The Mechanics of Forgiveness

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Oct 14th
In this sermon, Mike examines the things we must actually do in order to forgive completely.

How do I forgive?

The most asked question concerning forgiveness is, "How do I forgive, or what do I have to do in order to properly forgive?" I have found that most people are sincere in their desire to forgive when offended or treated badly, but are not always sure of the process. We know that it begins by saying something like, "I forgive you," but what does my brain and heart and spirit have to actually do to forgive sincerely and keep that forgiveness in place as time goes by? In the following lesson I will try to explain how forgiveness works (ergo, The Mechanics of Forgiveness) and what the Bible teaches us to do when we want to forgive someone or some thing.

First of all, it is not always a person that injures or offends us. Sometimes it's a thing like an organization, business, team, school or the government that has hurt, offended or cheated us somehow. In many ways, forgiving an organization is more difficult than forgiving a person because the organization isn't personal and the fault may lie with many different people within it. Dealing with this kind of situation successfully is quite challenging and requires that we truly understand the process of forgiveness if we are to benefit from it as God intended.

Definition of Forgiveness

Let us, therefore, begin by getting an idea about the various meanings of forgiveness so we can know its basic objectives.

  • Webster's (the dictionary meaning of forgiveness) - You stop feeling anger towards someone who has done something wrong or done something wrong to you. You stop blaming someone for having failed or failed you. You no longer require payment, whether this be money or an apology, to make restitution for a wrong committed.
  • Psychology (Greater Good Magazine, UC Berkeley) - To consciously and deliberately decide to release feelings of resentment or vengeance towards someone or a group that has harmed you, whether they actually deserve or are aware of your forgiveness or not.
  • Bible - Like the dictionary and modern psychology, the Bible defines forgiveness as pardoning an offender. The Greek (original language of the New Testament) word for forgiveness literally means to, "let go." For example, when a person does not demand payment for a debt lawfully owed (i.e. You owed me this, however, I'm letting go your obligation to repay me). This is biblical forgiveness.

The main difference between the dictionary and psychology's definition, and that of the Bible is that unlike the other two sources, the Bible sees forgiveness as a command from God to be obeyed and not simply a helpful or healthy way to deal with conflict. Therefore, a forgiving nature is a necessary part of a Christian's character and this is confirmed by Jesus when He included this gracious act as part of the Lord's prayer:

'And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.'
- Luke 11:4

In the parable of the unmerciful slave (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus equated forgiveness with the canceling of a debt owed. We forgive others, therefore, when we let go of anger, resentment and the desire for revenge, as well as any claim to be compensated for the hurt or loss that we have suffered. The definition of forgiveness from a Christian's perspective may be easy to say or explain but quite difficult to accomplish both physically and emotionally. Thankfully the Bible provides a motive for forgiveness beyond practical ones like, it's the right thing to do or it's the best way to have peace and quiet or it's a good way to improve relationships. These things are all true but not the motivation that the Bible describes. The Bible sets unselfish love (the kind that Jesus Himself demonstrated in both His ministry and sacrifice on the cross) as the primary reason and motive to offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt us in some way. Paul speaks of this type of motivation for forgiveness in the memorable passage on Christian love in I Corinthians 13.

4Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,
- I Corinthians 13:4-5

The Apostle teaches us that love is not provoked (to anger or revenge), it "does not take into account a wrong suffered." Take into account means creating an indebtedness for the person who has slighted or wronged us somehow. Taking into account means that they now owe us something (i.e. apology, restitution, etc.) and love does not operate in this way. The Bible presents forgiveness as a gracious act by a Christian who bears no ill will or threat of revenge for injury suffered, instead offering forgiveness in exchange for offense. Forgiveness motivated by sacrificial love which is perfectly modeled by Christ and His cross.

What Forgiveness is Not

Before going on to the actual "mechanics" of this virtue, I'd like describe some common misunderstandings about forgiveness. Here are five examples of what forgiveness is not:

1. Forgiveness is not the condoning of offensive behavior.

Someone does something nasty, speaks out of turn, is impolite, says something which is untrue or hurtful, and we say, "Oh, that's no big deal. You know, it's alright, it's okay, let's just forget about it." Forgiveness does not mean that we have to accept someone else's bad behavior without comment. Doing so usually promotes more bad behavior.

The Bible actually condemns those who claim that bad actions are harmless or acceptable (Isaiah 5:20). Forgiveness is not simply whitewashing something which is genuinely wrong or hurtful.

2. Forgiveness is not pretending that the offense ever happened.

Some deal with conflict or sin by denying it exists (i.e. I don't need forgiveness because I've not done anything wrong!). We note that in the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba (II Samuel 11) that God eventually forgave David's terrible sins but only after he acknowledged them. We also learn that the Lord let David experience the consequences of these offenses and even recorded them in the Bible so we today could benefit from the important lesson that, "There is no healing from sin without the revealing of sin." In other words, there is little chance of comfort for the injured party or forgiveness for the one who caused the offense unless both acknowledge that there has been an offense.

3. Forgiveness is not allowing others to easily take advantage of you.

Suppose you lend money to a friend and instead of returning the loan, he wastes it and then refuses to pay you back! This person might one day apologize and ask for more time to repay the debt. You might show forgiveness by accepting his apology and even cancel the entire debt! This would be true forgiveness. However, if this person comes back and renews his request for you to lend him more money, wisdom and prudence on your part would direct you to avoid becoming involved financially with this person again. Allowing yourself to be taken advantage of is not forgiveness, it's foolishness.

4. Forgiveness is not pardoning without acknowledgement or repentance.

God does not forgive people guilty of willful malicious sin who refuse to acknowledge or repent of their behavior or apologize to those they have hurt. Yes, the cross of Christ is available for everyone, even the worst sinner in the world. However, a person has to come to that cross and avail himself of the blood and its forgiving power if they want to receive pardon and reconciliation with God. What does Solomon say?

13He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.
14How blessed is the man who fears always,
But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.
- Proverbs 28:13-14

There is no need to forgive those who God has not forgiven. When offended or injured by one of these people who neither ask for nor receive forgiveness, the goal for the injured party is to avoid being consumed by rage, resentment and anger.

Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
Psalms 37:8

Trust that God will eventually bring these people into account (Hebrews 10:24-30).

Remember, God has promised that there will come a time (Revelation 21:4) when we will no longer feel the deep pain that burdens us now because of the hurt we have suffered on account of people who have been unkind or unjust with us.

5. Sometimes forgiveness is not the issue.

Sometimes we may be a little too sensitive and what is needed is not forgiveness but a tougher and more patient attitude.

Paul, in I Corinthians 13, says that love is not sensitive, meaning easily offended. Some people are naturally inclined to take offense too easily. Solomon's wise advice in Ecclesiastes speaks clearly to this very issue.

Do not be eager in your heart to be angry,
For anger resides in the bosom of fools.
- Ecclesiastes 7:9

Solomon describes a person who is being overly sensitive and thus creating offense and drama where none exists. This leads to misunderstandings, broken relationships and loneliness.

So much for what forgiveness is not. Let's talk about the mechanics of what true forgiveness is.

The Mechanics of Forgiveness

We've looked at the definitions of forgiveness and the misunderstandings of this particular virtue. Now I'd like to describe the mechanics of forgiveness which are more easily understood when seen as three separate actions. These are the things that we have to actually do, think and feel for forgiveness to take place in our hearts and displace anger and the desire for revenge which begin in the heart as well. Alright, so what must I do to truly forgive?

1. You have to define the offense clearly and truthfully.

Nothing happens in the process of forgiveness if you have not clearly defined the offense in an honest and objective manner. You can't forgive something if you don't know or are not able to articulate what the offense is. For example, in the case of a cheating spouse, the offense isn't only the sexual infidelity (although this is quite painful to imagine), it is also the lying that accompanies and supports the infidelity.

In counseling couples who have gone through this terrible experience I have noted that the most difficult part of the betrayal to forgive was not the sexual infidelity but the lies that accompanied it. Lying is like a multiplier that heightens the level of pain and damage done to the relationship. The sex may have only happened once or a few times, but the dishonesty was 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The offended party needs to forgive the adultery itself, of course, but until the lying is also dealt with and forgiven, the episode will continue to cause pain, sorrow and anger.

I've already mentioned the story of David and Bathsheba. David, the King of Israel, saw this woman bathing and sent for her. She became pregnant and David then called for her husband to return from the battle that the army was waging at the time. David assumed that once at home, this man would be with his wife and in this way cover up his responsibility for the pregnancy. When his plan didn't work, David had Uriah, the woman's husband, killed and then took the young widow as his wife. A short time later God sent Nathan, the prophet, to confront David about his sin.

1Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him and said,
"There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor.
2"The rich man had a great many flocks and herds.
3"But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb
Which he bought and nourished;
And it grew up together with him and his children.
It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom,
And was like a daughter to him.
4"Now a traveler came to the rich man,
And he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd,
To prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him;
Rather he took the poor man's ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him."

5Then David's anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. 6He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion." 7Nathan then said to David, "You are the man!
- II Samuel 12:1-7

Notice that Nathan's story did not suggest sexual lust or recklessness as the root cause of David's many sins in this episode, but rather (like the rich man in the story) a callous heart and an insensitive conscience that allowed him to do these things without a thought. David's hardness of heart led him to take for himself a woman whose husband, Uriah, was one of his devoted group of 30 bodyguards committed to his personal safety (I Samuel 23:39). These men were ready to die to protect their king, and what does David do? He knowingly takes Uriah's wife and then has this loyal soldier killed to cover his evil deed. Next, he lies to the nation and goes on as if nothing happened, thinking that there would be no consequences.

He did not go to God in prayer asking for forgiveness. Instead, God sent Nathan to accuse and uncover what David tried to keep secret and in doing so revealed what the core sin was. David's hardness of heart enabled him to cheat, lie and murder without any response from his conscience.

Many times we make an attempt to forgive and see it as a gesture or a peaceful way of ending some hurtful episode where we just don't want to deal with the thing that causes the pain any more. We offer a general, one-size-fits-all type of forgiveness. But as time goes on, we continue to experience the internal pain and stress caused by the offense.

  • We keep going over it in our mind.
  • We debate the fairness or the results.
  • We continue to experience anger, resentment, frustration and sorrow despite our blanket forgiveness.

We've said to the one who has hurt us in some way, "We're good, you're forgiven." However, we keep churning inside and can't seem to find any kind of closure. When these types of things happen, it's usually because we haven't gotten to the true source of our offense.

Getting to the true offense is like finding the right tap to turn off when your house is being flooded with water. Let me explain:

A little while back my wife, Lise, and I went out of town on vacation. Upon our return we discovered our kitchen floor flooded with water that was spraying from behind our refrigerator. There are several taps under the sink that control water to different appliances in the kitchen. I frantically tried each tap while my wife observed the flow from the broken hose behind our fridge. After a few unsuccessful attempts I knew that I had found the right tap because she shouted out, "That's it!" The floor was covered in water but further damage was avoided because the faulty hose had stopped pouring water everywhere. I had found the right tap to turn off.

My point here is that until you find the true source of the offense and turn it off through forgiveness, it will continue to leak negative emotions despite the general all-purpose forgiveness that you may have offered in the past, many times done just to get things over with quickly. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I forgive you. Can we just move on?"

As far as the mechanics of forgiveness is concerned, the first step is to identify exactly what the offense is (so it can be consciously forgiven), otherwise it continues to cause pain because we've not found the right "tap" to turn off.

2. Let go. Really, let go.

Some people say, "Well, you have to forgive and forget." This is a noble sentiment but unrealistic because something said or done to you that requires forgiveness usually has an impact that probably can never be forgotten. The important thing to remember about forgiveness is that you don't have to forget in order to accomplish sincere forgiveness, but you do have to let go. As mentioned earlier, the actual Greek word translated into the English word forgive means to let something or someone go.

How to let go

I think most of us understand the concept of letting go but are not sure how letting go is actually done. Here, then, are some practical ideas that will help us to let go in the process of forgiveness.

A. Forgiving others their offense is not optional, it's a command.

Jesus said that God continues to forgive us as we forgive others (Luke 11:4). This is helpful information for those who are dithering back and forth over whether to forgive somebody's offense against them or not. Knowing that offering forgiveness is a command, the neglect of which has consequences, has a way of focusing the mind and gives direction to our actions. Why should I forgive? Because God demands this of me!

B. Stop the mental churning.

Churning was an important part of making butter back in the days of handcrafted dairy products. Churning required a slow repetitive stirring of the ingredients until they were fully mixed and smooth. In the process of forgiveness, churning describes the repeated reliving (in our minds) of the hurtful episode that now requires our forgiveness.

I've mentioned that Christian love does not take into account a wrong suffered (I Corinthians 13:5). The idea is that a forgiving heart does not keep score for the purpose of revenge or mental review. Forgiveness does not erase the offense from our memory but it has effectively dealt with the offense itself so that there is no need to go back and review it or relive it. I'm reminded of the popular expression, "Been there, done that." When tempted to go back to relive, re-churn or re-prosecute the old offense, say to yourself, "Been there, done that." In other words, I've been to that place and I've offered forgiveness, there is no reason to go back. I've been there, I've done that and, more importantly, I'm done with that.

The practical way of doing this is to change our habit of continually looking backwards and follow Paul's admonition to look to the future and what the future holds for all Christians.

13b...but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead. 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 3:13-14

What lies behind? In my past are all the stupid, nasty, offensive, sinful things that I did as well as all of the nasty, stupid, offensive things that other people have done to me. Looking backwards is not what God has called me to do. Paul teaches us that we have been called to heaven. Drawing us to look back at offenses and failures is one of Satan's tactics in keeping us spiritually immobilized. If we are consumed by the past and its hurts, we come to a standstill in our Christian walk since there is nothing we can do to change or affect the past. Looking forward, however, forces us to mobilize our spiritual resources. It creates hope and joy in us and limits the ways that Satan and the world can negatively affect us.

When I am tempted to go back to relive something, I say to myself, "Been there, done that. I have forgiven so-and-so for this or I have been forgiven for that. There is nothing there for me anymore." You can be sure that it is never the Lord forcing you to look backwards. He always asks you to look forward because that's where He is. The only thing of consequence in my past is the cross of Jesus Christ and the only thing of consequence in my future is heaven.

And so, I live between the cross and heaven. This is where I'm at and this is where I stay. Letting go requires the personal discipline to resist the temptation to repeatedly fight the battles of the past and remain focused on the victory that awaits us in the future.

3. Cancel the debt

In the parable of the ungrateful servant (Matthew 18) Jesus talks about a slave who was forgiven a great debt by his master but after being set free refused to forgive a fellow servant of a debt owed to him. As a result, that servant lost his freedom. Now, an interesting feature of this parable is the simple way it demonstrates that the basic idea of forgiveness is the canceling of a debt. In the parable, the servant owed his master a debt he could never pay (10,000 talents = $7 billion today). The master waved away a repayment plan. He simply canceled the debt that he was owed.

Of course, the point of the parable is not how a mere servant racked up so much debt or what master would permit such an account. The point of the parable is that we owe God a debt we cannot pay and God cancels the moral debt that we have by paying it off through the death of Jesus on the cross.

The point this parable teaches us is that forgiveness requires us to cancel the debt that others owe because of how they may have offended or hurt us. When offended, cheated or hurt, we are owed justice or an apology or some form of compensation. Forgiveness means that we release the offender from their obligation to repay these things to us.

Of course, some people refuse to forgive because revenge or the threat of it is what helps them deal with the hurt and damage caused by the original offense. The problem here is that the healing doesn't start until the debt is paid by someone. Forgiveness takes place when that debt is canceled by the offended party.

Canceling the debt puts control for the healing, the closure and the peace into the hands of the offended party, not the guilty party, who rarely can give or do what will bring peace anyways. Appeal to the justice system will simply decide who gets how much money, and leaving the matter to be influenced by Satan will only prolong the pain because his objective is not only to make us suffer in hell, but to make us suffer here as well.

Consider the benefits of forgiveness: emotional freedom, peace of mind, closure with the past and spiritual satisfaction because the right and Christ-like thing has been done. All of these benefits only come when we consciously and deliberately articulate the offense against us and who caused it. It helps us when we let go the negative feelings and desire for revenge by refusing to dwell on the past and remain focused on Jesus our Lord and the life that He's given us now, as well as the heavenly reward promised in the future. And thirdly, as I've just mentioned, canceling the debt. Whatever is rightfully owed to you, free yourself from this debt by giving it to Jesus to collect at judgment (n.b. you can be sure that He will definitely collect that debt).

Remember that the first step to personal healing and peace of mind, not to mention possible reconciliation with other people, is forgiveness. Once the debt is canceled, you can go back to living your life in Jesus Christ.

I suspect that many people are thinking, "What about a car accident where I'm injured and it was the other driver's fault?" Obviously if somebody has hit your car causing damage and injury, there's insurance for things like that. This is why the government requires everyone who drives a car to have insurance. You may have to "forgive" the other driver's mistake or carelessness but the insurance is there to take care of the physical damage.

I'm really talking about the interpersonal relationships that we have. Nobody's going to go to hell because their car got smashed up and they didn't get as much money as they wanted from the settlement. However, we risk losing our soul if we refuse to forgive a sister in Christ who has said something or done something that has hurt our feelings and we maintain that resentment not just for days but in many instances, for years.

Speaking of debts, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you that all of us have a sin-debt owed to God. Let me explain:

If we break human laws we have to pay a debt of some kind, whether that be money for a speeding ticket or jail time for robbing a bank...when we break a law, justice demands a price as punishment. In the same way, when we break God's laws such as lying, sexual sins, dishonoring our parents, murder, stealing, etc., we incur a moral debt owed to God, the One who establishes all laws. The price for violating God's laws is death (separation from God forever). In other words if you sin, you die (Romans 6:23a). The good news, however, is that Jesus pays that moral debt (death) for us with His sacrifice on the cross and offers guilty sinners forgiveness based on faith in Him initially expressed through repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). In this way, instead of suffering spiritual death and eternal separation from God, we are raised from the dead to everlasting life with Him in heaven (Romans 6:23b). And all of this is made possible because Jesus paid the moral debt we owed, allowing God to offer us forgiveness and eternal life.

The mechanics of God's forgiveness for our sins are quite simple: those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and express that faith in repentance and baptism receive not only forgiveness but the indwelling of God's Spirit (Acts 2:38) who will raise us up from the dead when Jesus returns (Romans 8:11).

Therefore, I encourage everyone to remember the steps to take in order to sincerely and effectively forgive others for their sins against us and along with that, carefully examine ourselves to be sure that we have consciously responded to God's offer of forgiveness for the sins that we have committed against Him.

"Excellent resources for Bible class teachers, preachers and students."


Chris Hill
Minister, Luther Church of Christ