Let me start with an important statement: We cannot forgive in exactly the same way as God. There are a number of reasons for this.
How Sin Affects Us
Firstly, sin affects us differently to God. He is the inviolable God. In other words, our sins do not change Him. Sin grieves Him, yes, but it doesn’t hurt or damage Him.
However, when someone sins against us, it affects us psychologically, physically, and even spiritually. The abuser leaves an indelible mark on their victim. That’s why forgiveness is such a struggle for the victim of abuse. It’s an almighty battle for them, because the abuser has inflicted deep, often indescribable damage. We would (rightly) question a victim of abuse if they just turned round blithely and said “I forgive them.” If someone forgives flippantly then it’s not necessarily a sign of forgiveness, but a sign that they’ve swept the past under the carpet. Usually, there will be deep anger, resentment, and bitterness to work through before the act of forgiveness can be offered.
Secondly, God can—and does—forgive immediately and fully. In contrast, our forgiveness is often feeble, takes time, and is never complete. This is crucial for the victim of abuse to understand. When God forgives us in Christ, there is full, immediate restoration in our relationship with Him. Forgiveness and reconciliation go hand in hand. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18–19: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” God no longer counts our sins against us. Therefore, we are reconciled with Him. Our broken relationship with Him is permanently and fully mended.
However, forgiveness between sinful people doesn’t always lead to a restored relationship, especially in the arena of abuse. The relationship between abuser and victim has been deeply broken. Trust has been destroyed. Hurt abounds. So any reconciliation will take time (if it’s even possible at all). Genuine repentance will need to be seen and experienced from the abuser if there is any chance of a restored relationship.
Plus, there might be other complicating factors. The abuser may not be repentant. It might be dangerous for the victim to reach out to the abuser because they are still a threat to them. The perpetrator might be dead. Either way, forgiveness is always possible, but reconciliation may not always be. This is a crucial distinction for us to understand, and we will delve into this issue further in tomorrow’s blog.
Thirdly, we cannot forgive like God because, as the Holy and Righteous Judge, He punishes and condemns sin, and then forgives. God put forward Christ in our place. However, we cannot die for our sin or anyone else’s. Therefore, when we forgive, it will feel like justice hasn’t been done. Like there’s been no punishment. This is one of the biggest struggles for the victim of abuse. They want an eye for an eye. They don’t want to let the wrong-doer go! They want justice! And rightly so. But often they won’t get that in this life.
Echo, Not Mirror
So, as Christians, we don’t forgive exactly like God, but we are called to echo the forgiveness of God. As Volf writes, “We imitate God as instruments of God: God gives and forgives, and we make God’s giving and God’s forgiving our own.”
What does that look like? Volf, in his book, says four things. Firstly, it means condemning the offence. Forgiveness does not mean we ignore the sin or sweep it under the carpet as if it doesn’t matter. God did not ignore our sin. Far from it. He condemned our sin in Christ. And before we can forgive, we have to identify sin and condemn it for what it is. Forgiveness is not cheap.
Secondly, it means we put to the side the idea of vengeance. Paul writes, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom. 12:9). When we choose to forgive someone, we hand vengeance over to the Lord. We say, “I’m not going to seek revenge.”
In fact, as Volf writes, “we absorb the injury” in the same way we might absorb the financial impact of a bad business transaction. Forgiveness is the absorbing of the debt owed against us. This doesn’t mean we “abandon disciplinary measures.” Abusers must be taken to court and justice must be carried out. However, that is not our punishment to give out. We leave it in the hands of God and, where possible, the state.
This is a battle for the victim, because everything inside of them screams for revenge. They naturally want the abuser to experience the just punishment for their wrongs. Forgiveness, therefore, is costly. It will cost the victim much to absorb the wrong and not carry out their own justice. This will be a daily battle as they entrust their hurt and pain to Him who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:23).
Thirdly, forgiveness means to count the person as innocent. When God forgives us, we are declared “not guilty.” Christ takes our place, bears our punishment, and God credits our account with Christ’s righteousness. We become co-heirs with Christ.
In the same way, to forgive someone means to declare them innocent. It means saying, “I release you from the guilt of sin. I no longer condemn you for what you have done.” As I write those words, I cringe inside, and many will probably want to take their computer and smash it into tiny bits. We just about get the ‘not taking vengeance’, but releasing someone from their guilt? Declaring them innocent of what they have done? Surely that’s too far! However, if we are imitating God’s forgiveness, then isn’t that what He does for us? He doesn’t just remove punishment, but He blesses us too.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, forgiveness means forgetting. When God forgives us, he casts our sins to the bottom of a deep sea (see Micah 7:19), never to be brought up again. When we forgive others, it means doing the same.
Imagine a husband and wife. The husband forgets their wedding anniversary and so they have a massive argument. The wife punishes the husband by telling him to sleep in the spare room, along with giving him the silent treatment for the rest of the day. The next day, they start talking again and she forgives him. He moves back into their bedroom, and all seems well. However, the day after, the wife brings up the argument again and reminds him of his sin against her. The punishment has been removed, but the accusation is still there. She has removed vengeance, but she still condemns him. That is not forgiveness.
Biblical forgiveness is not simply refusing to take revenge, but removing the condemnation too! Doesn’t that contradict point one and the acknowledgment of wrongdoing? Volf, again, writes helpfully: “When we forgive, we acknowledge the offenses and blame the perpetrator. But then we treat the person as if the offense did not happen. To forgive means most basically to give a person the gift of existing as if they had not committed the offense at all.”
Now, as I said, this is the most difficult of the four parts of forgiveness. The question we might ask is: Are we even capable of doing that? I still have minor offences rolling around in my head from the past, let alone pure evil that has been done against me. How is the person who has been abused supposed to let the memory of their abuse slip from their minds? It’s not easy. It’s a supernatural battle that happens over a lifetime and only reaches its fulfilment in heaven.
Positive Aspect of Forgiveness
However, at this point, I want us to see that total forgiveness cannot simply be putting vengeance to the side. It must have a positive aspect as well. When we are forgiven, Christ takes the punishment we deserve, and then God credits our account with His own righteousness. He doesn’t simply forego punishment, but adopts us as His children. He removes our sin from us and remembers it no more. This is the scandal of grace.
So if we are to echo this scandalous forgiveness, then letting go of past hurt—even the most horrendous—will lead us to not remembering them anymore. They are consigned, in some way, to the history books.
Again, let me state: We cannot forgive in exactly the same way as God. God is perfect in His forgiveness. We are not. His forgiveness is immediate. Ours is a process. His is full. Ours is feeble. He chooses to forget. We often hold on to the past. This is why we need the supernatural work of God in our lives to help us to forgive. However, before we move to the power of forgiveness, we need to think about the place of repentance. We will look more closely at that tomorrow.