Forgiveness is Choosing Life

If I hurt you, and you forgive me, that forgiveness can’t undo the damage and doesn’t erase the hurt. Intellectually, we know this much. Emotionally, we get confused on this point.

If I see evidence in your actions or in your eyes that you are still hurt, and seeing this causes me to experience again the pain of remorse for what I have done, then this can leave me feeling (falsely) that I am unforgiven.

What, then, should I receive as the one forgiven? Granting that the forgiveness can’t remove reminders or remorse, what is my due?

Answer: Nothing. I am due nothing. As the one forgiven, I have no entitlement.

I certainly receive a benefit. You won’t be retaliating or nursing resentment against me if your forgiveness is true. If you care for me, you might want me to have that benefit. However, this benefit is not the point. Ultimately, forgiveness is a step the forgiver takes for the forgiver’s own reason, which has nothing to do with the benefit that might extend to me. Forgiveness is about life.

Forgiveness has to do with the forgiver’s understanding of his or her own life. It has to do with one’s expectations about life. It therefore has to do with the giver of this life, God.

As the one who has been hurt, what can you expect of him and what should you hope for?

Answer: Only one thing—the continued presence of this life-giver himself.

In this world, life inevitably entails and consists of loss. Assume now that I am the one who has been hurt. That means I have suffered a loss. Depending on the offense, I no longer have the peace, trust, health, property or possibilities I used to have.

To forgive is to choose life regardless. To forgive is to find the way to choose life even in this subtracted state. One chooses life in spite of the loss of this thing, accepting that the life now led includes that absence. I still feel what is missing—I still face and carry the consequences. But I choose to proceed with a new life, a life that is now different to some great or small extent, because it no longer contains or offers all that the previous life did.

God will change us. God will change you. Because you are a unique being with a unique destiny, his shaping of you might make use of the loss of something that everyone around you continues to possess as though by unspoken right. The loss of that thing might come as a result of injustice. It might come by means of another’s selfishness.

Framing the matter that way lets no one off the hook. God does not will the damage humans choose; he provides that it can be redeemed. It was evil of me to hurt you. It was vile of you to hurt me. In either case, I hope we can get past it. But “getting past” is not the forgiveness, since just enduring and powering through can accomplish that much. Forgiveness is more.

Hear the words of Joseph when he forgave the brothers who had sold him into slavery. He said, “You meant evil for me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph saw the good; he saw the people whose lives had been saved because of the turns his life took and the position he found himself in as a result of having been brought as a slave into Egypt. The latter chapters of Genesis tell this elaborate story. Yet now here before him were the ones who had subjected him to that slavery. Seeing the good did nothing to change the evil of what they had done. In forgiving, we do not redefine evil, but instead we refuse to be defined by it.

We say to God, I accept that the life you have for me has now changed in this way. We cease fighting against the loss by means of a bitter heart or plans for vengeance. We say, I choose this life.

Thus, those of us who feel we have been humbled by being forgiven probably aren’t sufficiently humble at all. The offender looms large in the mind of the one who has not forgiven. When it comes to the actual act of forgiving, the offender does not figure in. Forgiveness is the outcome of a conversation between the forgiver and God.

[PS. Then what does it mean when God forgives us? Answer: It means the same thing! God has given his creatures free will. We use it in detrimental ways. God says, I accept that the life I have given them has now been changed in this way. God says, I choose that they should live.]