Understanding God’s Forgiveness: What it Means for You
Orange County Christian Counseling
For many people who seek help from counselors, the idea of God’s forgiveness can prove to be an obstacle that stands in the way of progression. While the notion of forgiveness seems, on the surface, to be a simple one, in practice it is often very difficult to extend it.
A reluctance to forgive can cause tremendous problems in relationships, corroding the building blocks of marriages.
In fact, unforgiveness causes bigger problems than the actual act that cannot be forgiven. An inability to forgive results in feelings of anger and bitterness that have a profound impact on a person’s mood. In cases where someone is unable to forgive themselves, the anger turns inward, and the problem is even more serious.
Being unable to forgive weighs us down like a concrete block, keeping us trapped in the past and preventing us from living an abundant life. It is hard work dragging that weight around every day. As with weightlifting, lifting the weight holding us back requires strengthened muscles – but the muscle we need to use is that of forgiveness, and that is not easy to develop.
Most people have undeveloped forgiveness muscles, so that the first time we try to extend forgiveness, it is hard. But as with any other muscle, the more we use it, the easier it becomes.
We will need help and guidance from others as we learn to forgive others and ourselves, however. It is important to be surrounded by spiritually wise people and to seek the advice of experienced counselors in order to make the process easier.
What is forgiveness?
People may have differing ideas about what forgiveness actually is, and there are common misconceptions. Basically, forgiveness suggests that some kind of misdeed or violation has taken place (the act that requires forgiving), and to repair a relationship or restore peace, the victim extends amnesty to the perpetrator.
In reality, however, what often happens is that forgiveness is only extended to the perpetrator when they have made some effort to make amends – for example by replacing something they stole or broke. This is not really true forgiveness, because it is depended on the making of amends. God’s forgiveness is much more extensive.
When it comes to God’s forgiveness, humans need forgiveness for the sin in our lives. The Bible makes it clear that sin throws up a barrier between us and God, and we cannot possibly make amends in order to tear that barrier down.
Only God, as the one we have wronged, can extend forgiveness and restore us to right relationship with him. This is a true spiritual gift that wipes clear our debt. We are unable to repay the debt, so God simply writes the debt off.
Unfortunately, it is human nature to continue to sin. Regardless of this fact, God perseveres in forgiving us. 1 John 1:9 tells us that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
All that is required of us is to confess our sin, and God will extend forgiveness. The verse does not tell us to “confess our sins and make amends to all we have wronged,” because to do so would be impossible.
The second portion of the verse suggests that we are “cleansed from unrighteousness,” which highlights the relationship between sin and unrighteousness. God’s forgiveness empowers us to live in righteousness, and this will enable us to perform good deeds. Good deeds help us to make amends. But forgiveness from God comes first because only when the unrighteousness that leads to sin is removed can we actually accomplish good deeds.
It’s true to say that God’s forgiveness doesn’t make sense rationally. It is a supernatural gratuity, freely given when we absolutely haven’t earned it. There is nothing “fair” about God’s forgiveness, and this is why it is alien to us as humans since we are brought up with the idea of having to earn what you receive.
God’s forgiveness is liberating and wonderful, but it becomes more complicated when we realize that being in receipt of forgiveness ourselves, we have a duty to extend it to others.
In our humanness, we seek justness, equitability, and balance, but God calls us to a different way of being, by first modeling it to us. It is easy to feel that we are justified in holding on to anger and bitterness regarding some wrong that has been done to us, rather than wiping the slate clean through forgiveness. It can make us feel vulnerable when we offer forgiveness, and yet it is the only way to experience freedom.
Why is forgiveness so hard?
For most people, forgiving others doesn’t come easy. It can also be difficult for many of us to receive forgiveness. Forgiveness forms an important part of the process of restoration of relationships—be it between two or more people, between you and God, or even reconciling your feelings about yourself. Forgiveness requires both humility and vulnerability.
Before we extend forgiveness, we may feel as though we have power over others, because effectively they owe us something. Forgiving someone in the way that God forgives us means that we have to relinquish that sense of power, and that can be costly.
When we are caught up in unforgiveness, we focus on the fact that the other person has done us wrong and we expect them to put things right. It may be that they now owe us something or have caused emotional wounding that needs to be atoned for. Asking them to give us what we’re owed is a means of protecting ourselves.
The difficulty arises when the other person doesn’t atone for their wrongdoing. Holding on to the debt we’re owed results in bitter resentment and anger, which doesn’t just affect us and the person who has wronged us.
Carrying the weight of bitterness impacts our relationships with other people, our work and our family lives. The longer we continue to wallow in unforgiveness, the bigger the impact on our lives, and the more difficult it becomes to extend forgiveness. It becomes a vicious cycle of negativity.
Forgiveness does not always happen overnight. It can be a journey that takes a long time. What is important is beginning the journey towards forgiveness, even if you cannot yet conceive of being able to forgive.
Complicating the issue of forgiveness is the recognition that while it is hard to extend forgiveness, it is equally difficult to receive it. At the root of this lies shame. When we are tied up in knots of shame, we are constantly aware that we owe a debt that we cannot repay. This can lead to excessive attempts to make amends.
Often, the more we try to make things right, the worse we feel. And if we are unable to even try to make amends, because we no longer have contact with the person we’ve wronged, the situation is even more difficult. This can lead to depression and a sense of needing to engage in self-punishment.
In these cases, people resist receiving God’s forgiveness and keep themselves locked in a prison of guilt and shame.
Ultimately, forgiveness is difficult both to give and receive. However, the supernatural help we receive from God can break down the barriers that are obstructing us. It may take time, but we have the capacity to forgive because God has forgiven us, and we can be free from the guilt, shame and power of sin in our lives.
What does the Bible say about forgiveness?
There are two principle standpoints on forgiveness in the Bible. The first is the forgiveness God extends to us. The second is our requirement to follow suit and forgive others.
The Bible is also clear that forgiveness is an aspect of grace, which is a gift given to us by God. We are not to selfishly hold onto the grace we are given but give to others that which we have received. It is not possible to give grace without receiving it first, however.
When we accept the gift of grace given to us by God, it is an act of empowerment so that we can pass grace on to others. The receiving and giving of grace is a continual process.
As Christians, we are instructed to “forgive…one another, as God in Christ, forgave” us (Ephesians 4L32). This recognizes that we cannot forgive until God has forgiven us.
Additionally, the Bible tells us that Christian forgiveness is not restricted by concepts of fairness. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds by saying “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Don’t get hung up on the math. Jesus does not mean that we are to keep account of how many times we forgive a person. The meaning of this passage is that forgiveness is without limit, and certainly, since God does not count how many times he forgives us, neither should we. We are called to go above and beyond human concepts of fairness.
In human strength, this kind of forgiveness is impossible. However, God equips us with his own power to forgive in the same way that he forgives us. It is a radical idea that many of us struggle with. The kind of standard God sets is high, because his concept of forgiveness is restorative and holistic, bringing people closer together.
God’s forgiveness allows restoration in families that have been driven apart by unforgiveness and sin. Equally, inward self-forgiveness allows us to draw near to God and put a stop to self-punishing behaviors. God is able to tear down barriers that cannot be broken otherwise.
But is God’s forgiveness really for me?
Many people can understand God’s forgiveness on an intellectual level but find it much more difficult to accept that it’s for them. In most cases, this relates to issues of self-worth, with people questioning whether they are worthy of the forgiveness God wants to extend to them.
This kind of questioning will always keep you going around in circles because ultimately, no one is truly worthy of God’s forgiveness. This is the scandal of grace – we do not deserve God’s forgiveness, but he desires to give it to us anyway.
We can never achieve a state where we can truly declare ourselves worthy of God’s grace and love, but despite this, God declares us worthy. It is not because we are good enough, but rather because God is good enough.
So yes, God’s forgiveness really is for you, regardless of your past and despite the mistakes you will make in the future. It is a freely given gift that does not require us to first fix ourselves before receiving it. Rather, it is the receiving of forgiveness that allows us to be restored.
Getting stuck in endless cycles of trying to be good enough will lead to frustration but receiving God’s forgiveness sets you free to help others by extending forgiveness to them.
It may be that you’ve read this far and still are not convinced about forgiveness. That’s quite natural. Many people struggle with issues of God’s forgiveness, and these struggles can be compounded by depression and anxiety.
If you are struggling, therapy can help you to delve deeper into the underlying issues that may be preventing you from receiving and extending forgiveness. Working with a counselor can set you free from shame, anger, guilt, and bitterness, and strengthen your relationship with God and with others.
Counselors can also help with issues around being unable to forgive yourself, unpacking why this is the case and helping you to move into freedom.
Even if you feel that you are an exception to God’s forgiveness, that God cannot possibly forgive you, even if he can forgive others, remember that in the New Testament, Paul persecuted Christians and yet went on to write a significant portion of the New Testament. If God could forgive and use him, then you can also be forgiven. Do not wait any longer to embrace the future that God has in store for you.
“Empty Hands”, Courtesy of Jeremy Yap, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bible and Cross”, Corutesy of Congerdesign, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Crying Woman”, Courtesy of Thought Catalog, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Worship,” courtesy of Zac Durant, unsplash.com, CC0 License