The Abuse Of Forgiveness (Part Two)

Some years ago, when I was pastor of a small, rural church, the wife of one of our elders developed a serious illness from which she died within two years.  At an elders’ meeting shortly after her diagnosis, her husband shared with us the difficulty he was experiencing in dealing with this situation.  At that point another elder put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said something like, “I know what you must be feeling just now.”

The truth is, he didn’t know what that young man was feeling.  His wife was healthy; he had never suffered the loss of a member of his immediate family.  His comment, though well-intentioned, was actually insensitive and irresponsible.

That young husband, normally stable in temperament and kind in all his interpersonal relationships, suddenly blurted out in response, “How could you possibly know what I am feeling?  You’ve never experienced anything like this in your life.”

Admittedly the retort was a bit sharp, but under the circumstances it was not only accurate, it was completely understandable.  And even though the brother who thought he was offering comfort was momentarily stunned, it was not forgiveness which he needed to extend to this young man who was in such deep pain himself.  It was caring love and compassionate understanding.

I mention this incident only because, as I discussed it later with the elder who had made the ill-conceived attempt at offering comfort, he assured me that the matter was settled.  As he told me, “I have forgiven him” for his “outburst”.  Contemporary distortions of the biblical concept of forgiveness encourage, I fear, this sort of insensitivity.


When we are encouraged to resolve experiences of pain by extending forgiveness to the person or persons we perceive to have hurt us, we frequently avoid examining our own role in the situation.  Whenever we forgive anyone, we must first determine the person’s culpability in the matter in order to justify extending forgiveness.  In the process we very often overlook our own culpability and need for forgiveness.  Or we even fail to see that, as in the case I related above, sometimes there is no blame to assign and thus no forgiveness warranted.

I repeat this very important principle—anytime we contemplate an extension of forgiveness, we must necessarily assign guilt, for where there is no guilt, there is no need for forgiveness.  In the complex sphere of human interpersonal relationships, we need to be extremely careful about assigning guilt or blame in any situation.  Assigning guilt may simply be a means by which the matter can be resolved in our own minds.  We assign guilt.  We forgive.  The matter is resolved.


Any discussion of human forgiveness must begin with an understanding of divine forgiveness.  We are able to forgive those who have wronged us because we appreciate the magnitude of our own forgiveness by God.  Moreover, our forgiveness of others is patterned after God’s forgiveness of us.

That is, as God extends forgiveness only in the face of our indisputable need for it, so we  ourselves extend forgiveness (and indeed we are able to extend it) only in those cases where an actual offense has occurred.

As God extends forgiveness immediately to everyone who recognizes a need for it and calls upon Him to forgive, so we extend forgiveness, without hesitation, whenever, and as often as, it is requested by anyone who has offended us.

As God extends forgiveness for the benefit of the offender and not for His own benefit, so we forgive because that forgiveness will liberate those who have offended us from the burden of their offense.  We should never extend forgiveness in the hope that such an action will contribute to our own spiritual growth.  We extend forgiveness because God has already been at work within us, by His Spirit, cultivating those characteristics of growth and maturity without which forgiveness is not possible in the first place.  Our willingness to forgive those who ask our forgiveness is a reflection of our spiritual maturity, not its cause.

And finally, even as God is able to forgive only those who recognize their need of His forgiveness and call upon Him for it, we are able to offer forgiveness only to those who acknowledge their offense and request it (Luke 17:1-4).  “Forgiveness” which is not acknowledged and received by the offending party is not genuine forgiveness at all.  It may make us feel better, but it is not really forgiveness.

God can do such a work in our lives that we are no longer in pain because of a particular offense, even one that is intentional and indisputable.  We may develop an attitude of genuine willingness to forgive the offender, but forgiveness cannot be extended until its need is acknowledged and its benefits accepted by the offender.


When a Christian has been wronged by another party, and that party, having acknowledged and confessed the wrong, comes in repentance to ask forgiveness, however great the wrong may have been, the Christian’s only appropriate response is to extend forgiveness immediately and completely.

If, however, the perceived offender seems unaware of the offense or is unwilling to acknowledge culpability, we must not come too hastily to the conclusion that forgiveness is in order.  Truth be told, the “offender” may not be guilty.  The problem may really be ours after all.  Or, in the case of a genuine wrong, until the Holy Spirit convicts the offender of wrongdoing and prompts him or her to repent and ask forgiveness, any attempt on our part to extend unsought forgiveness will likely only exacerbate the problem.

In the course of our daily lives as Christian believers, we all experience pain and disappointment.  Some of it we bring on ourselves, but much of it we simply don’t deserve.  How do we deal with those hurts we don’t deserve?  We open ourselves up to the ministry of the Holy Spirit within us to cultivate those Christian graces which Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5).  This is genuine inner healing, and it is possible whether or not our offender is willing to acknowledge wrongdoing.

As we allow the Holy Spirit to fill and control us, He soothes our spirits with “peace that passes all understanding.”  In this process of spiritual growth, we are enabled to love even those who have hurt us most deeply.  Then, when God makes our offenders aware of their wrongdoing, we can respond to their requests for forgiveness immediately and wholeheartedly.

Make no mistake about it, the willingness and ability to forgive is absolutely essential for citizens of God’s kingdom.  In fact, an unwillingness to forgive betrays a failure to appreciate one’s own forgiveness by God.  Forgiveness, however, is not a means of self-improvement.  Genuine forgiveness is possible only because the Spirit of God has cultivated genuine Christian graces in our lives.  It is this ministry of God’s Spirit which enables us to rise above our circumstances and to live abundantly even in the face of undeserved pain.


9 thoughts on “The Abuse Of Forgiveness (Part Two)

  1. I have always marveled at Stephen’s ability to go beyond even forgiveness by saying, (my paraphrase) “Don’t even charge this sin to these people.” But I definitely agree with you that we frequently misunderstand forgiveness, forgiving a person out of “the goodness of our hearts” even when there has been no actual sin or offense intended. Saying “I forgive” can be easier than opening our hearts to understand truly what caused the situation. We have to choose to be offended, and we can also choose not to be offended.

  2. Thanks for the great insights and challenge. I am particularly interested in your take on asking for forgiveness. Is there any Biblical injunction or inference that it is appropriate to ask another person for forgiveness? I know of none. Confession–yes, requests for mercy–yes, expressions of sorrow and apology(repentance)–yes. Asking for forgiveness others–not aware of any. The Lord’s prayer is close to it but only in relationship to our dialog with God. It seems to be connected to a transactional process between God and us and our willingness to release the debts of others. Your thoughts on requesting the forgiveness of others??

    • For me, the answer lies in the meaning of “repent,” particularly in the Luke 17:1-4 passage. The pattern of asking for forgiveness from God is established in the Lord’s Prayer… “Forgive us our trespasses…” I would think that complete repentance, in this context, includes an acknowledgement that forgiveness is needed and a request that it be extended. If that is the intention of the word “repent,” then it wouldn’t be likely that there would be additional instruction to ask for forgiveness. It would be understood to be part of genuine repentance.

  3. Reblogged this on Cite Simon and commented:
    Here’s some sensible plain talk on forgiveness you will enjoy reading. Instead of living wracked with guilt or bitterness we have a better option. Check it out.

  4. Pingback: How To Be Offended, Resentful and Forgiven All At Once. « Cite Simon

    • You raise an especially sensitive example. There is no doubt about the guilt of a man who has sexually abused his child and the clear and unequivocal need for forgiveness. My point is not to push a doctrinal technicality so far that it causes additional pain to one who has been so greatly harmed already. In such a case, perhaps the abused party can experience peace and healing through the knowledge that he (or she) has already forgiven the abuser, whether the abuser ever seeks forgiveness or not. I would call that, technically speaking, forgiveness in potentiality. Only when it is sought and received would it be forgiveness in reality.

      My point is not to win an argument, but to discourage the misuse of forgiveness as the pop-psychologists define it. I believe that God can give grace to one who has been legitimately offended or abused, so that his or her spirit can be at peace knowing that he or she is willing to forgive completely in the instant that a need for forgiveness is recognized by the offending party.

  5. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections. You write, “but forgiveness cannot be extended until its need is acknowledged and its benefits accepted by the offender.” How do you understand Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them…” in relation to the requirement of the offender needing to acknowledge a need for forgiveness? I agree that restored relationship with God and others is based on acceptance of God’s forgiveness and repentance on the part of the offender, but I wonder if we sometimes unhelpfully conflate this reconciliation with forgiveness, which God has extended to the world through Christ prior to our acknowledgement of need for it. Salvation in the story of the lost sons is found in the return to the father’s embrace, the forgiveness that was waiting. The parable ends with the older brother outside the father’s house and resisting the invitation to enter, and the implication is that this rejection is a parallel offense to the younger son’s rebellion.

    I appreciate your word of caution about assuming another’s need for forgiveness. The discernment of the body found in Matthew 18 provides a needed check to our feelings of personal wrong, which may represent a true sin against us, or merely our own distorted view of reality.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jason. You raise important points. My thesis in these two articles is primarily that we use forgiveness as a means to make ourselves feel better, even when there may have been no legitimate offense against us, and thus, no need for forgiveness. Foundational to that thesis is my belief that the pattern for our forgiveness of those who have offended us is that of God’s forgiveness of those who have sinned against Him. That means that we are willing to forgive any and all who acknowledge need for forgiveness. In that sense, I suppose we could say that forgiveness exists in potentiality until it is sought and received, at which point it exists in reality. That would be accurate with regard to God’s forgiveness of sinful humans. And forgiveness unsought and unreceived is not really forgiveness. If it were, then we would have to say, regarding the ultimate fate of the unrepentant, that God judges those whom He has already forgiven. And that cannot be true.

      As for Jesus’s petition to the Father on behalf of those responsible for the crucifixion, the technical reality is that, although Jesus recognized their legitimate need for forgiveness, and made it known to His Father that He would like to see them forgiven, despite their offense against Him, the fact is that they could never enter the ranks of the forgiven until they recognized their own need for forgiveness, sought it from God, and received it with gratitude.

      I agree that reconciliation and forgiveness are not identical. Reconciliation is a step beyond forgiveness. Even within the body of Christ, offenders can be forgiven but not fully reconciled with those they have offended. That is certainly not an ideal relationship, but it does point out the distinction between forgiveness (available and received) and reconciliation (fellowship and relationship restored).


  6. Pingback: Forgiveness Abused, Part One « Nesapfich WB

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