Why is forgiveness so difficult? It is difficult because it is so contrary to human nature. In societies and cultures not affected by the Judeo-Christian ethic, forgiveness is not a virtue, but a weakness. Offenses demand punishment and revenge becomes the only appropriate response. Or if forgiveness is offered, it appears to relieve and excuse the offender of responsibility. What if forgiveness is the willing offer of the person offended, but the offender refuses to acknowledge the wrong?
Throughout Scripture, forgiveness is expressed in various ways. In the Old Testament, forgiveness means “to take away, to atone by sacrifice and substitution.” In the New Testament, it is “to cancel a debt,” but it does not overlook the offender’s act or obligation. The debt is satisfied by the one to whom it was owed, or by someone else. This is the message of the grace of God: He cancels the debt of sin by the payment, or atonement, made by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Repentance and remission are inseparable in forgiveness. These are the means by which God can forgive: by the confession of sinful debt to God and acceptance of the Savior as the substitute sin-bearer. When God forgives, He also releases the offending sinner from the consequences of His wrath and eternal punishment. The forgiven are reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, and peace and joy prevail forever.
Jesus’ model is the secret to interpersonal forgiveness. The Scripture teaches, forgive one another even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32). The “even as” states the formula. Just as God forgives, we are to forgive. Confession admits the offense and states the truth. It does not ignore the wrong, or deny the reality. It thus releases forgiveness to the offender and restores fellowship. If God’s conditions are met, He is bound by His Word to forgive. But God’s forgiveness is effective only when there is the admission of sin. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NKJV).
Likewise, in human relationships, forgiveness demands an apology, and that is the obligation of the one who caused the offense. However, apologies can be inadequate.
“Whatever it was that you think I did, I’m sorry.” This claims perception is the problem. “I’m sorry that you took it the wrong way.” This is reverse blame, a denial of responsibility. “I didn’t know you were so hurt.” A plea of ignorance doesn’t settle the wrong. Full restoration of the relationship and complete forgiveness are accomplished only when there is admission of wrongdoing, genuine regret over the offense and an apology that admits the gravity of the injury.
But what if the one who has offended us does not apologize? Are we free to withhold forgiveness? No. Many times withholding forgiveness is a form of subtle control, power and passive punishment in an attempt to get even. God forgives, but people view getting even and settling the score as an easier solution. Are there some offenses and hurts that can never be forgiven? Scripture teaches that we are to offer forgiveness as God does–freely. Whatever forgiveness we offer to others has been first given to us without limit.
Finally, what if we grant forgiveness to the offender, but the memory and pain of the offense remains? Is forgiveness incomplete? The truth is only God is perfect and remembers our sin no more (Jeremiah 31:34). But we must earnestly and prayerfully forgive, in spite of the painful memories.