I cannot remember the exact words that came out of my mouth, but they were rude and insensitive. Beth has never been one to lash back at me, so it took a few minutes for me to realize how biting my words had been. I quickly repented, looked at her, and said “I’m sorry.” She has always been quick to let things go and told me, “it’s okay.” This is the way that standard apologies work in our culture. She was telling me that that she did not hold what I did against her any longer and was letting it go. In my heart, it was anything but okay. I was wrong. I had sinned against God and my wife. There needed to be a deeper expression of the wrong that I had done on my part and I needed to hear something deeper in return. The words “I’m sorry” and “it’s okay” just didn’t feel adequate.
Oddly enough, I was taking a DMin course in Counseling when this happened and we were reading several introductory works on the subject. Something in our assigned reading for that week blew me away. The author said that when we have wronged someone, the words “I’m sorry” are insufficient for a genuine apology and “it’s okay” is an insufficient expression of forgiveness. Instead, the words that should be used are “I was wrong, will you forgive me” and “I forgive you.”
The word “forgive” acknowledges that a genuine trespass that has taken place. It recognizes that there has been a sin against God and the other person. Asking for forgiveness is an admission that you did more than make a mistake. You sinned against the other person. (It’s important to draw a distinction between things that were done or said purposefully and things that may have been an accident or honest mistake.)
Forgiveness also turns our attention towards God. Forgiveness is deeply biblical and Christian language. Because of the death of Jesus, God forgives those who trust in his son. God’s forgiveness means that he no longer holds our trespasses against us and cleanses us from our guilt. God expresses what this means when he says in Jeremiah 31 “I will remember their sin no more.”
Once one person has admitted that they were wrong and asked for forgiveness, the onus is now on the other person to forgive. For the Christian, refusing to forgive is not an option. The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that Christians forgive each other as they have been forgiven by God. Since God forgives fully and freely, those who have received his forgiveness fully and freely forgive those who wrong them.
What does are you saying when you tell another person that you forgive them? You are telling them that you no longer hold what they did against them. In his book Theology of Christian Counseling, Christian Jay Adams says that you say the words “I forgive you,” you are telling the other person that you will not bring the matter up to them again, that will not mention it to anyone else, and that you will not dwell on it. (p. 222) This is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is freeing. Holding a grudge and waiting for some type of revenge or karmic justice is a prison. It eats you alive inside and it changes you. It hardens your heart and is a breeding ground for bitterness. Forgiveness does something totally different. It frees you to love as you have been loved by God. It frees you from placing yourself on God’s throne and trying to enact your own justice. It gives you the amazing opportunity to demonstrate in some measure the grace that God has shown you.
It also changes your relationships and strengthens them. When you have forgiven someone, you are not dwelling on what they have done to you. Their sins against you are not the first thing that come to your mind when you think about them. It tears down all of the walls that separate you from the people around you and enables you to have the kind of relationship with them that you were meant to have. It is also a visible demonstration of the Gospel that has changed your life.