Recently, a friend of mine called in tears saying her boyfriend had confessed to cheating on her. They had been beginning to discuss marriage after dating for a few years, and she was heart-broken.
But equally upsetting was the internal struggle with what felt like a religious requirement: she is a Christian, so the Christian thing to do is to forgive him.
Though forgiveness might be necessary eventually, she felt the pressure to forgive him immediately because he was honest, he was repentant, he said he wouldn’t do it again, and he still wanted to be with her.
“If he repents, I have to forgive him, right?” It felt like a forgone conclusion. It felt like something she had to do. It felt like a transaction that had to take place if she was truly a godly and loving woman. But she was angry, hurt, and her trust in him had been shattered. What does it look like to navigate this kind of situation with godliness and grace, while also being honest about the pain and broken trust that his actions had caused?
At some point, you’ve probably been advised to forgive and forget. There are a lot of idioms that leak into Christian culture but aren’t actually biblical; forgive and forget is one phrase. There is a shade of truth to it, and likely good intentions, but when it comes to forgiveness, it attempts to reduce a robust and transformative process into a transaction.
Christian counselor Dan Allender says, “Forgiveness is all too often seen as merely an exercise in releasing bad feelings and ignoring past harm, pretending all is well…True forgiveness…is a powerful agent in a process that can transform both the forgiver and the forgiven.”
As Allender points out, we often diminish the work of forgiveness to be about how we feel, but true forgiveness bears all the marks of resurrection hope and power. Christian forgiveness is not about a feeling, it’s about participating in the Triune God who forgives sinners and restores them into right relationship with himself. Christian forgiveness is a scandalous thing, showing grace to the enemy, wiping full slates clean, and demonstrating in action the power of the gospel—that Christ died so that sinners like us could be saved. When we forgive someone else, we show them the power of the gospel in the most tangible way we can.
On one hand, forgiveness might seem straightforward—you just choose to forgive and move forward. But this simplistic understanding of forgiveness condenses a full orchestra of actions and processing into a single line of music.
Real forgiveness requires truth-telling and honesty, rediscovering the humanity of the person who hurt you, navigating reconciliation, reunion, restoration, and repentance. No, forgiveness is no easy task, but we must each learn its rhythms and overtures—not just to protect ourselves from bitterness and resentment, but to follow after Jesus, our forgiving King.
True forgiveness is nothing short of the power of God at work among us. So when we have a small view of forgiveness and how to do it, we miss the power of God at work in our lives when he forgives us, we miss the power of God at work in the person who hurt us, we miss an opportunity to make much of Christ and his good, good news.
There is so much more to forgiveness than forgive and forget; it’s time we recover a more robust—and biblical—understanding of what forgiveness is and how we do it.