What Is Forgiveness?


“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:36-37

The family members of those slain in June of 2015 in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a message to the man who shot dead nine of their loved ones: Love is stronger than hate. You want to start a race war, but that will not happen.

It could be confusing to some that the family members of the nine people killed in a Bible study would talk about forgiveness at a time like that. But forgiveness does not mean calling an evil thing good. It does not subvert justice. Forgiveness is not hiding from reality. It holds no moral ambiguity.

Forgiveness in the New Testament simply means “to release.” This is what the family members were doing. They refused to hold the perpetrator of the evil act accountable to them personally. The killer will be subject to the judgment of the court, and the judgment of God. But the local victims rose above vindictiveness. Their character held strong. Evil was being put in its place: its pitiful, pathetic, weak place.

Forgiveness is not calling someone else’s immoral or destructive act “okay.” It is not turning a blind eye toward injustice. Forgiveness simply means that you choose to release somebody from personal obligation to you—even though that person will have to face the justice of God.

Forgiveness is a new way of looking at others. It is a radical and countercultural perspective on life. If you believe in forgiveness—that God forgives even though he is not obligated to, and that we’ll have the best kind of life if we hold other people in our lives with a loose grip—then you will see people for what they can be and what they were intended to be, rather than simply as they are.

Forgiveness means looking at people who have wronged you and deciding that you’d like to set things right—but in the end, you’re not going to play God. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process. You can release someone from obligation to you personally, even though the smoldering fires of resentment may only gradually die down with the passage of time.

PONDER: Are you dealing with resentment or bitterness toward someone at this time? What is the first step in releasing that person?

Mel Lawrenz

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Forgiveness in Charleston

Forgiveness is not the same as legal accountability, which is a function of the state. That is one difference between the personal acts of forgiveness in Charleston and the state as enforcer of the law. Lawbreakers often harm individuals, but they also incur a debt to society by breaking its laws. In rare instances, the state can absolve that debt through something akin to “legal forgiveness”—a pardon or some other act of leniency. But in most cases, and certainly in this one, the state properly pursues legal accountability.

The family members in Charleston knew this difference between personal forgiveness and legal accountability. When they addressed Roof, they said: “Repent, confess, give your life to the one that matters the most, Christ. So that he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happens to you.” “May God have mercy on you.” “I pray God on your soul and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”

Nor is forgiveness reconciliation. Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness meets repentance. And meaningful social change requires the kind of social reconciliation that can only emerge through aggregated instances of both forgiveness and repentance. In South Africa, during the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the failure of widespread repentance among whites to match widespread forgiveness among blacks constrained the possibilities for meaningful change. The United States now confronts a similar challenge: Awe-inspiring forgiveness without repentance will not bring reconciliation.

Excerpt from John Inazu, “The Incomprehensible Witness of Forgiveness,” The Hedgehog Review (June 2015)

Comments welcome below.

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7 thoughts on “What Is Forgiveness?”

  1. I know what forgiveness is, thanks to my wife. I will not go into detail about what I did to break her heart into a thousand pieces, but after leaving me for a week, three months after we were married was somehow enough for her to forgive me. She and I are reconciled by the love we share for each other. We just celebrated our 7th anniversary. She now trusts me and we even brought a precious child ointothe world. I make no mistake that another episode of what I did will cause terrible consequences. I also make no mistake at Whom it was who allowed her to forgive me completely.

    Lord Jesus, I thank you from the bottom of my heart that I have such a person like my wife in my life. I pray that you help me have the same loving heart that she has for me and others.

  2. It takes a lot of strength to forgive, for such wrongful actions;i believe we all can learn from such acts.
    I am in a state of un-forgiveness with my daughters and i have no clue how to even begin to forgive. They are different but have no repent to degrade me suggest i am a terrible mother. One has stollen from me and claims she is innocence not even by a long shot; she had it all planned out i just realize I have missing checks after months went by i am not a check writer and i have missing checks. Shame on her.
    How can i survive such retaliation;how dare they keep putting me down;they ask for my help but have no problem to use the situation. I feel very bad for all my grandchildren involved.
    I try to forgive myself;take accountability for my actions I am so done with being bullied and trampled on so done. I am too old for all this nonsense.

  3. I have experience forgiveness that led to reconciliation, and the first step to reconciliation is telling the person whom you have wronged or who has wronged you to forgive you. In my case it was the person who did the wrong but I took the initiative to go to the individual and say” Please forgive me for anything I did to offend you, I apologise. Now I guess I will have to release the person and work towards not holding any resentment towards the person, since the situation has come up again.

  4. I was hurt deeply by someone I loved and trusted and was bitter for three years. God spoke to my heart and I forgave this person and I felt as though a weight was lifted from my heart. A short time after that this person repented and we were reconciled. Sometime later this person started doing some things that broke my heart but I know I must forgive so I do not become bitter again. We are all sinful humans and make poor and sinful decisions sometimes. We can’t let the decisions of those that hurt us define us. Similar to those in Charleston, we should forgive others. We, as a nation of many skin colors, have hurt each other and harbor unforgiveness. We all need to release it to God so we can move towards forgiveness and repentance.

  5. Martin Luther King Jr had some wise words on the subject :
    -“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

    For when we are struggling to forgive, I think these quotes help a lot :
    – “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” [John F Kennedy]
    – “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” [Oscar Wilde]
    – “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” [Proverbs 25:21-22 NIV]
    – “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” [Mahatma Gandhi]
    – “Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” [Indira Gandhi]
    – “Never forget the three powerful resources you always have available to you: love, prayer, and forgiveness.” [H Jackson Brown Jr]
    – “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” [Lewis B Smedes]


  6. Father, even though I am flawed, rejected by the world and broken, You love me completely and perfectly, Father that is how I want to love and forgive, without hesitation or reservation…
    Lord Jesus, there will always be “someone” willing to hurt, put down, gossip and belittle others and I realize that you stand beside me even though at times I am that “someone”… I repent Lord if my actions have made someone feel afraid, worthless or alone, especially since you fixed my life so that I will never have to feel that way. Lord, you have shown me a radical way to live, you have chosen to forgive and love me even though you were under no obligation to…
    Holy Spirit, help me live a life of forgiveness, help me to see people for what they can be rather than what they are…

    Lord God, the season of obedience is here…

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