What Forgiveness Really Is (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a 2-part series on Forgiveness. Click here to read the previous post.


Have you ever wanted to forgive someone and thought to yourself, I don’t really know how to do that.

It’s not like forgiveness is some magic switch you can flip where you simply say, “Okay, that person is forgiven. I have forgiven them.”

Because sometimes we forgive people, but we still feel exactly the same as we did before we forgave them.

So what exactly does it mean to forgive?

First, we have to recognize that forgiveness is personal.

What I mean is that you have to name the person who needs to be forgiven. Lots of people say that they were hurt by an institution—a church, a company, an organization—but that’s not really the way it works.

An organization didn’t hurt you; a person did. They may have done it with the weight of the organization or the institution, but it was that person, and it is that person who needs to be forgiven.

So to forgive is to name the person who hurt you and what exactly they did to you.

Whenever someone says, “They hurt me,” or “That group excluded me,” the first question should be, “What was the person’s name?”

Second, forgiveness is a process.

Not long ago, I was working through my ability to forgive a person, and I felt like I had made some real progress. However, that person reappeared in my world and reminded me of how angry I had been with them.

Sometimes we have to forgive the same person over and over again before it really sticks. For some of us, this may need to become a daily routine.

Sometimes forgiveness is the need to unlearn our attitudes of cynicism and bitterness. That can’t be done in a day. It takes time.

Third, forgiveness means giving up the need for revenge.

I wrote about this in a post last week. We have an internal sense of how justice works, and when someone wrongs us, we want them to suffer for it. If we can’t punish them, we want God to do it for us.

Revenge doesn’t make things better. It only escalates the problem. This is why Jesus calls us to forgive our enemies; it’s the only way to get ourselves out of the cycle of violence and destruction.

Finally, forgiveness is the ability to wish the other person well.

This might take years, but it’s where we are try to go. We are trying to become the kinds of people who naturally want the best for other people, even the people who have scarred us.

This is not easy, and it’s not fast. Like I said, it’s a process.

Don’t feel guilty if you struggle with this. We all struggle with it. This is what it means to be human—to struggle with the things that will make us better and will ultimately make the world better.


Can you think of any other things that forgiveness is? Are there methods you have learned that make it easier to forgive people?


For more on this subject, you can visit the previous posts on this blog:

-When Good Things Happen to Bad People

-Why We Shouldn’t Draw Lines

-Timothy Keller on Forgiveness


Timothy Keller on Forgiveness

I've been reading through Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God , and this morning I came across one of the best descriptions of forgiveness that I have ever heard. I have no additional commentary as I don't think anything else needs to be said. In my opinion, this passage is perfect, which is why I wanted to share it with you.  


I'm not sharing this as someone who is good at this. Rather, I'm sharing it as someone who needs to learn from it. I hope you gain as much from this passage as I have. 



Most of the wrongs done to us cannot be assessed in purely economic terms. Someone may have robbed you of some happiness, reputation, opportunity, or certain aspects of your freedom. No price tag can be put on such things, yet we still have a sense of violated justice that does not go away when the other person says, “I’m really sorry.” When we are seriously wronged we have an indelible sense that the perpetrators have incurred a debt that must be dealt with. Once you have been wronged and you realize there is a just debt that can’t simply be dismissed— there are only two things to do.

The first option is to seek ways to make the perpetrators suffer for what they have done. You can withhold relationship and actively initiate or passively wish for some kind of pain in their lives commensurate to what you experienced. There are many ways to do this. You can viciously confront them, saying things that hurt. You can go around to others to tarnish their reputation. If the perpetrators suffer, you may begin to feel a certain satisfaction, feeling that they are now paying off their debt.

There are some serious problems with this option, however. You may become harder and colder, more self-pitying, and therefore more self-absorbed. If the wrongdoer was a person of wealth or authority you may instinctively dislike and resist that sort of person for the rest of your life. If it was a person of the opposite sex or another race you might become permanently cynical and prejudiced against whole classes of people. In addition, the perpetrator and his friends and family often feel they have the right to respond to your payback in kind. Cycles of reaction and retaliation can go on for years. Evil has been done to you— yes. But when you try to get payment through revenge the evil does not disappear. Instead it spreads, and it spreads most tragically of all into you and your own character.

There is another option, however. You can forgive. Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death.

Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism. As a pastor I have counseled many people about forgiveness, and I have found that if they do this— if they simply refuse to take vengeance on the wrongdoer in action and even in their inner fantasies— the anger slowly begins to subside. You are not giving it any fuel and so the resentment burns lower and lower. C. S. Lewis wrote in one of his Letters to Malcolm that “last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered— or felt as if I did— that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might.” 1 I remember once counseling a sixteen-year-old girl about the anger she felt toward her father. We weren’t getting anywhere until I said to her, “Your father has defeated you, as long as you hate him. You will stay trapped in your anger unless you forgive him thoroughly from the heart and begin to love him.” Something thawed in her when she realized that. She went through the suffering of costly forgiveness, which at first always feels far worse than bitterness, into eventual freedom. Forgiveness must be granted before it can be felt, but it does come eventually. It leads to a new peace, a resurrection. It is the only way to stop the spread of the evil.

When I counsel forgiveness to people who have been harmed, they often ask about the wrongdoers, “Shouldn’t they be held accountable?” I usually respond, “Yes, but only if you forgive them.” There are many good reasons that we should want to confront wrongdoers. Wrongdoers have inflicted damage and, as in the example of the gate I presented earlier, it costs something to fix the damage. We should confront wrongdoers— to wake them up to their real character, to move them to repair their relationships, or to at least constrain them and protect others from being harmed by them in the future. Notice, however, that all those reasons for confrontation are reasons of love. The best way to love them and the other potential victims around them is to confront them in the hope that they will repent, change, and make things right.

The desire for vengeance, however, is motivated not by goodwill but by ill will. You may say, “I just want to hold them accountable,” but your real motivation may be simply to see them hurt. If you are not confronting them for their sake or for society’s sake but for your own sake, just for payback, the chance of the wrongdoer ever coming to repentance is virtually nil. In such a case you, the confronter, will overreach, seeking not justice but revenge, not their change but their pain. Your demands will be excessive and your attitude abusive. He or she will rightly see the confrontation as intended simply to cause hurt. A cycle of retaliation will begin.

Only if you first seek inner forgiveness will your confrontation be temperate, wise, and gracious. Only when you have lost the need to see the other person hurt will you have any chance of actually bringing about change, reconciliation, and healing. You have to submit to the costly suffering and death of forgiveness if there is going to be any resurrection.
— Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God (pp. 185-188).