There are many degrees of hurtful offenses we experience in life; some are completely unintentional, the result of clumsy, insensitive interactions. The best way to handle those is to let them roll off like water off a duck’s back. The offender is human, bumbling around just like you do sometimes. There is no need for conversation or confrontation. Sometimes we are hurt or offended because our expectations were unmet. Self-examination and honesty with ourselves is called for; there may be nothing to forgive or cause bitterness within us.
Of course there are deeper, more painful and significant offenses that may have gone on for an extended period of time or those in which the offender was intentionally cruel or so self-absorbed they abandoned you. Offenses over which we begin to become bitter must be forgiven.
[1.] God calls us always to extend vertical forgiveness. This is between God and me and it is done for my benefit! This usually happens only after I come to realize that refusing to forgive is accomplishing nothing but bitterness in my own soul. Vertical forgiveness is done in prayer. It is unconditional, done whether or not the offender admits the offense and asks forgiveness.
In order to be free of bitterness I come to God and identify the offense, telling him I have been wounded, it hurts and I am angry! But I don’t want to be additionally wounded by the bitterness any longer. I tell God I am extending forgiveness to the offender “in absentia”. I acknowledge to God that the offender no longer owes me anything in regard to the offense.
It’s like I am writing “cancelled” across the legitimate debt.
Only one person is needed for vertical forgiveness: me. I don’t even tell the offender about this vertical forgiveness. This is a work of grace within my own heart and my walk with God. If there are consequences for the offender I trust God to provide them. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’” Romans 12:19. Now I am released from trying to hurt or pay back the offender, or to await their acknowledgement of their offense and apologize. I am free!
[2.] What happens horizontally, between the offender and me? Luke 17:3 says, “So watch yourselves! If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” I am told to rebuke the offender – that means express an appropriately stern, sharp disapproval of the offensive behavior! Then I have done what is mine to do; I determine not to bring it up anymore..
What happens next is up to the offender. There must be a softness and genuine repentance (thinking differently, acknowledging wrong, remorse for the offense). What follows is “fruit that is consistent with repentance,” behaviors proving a change of heart, (Matt. 3:8). If/when that happens I can tell the offender I have forgiven them and released the offence. Relationship may be restored if there is true repentance and the possibility of trust being rebuilt between us. If the offending behavior is repeated it may be necessary to walk through these steps again. Repeated offenses indicate no genuine change of heart; it may not be possible to salvage the relationship.
[3.] We do not always achieve reconciliation. I can do all that is mine to do, (vertical forgiveness and appropriate rebuking) and the relationship still can remain fractured. If there is no genuine repentance on the part of the offender there can be no rebuilding of trust and respect and therefore no genuine relationship. Some offenders may be toxic, better left out of my life. Their presence may be too painful, hindering me from maturing in healthy ways emotionally and spiritually.
What Forgiveness Is & Is Not
- Forgiveness is A Conviction. The Spirit of God has helped me to understand a Biblical principal. I know it is something I need to do, to obey God.
- Forgiveness is A Choice. When I forgive, I make a choice, a decision with my mind to obey God. It does not arise from my emotions. A decision to forgive may quarrel with my emotions and often is made in spite of them.
- Forgiveness is Specific. I forgive someone for something specific they did. It is not a broad statement such as “I forgive you for all you did.”
- Forgiveness is Cancellation of a Debt, choosing to write “cancelled” across their bill. If they genuinely wounded me, they “borrowed” or “stole” something from me, so to speak, there is a debt involved. In order to be free of the situation and the resulting bitterness I can choose to consider the debt cancelled. I say “They do not owe me anything anymore!”
- Forgiveness is not sending to myself or to the offender a message of “It’s okay…” If they genuinely wounded me, it is not okay. Forgiveness does not magically transform something unacceptable into something acceptable. Appropriate rebuking clarifies that fact.
- Forgiveness does mean that I intend to trust God to deal with them over the issue.
- Forgiveness does not mean that I necessarily will have relationship with this person in the future. It may not be wise for me to have relationship with them. Forgiveness does not require that I have relationship with them!
- Forgiveness is A Pledge. “I will not bring it up to him/her anymore, nor will I bring it up to myself or others.” We … take every thought captive to obey Christ,” (2 Cor. 10:5).
- Forgiveness is A Process. Time and thought are required for me to consider exactly what I am forgiving. I will become ready to begin the process. I will take some steps… do some business with God on the subject. Then I will again feel bitter toward the offender. At that point I can talk with God something like this: “Lord, I acknowledge that on the day of ____, I began the process of forgiving _____ (offender’s name). I choose to continue moving in that direction, relinquishing any claim I had, or thought I had, for repayment of any kind. He/She doesn’t owe me a thing!” No matter what I feel, I can choose to move ahead with what I know to be true about God and me, and what he wants me to do.
- And… are you ready for this one? Forgiveness may involve A Cooperation. God may want my cooperation in this situation so he can use me in this person’s life. Bitterness robs me of the chance to be God’s tool in his life. My pain caused me to be very aware of this person. God wants me to be very aware – of that person’s needs so I can pray for him/her. God wants my life to illustrate to the offender of how God loves and offers forgiveness. Perhaps a deep relationship with God will result from the illustration my forgiveness, empowered by God, provides.