Forgiveness: Practical Implications

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

Last week we talked about two things primarily. We learned that we are to put on two things. The first was that we are to bear with one another. This means to endure with others in life, bear one another’s burdens. We go with people through the struggles of life. The second thing is that we are to forgive one another. We spent most of our time on forgiveness. On this topic we looked at Jesus’ parable from Matthew 18 as well as other verses that command and describe forgiveness.

On Monday, after preaching last Sunday, I began to wonder if the explanations given were adequate given the weightiness of the topic of forgiveness. I also wondered if there may be some lingering questions of practical application regarding forgiveness. I began to write out many of the questions that I have gotten and have asked about forgiveness through the years.

I have found over the years that there is a fair amount of confusion about forgiveness. Not really confusion when talking theoretically about forgiveness, but confusion regarding how it is actually applied, what it looks like in practice. And since we don’t want our theology to just be hanging around somewhere in the clouds, we need to figure out how to bring it down to where we are, where we live, and apply it in our relationships with one another. So, “Forgiveness: Part Two,” that is what we are doing today! We set a foundation last week, let’s now take that and talk through its implications. The last part of Colossians 3:13 says, “forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Let me give you a brief definition of forgiveness, and I will expand on it as we go along this morning. Forgiveness is “a decision and a promise to release a person by canceling the real debt the person has with you.”

For the believer this happened between you and God at the cross. A real debt was cancelled, the payment for your sin, and you have been released from its obligation. Apart from forgiveness we would be left with that debt and the payment would be eternal suffering in a place called hell, a place of torment that we would justly receive because of our grievous acts against a fully holy God. Sin is that bad, it is that bad, that is what makes the punishment so severe, and God is holy and just to make that happen. For the Christian, Christ took that punishment for us. We no longer have that debt. It has been paid. That is true for those who have by faith trusted in Christ for salvation. For those who will refuse to trust in Christ, they will pay their own debt, they have not been forgiven. Forgiveness is a huge deal, a big deal, it sets the course of our eternal future – paradise with God if forgiven, eternity in hell if not forgiven. Again, forgiveness is a decision and a promise to release a person by canceling the real debt the person has with you. As Christians we have been forgiven.

Now, the basis for you and I forgiving other people is found in this truth that we have been forgiven by God. We are to forgive because God has forgiven us, so we are to be about canceling debts owed us, debts being sins committed against us. Again, I don’t want to be theoretical here, let’s get practical. I want to give you a scenario, and we will use this scenario to help explain forgiveness. Here is a scenario…

You are a husband and a father with small children in your home. You have a friend who loves to come and stay in your home, sometimes for a few days in a row. She seems to really enjoy being around your family, and your home feels like an oasis to her in what is normally a very busy and hectic life. You welcome her and everyone enjoys her company when she comes. This has been going on for a few years. She calls, wanting to come by, you welcome her, so she comes, and after a few days she leaves and goes about her normal routines of life. 

On her last visit you notice some things are missing. A piece of jewelry is the main thing. But other small things cannot be found either. Eventually you decide it has been lost, there are small children in the home and it is not unusual to find something in the trash that doesn’t belong there, so you assume things have just been misplaced, or that one of the children has once again thrown something away that should not be thrown away.

Months pass, and through a series of events you discover that your friend has a severe drug problem. You had no idea! In fact, what is found is that she has been taking prescription drugs illegally for many years. She has hidden it well, she has developed an ability to hide her habit. Another discovery is that to fund her habit she would take things that didn’t belong to her, primarily from family members who would not suspect her as the thief, but also from other close friends. All this comes to light, she goes to a rehab facility to try to put an end to her habit, and she admits to stealing things from family members and friends. She asks you for forgiveness. She has no ability to repay what she has taken, nor does she really remember all that she has taken over the years. Over the next few months she is in and out of rehab facilities, and you don’t see much of her anymore.

As I said, she asks for forgiveness and you grant her forgiveness. Now let’s expand on our understanding of forgiveness by stating a few things that it is and some things it is not.

First, what forgiveness is not…

Forgiveness is not a feeling. Nowhere in the Bible is forgiveness described as a feeling, or that it is granted to another based on feelings. It’s not something we wait to do until we “feel ready.” It may seem natural that we should feel like forgiving before we forgive, but I want you to see that it is commanded of us without a mention of how we might feel about it. Jesus speaks of a heart of forgiveness in Mark 11:25, where He says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone.” Jesus also says in Luke 17:4, “If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and turns to you seven times, saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” In the first case there is no mention of anyone asking for forgiveness, but an attitude of forgiveness is described anyway. In the second case a person asks for forgiveness seven times in one day and it is to be granted to him.

This is a lot of forgiving! It is given without exception or exclusion. It is forgiving anyone for anything. If we are to forgive that often, that freely, we cannot wait each time for our feelings to come in line with our willingness to grant forgiveness. Our feelings may not ever become what we want them to be toward the person. Sometimes we need to make a decision to forgive; this is obedience. We should not put up with a lack of mercy in our own hearts, we are to forgive. If we wait until we feel like forgiving, then forgiveness has become all about us, about me. God tells us to consider others’ interests.

So in the scenario that I laid out, upon hearing that expensive items had been stolen, some of which had great sentimental value and cannot be replaced, hearing that they had been taken by a friend to support a drug habit, this might be really hard to hear and process emotionally. We have been defrauded, used, taken advantage of, and all by a friend we trusted. It may take a while before we can say, “Oh well, it was just stuff, and stuff doesn’t really matter.” It may not be the stuff, it may be the betrayal that hurts. If forgiveness is a feeling we must wait for, then it might be a long time before we forgive. But forgiveness is a choice and an act of the will.

You know, it could be that God is working on our hearts through this, in fact I know that would be the case. Maybe God is showing us some things we love too much, maybe He is showing us where our treasures are, whether in stuff or in certain relationships. Maybe God is peeling away our idols – I’m sure He would be. We may have some things to work out. But in the meantime we are to forgive. She is a sinner, and I am a sinner. God forgave me when I was still His enemy, and I am to forgive. Don’t wait on a feeling.

Forgiveness does not mean we must “forget.” I mentioned this last week but want to go deeper with it today. We know that we are to forgive as God has forgiven us. And there are three passages that are important here…

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)

as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

If God knows all things then these are not references to Him forgetting, an erasing of His memory. He does not forget things. What does it mean? It means He actively chooses not to dwell on our sin. It is an active refusal to call to mind our sins in a way in which He will hold them against us. This is how we are to forgive. You can try to forget, but you probably won’t have much success. If someone has harmed your child, you won’t forget. But you can actively direct your mind, with God’s grace, to a place where you refuse to dwell on that act in a way that is hurtful to you and not helpful to the sinner.

We might not ever forget that our stuff was stolen to support a drug habit by a friend. If forgetting were required, we would probably be helpless, unable to forgive. God strips away all of our objections to forgiveness. 

Forgiveness does not mean the sin was “okay.” It does not mean that we excuse or accept the wrong against us. If you are called to forgive someone, then by definition that means the offender has sinned against God and against you. There was a real wrong and a real injury. It is tempting to want to delay forgiveness out of the concern that forgiving
this person will somehow miscommunicate that it is not that big of a deal to me or to God. Truly, forgiveness does not communicate to the person that it is okay to continue sinning or to perpetuate the status quo.

Jewelry and things stolen, that is not okay. It was sin, it was wrong, it was an offense. It was not okay that someone had to work hard to buy things and they were taken. That does not honor God, it does not show respect to other people.

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Ephesians 4:28)

God’s way is to work and give, never to steal. 

It is not okay to sin, forgiveness is not making light of sin. It is not giving anyone a pass to forgive, it is showing the character of God in you.

Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences or remaining issues of trust. Forgiveness does not remove the consequences of sin. Though forgiveness does mean the sin will no longer be held against the offender, it doesn’t mean that the relationship immediately returns to where it was before the sin. For example, a wife may fear that forgiving her husband who has committed adultery means she will immediately have to trust him again. Trust takes time to rebuild. She can forgive him and he may still have to live out consequences of his sin. Consequences like making a weekly call to a close friend to share his comings and goings. Consequences like submitting to counseling, where his deeper motivations and sin patterns can be addressed.

It is also important to realize in this adultery example that trust will only come in time. That means that forgiveness can be extended before trust is rebuilt. Since we base our forgiveness on God’s forgiveness, we can biblically root this in the understanding that God does not trust us before He forgives us. Listen to what John tells us about Jesus in John 2:24–25: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people…for he himself knew what was in man.” God does not wait for us to be trustworthy before forgiving us. In fact, He sees the sin deep in our hearts and knows that it would be foolish to entrust Himself to us. And yet He moves toward us in the midst of our betrayal, guilt, and shame, and offers us generous forgiveness. We too can and do move mercifully toward others before we feel safe, before we trust, and before we have proof of change.

When someone steals from you, as in the scenario I gave, it would not be wise to allow them back in the home and let them sleep in a room with all your valuables, or to let them stay in the house alone. There is nothing noble about foolishly trusting a person who has proven not to be trustworthy. Having said that, we can still forgive.

Forgiveness does not mean sin issues are not dealt with biblically. What I mean is that forgiving does not mean we throw out our understanding of the Bible regarding relationships. For instance we have Matthew 18 which describes how we are to deal with a brother or sister in Christ who is caught up in sin. In verses 15-17 we see the process we sometimes call church discipline. It is where we must go to a believer who is caught up in sin and confront them lovingly. If they do not repent, we take another with us, and if there is still no repentance, we tell it to the church. The whole purpose is restoration, being an instrument in God’s hand to bring back one who has fallen away. That passage does not speak about forgiveness, it speaks about rescue. We can live in a spirit of forgiveness toward that person, even if they have not repented or asked for forgiveness, while still going through the process laid out in those verses.

Another example is that we are to follow the laws of the land. Forgiveness does not mean we ignore the laws of the land. If a law has been broken and we are required by law to report it, we must report it. We can do this and still forgive. In other words, forgiveness does not remove other biblical mandates and obligations. Relational restoration will need to take place with the one who has stolen from you. Perhaps joint counseling, talking through what has happened, praying together, understanding what has happened biblically, a desire for relational restoration is important if it is going to happen. Each of these things can happen over time, but are not prerequisites to forgiveness. Forgiveness and relational restoration are not the same thing.

Now those were some things forgiveness is not. Let’s quickly get more clarity on what forgiveness is. Here was our short definition, and we will expand on it. Forgiveness is “a decision and a promise to release a person by canceling the real debt the person has with you.”

Forgiving is a relational commitment. To say “I forgive you” stamps “Paid In Full” across the record of wrong. You cancel the debt, blot out the record. You cannot and will not hold this sin against the offender. When you forgive, you relinquish the rights to exact payment. It’s done.

Forgiveness means we choose love by not holding a person’s sin over them. This means every time I see you my mind doesn’t go directly to your sin. Every time you are near I will not want to exert punishment on you because of your sin by ignoring you, lecturing you, yelling at you, being generally hostile with you, or by being high minded around you like you are the only sinner around. If I am doing any of these things, then I have failed to do as God has done with me. God does not hold our sins over us, He does not exact punishment on us as His children, our debt has been fully and completely paid.

So going back to our scenario, how would we refrain from holding this sin over her? We can call her to encourage her to seek the Lord, we can welcome her into our home in a supervised way, we can send her gifts on special occasions, we can verbally reaffirm our love to her. In other words, we can be kind, loving, friendly, as if she did not sin against us.

Forgiveness also means not telling others about the sin in a way intended to gain support and sympathy from others or to lead others to tear down the sinner. Some things we should keep close. Sinful gossip is not an option. This does not mean, again, that we ignore other biblical truths like seeking counsel on how to relate to others who have sinned against us. But we are never to be malicious with our words to others regarding another person’s sin.

With our friend, then, we can restrain our tongue from telling others what she has done to us. We can ask others to pray for her in a general sense and show concern for her in the presence of others, but we don’t need to loudly declare to others what she has done. 

Forgiveness also means not dwelling on the sin. If I were to dwell on your sin, then when you are not around I would seethe over your sin, replay your sin, plan how to punish you for your sin. If I were dwelling on your sin I wouldn’t pray for you, or plan how to show you love. When dwelling on the sin, we wouldn’t concern ourselves with the other person’s good, not if we are dwelling on the negative aspects of their behavior. We can instead plan and plot how we can love them, build them up in the faith, encourage them, and have compassion on them.

So with our friend who has sinned against us, we shouldn’t replay her sin in our minds, meditating on her sin against us. We shouldn’t plan how we will get revenge. Instead we can dwell on our own forgiveness and dwell on how we will love her as we find opportunity to do so. We can plot for good, not evil. We can plan to encourage, not to tear her down.

Forgiveness is at the heart of our faith, it stands as a pillar for our relationship with God. Without forgiveness from God we would have no hope. He forgave us, our debt has been paid, we are forgiven. Our place is then to forgive others. My hope is that we all will be ready, stand ready to forgive. And by God’s grace we can!

When we sin we are to ask for forgiveness from others, and when sinned against stand ready to forgive if asked, and if not asked we live in a spirit of forgiveness anyways.