Scripture teaches that when we are hurt we ought to forgive, and when we are the injurer we ought to repent and make amends. But what about those times when we have been hurt badly—perhaps betrayed horribly by someone close to us—must we still forgive? What if the person who has injured us shows no sign of repenting? Doesn’t forgiving send them the wrong message and imply that it is OK to hurt us again?
Some of the confusion comes from the fact that the word forgiveness means different things to different people. For example, many think that forgiving involves reconciling, but scripture separates those two ideas. Yes, Jesus teaches we must forgive, but he also teaches that we should call the offender to account, and if that person does not repent, shun them (Mt 18:15-17). Forgiveness in scripture can be seen as a gift in which the offender is invited back into relationship with the injured if the offender is prepared to change. In the simplest terms we forgive the sinner, but we reconcile with a reformed person who is intent on making amends and not hurting us again.
That’s the principle, but life is rarely that simple, is it? Let me complicate the matter even further. Research has shown that when we forgive because we are pressured to or because we know we ought to, we tend to continue to be upset with the person. In my studies I have asked participants to imagine that they are sitting beside the one who hurt them. Those who have forgiven because they feel obliged to are uncomfortable with that person. So the dilemma is this: If we forgive because Jesus says we must, we won’t be able to forgive the way Jesus wants us to. To achieve that kind of forgiveness, we have to forgive because we want to.
Why is forgiveness so important to God? In part it is because God has created us to live in harmony for eternity with God and each other. One of the scriptural images of the promised future is of a banquet, a glorious party in the kingdom of heaven. Let me ask you: how much will you enjoy that party if there is someone there whom you have not forgiven from your heart? Eternity is a long time to live with upsetting emotions.
First, know that the person at that wonderful banquet will be the child of God that they were created to be, not the stunted individual who hurt you. It is true that we are called to forgive them as they are now, even as God forgives us while we are sinners. However, reconciliation can wait. We can be cautious about trusting them, and can limit our contact until trust is earned. In the meantime, we can gradually let go of our anger and pain; we can wish them well; we can pray for their reform and that they be reconciled with God and us; we can pray to see them and love them as God does.
However, especially when it is a deep hurt, forgiving takes time. That’s OK. Our God is patient. Take it in baby steps—don’t forget that Jesus loves children. So it is fine to start.