the biblical concept of forgiveness? As a Christian, your starting point is different from what we hear in the wider secular culture. Intentionally seeking and granting forgiveness is first and foremost about the glory of God. As we humble ourselves to His will and seek to imitate Him in our relationships with others, forgiveness serves as the foundation upon which relational and emotional healing may take place.
“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.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:3–5 ESV)
As you work with people to resolve their conflicts biblically, it’s helpful to clarify what biblical forgiveness is and is not. Here are some common myths about forgiveness.
Myth 1: Working through negative emotions must come before forgiving
Most psychological models of forgiveness are feelings-based in that they purport the idea that a person may grant genuine forgiveness only upon working through negative feelings associated with the offense. Such theories contradict the teaching of Jesus in Luke 17:3–4, since it would be unlikely for someone to effectively “work through” negative emotions after being sinned against seven times in the same day. Jesus’ command is to forgive immediately upon the offender repenting.
Myth 2: Forgiving while upset is “hypocritical”
Hypocrisy, from the vantage point of being a Christian, is to say one is a Christ-follower, but then to refuse to abide by His teachings. Therefore, hypocrisy, in the context of forgiveness, would be refusing to forgive when a person seeks forgiveness even though Jesus has forgiven you. To grant forgiveness while still hurting is not hypocrisy; it is obedience.
Myth 3: If I forgive, I must forget
Nowhere does Scripture teach that once we forgive, we must forget the offense. Some who teach this myth quote Hebrews 8:12 (ESV), in which God promises, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” These beautiful promises are fulfilled not because God’s memory is erased, but because He willfully chooses not to hold our sins against us. God is omniscient, and He does not forget our sins like we might forget where we placed our keys. God, out of the abundance of His mercy and love, forgoes pursuing justice against the believer personally and upholds His covenant promises to those who have placed faith in Him for salvation.
Furthermore, some offenses are quite painful, even traumatic. If you were to ask someone to completely forget the incident or the pain related to it, that would not be a compassionate approach to ministry. The key is not to erase one’s memory of the past, but to learn how to honor God when past memories seek to infringe upon one’s present awareness.
Myth 4: Forgiving someone means never talking about the incident again
While forgiveness entails not attacking the offender with past interpersonal sins, sometimes the restoration process may give rise to discussing with the offender the ongoing pain caused by the offense. The purpose of such conversation is not to resurrect past sins or accusation, but to provide the offender with the opportunity to love and care for the person he or she has hurt. For example, if a wife is struggling with deep sadness and an overwhelming sense of betrayal as a result of her husband’s confessed adultery, it will be important for her to share these burdens with him so that he may humble himself in seeking to restore the relationship. You could coach her in how to approach him without accusing him.
Myth 5: Granting forgiveness is saying that what the offender did was OK or not that bad
Forgiveness does not lessen the gravity or severity of any sin. Sin in all its forms is evil and vile. Forgiveness is granting to your offender something he or she may not necessarily deserve while refusing to take matters of punishment into your own hands. It is choosing mercy over justice and imitates the heart of God toward His people.
Conclusion: Defining forgiveness biblically
In closing, I recommend you define biblical forgiveness for people this way:
- Forgiveness is not an emotion, but a covenant promise to forgive the debt of your offender. Ideally, it should not be granted at the end of the healing process, but at the beginning. It is the foundation upon which relational and emotional healing may take place.
- Forgiveness is to promise that you will not hold the sin against your offender. You, like God, will work to “remember the sin of your offender no more.”
- Forgiveness is to promise that you will not ruminate on your offender’s sin when you are alone. When you make this covenant promise to your offender, it serves as a powerful reminder for you when the temptation to ruminate arises.
- Forgiveness is to promise that you will not gossip about your offender’s sin with others.
Granting forgiveness is not ultimately contingent upon our interpretation of the offender’s genuineness in repentance. The Christian ethic seeks to operate in love toward all people, including one’s offenders. Therefore, it is important to reflect the following: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7).
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This article is adapted from an earlier article by Dr. Jeremy Lelek that first appeared at https://christiancounseling.com/blog/counseling/common-myths-about-forgiveness/ (September 23, 2016). Adapted for CareLeader.org with permission from the author.