I had forgiven him. He had done some things against me that were unconscionable. But I told him I forgave him. Meanwhile, deep in the recesses of my heart where I hide all my secrets, I wished for his life to be a explosion of failure and public embarrassment. After all, he hadn’t really repented. So I declared forgiveness, but privately imagined a downfall for him that would justify my secret hatred.
I hadn’t really forgiven him, had I? There was an important reason why unforgiveness still clung to me. It was because I was powerless to harm him.
Powerlessness Is A Part Of Unforgiveness
Have you ever considered this before? We withhold forgiveness of someone because we are powerless to change that person, or to punish that person for what he or she has done to us. Because we feel powerless we cling to unforgiveness. It tricks us. It deceives us. In one way, more than anything, we want to have an “I told you so” moment and hold it over that person. “I forgive you, but I told you so.” That doesn’t really sound like forgiveness, does it?
Let me share with you another truth about powerlessness.
Powerlessness Is A Part Of Forgiveness
We often won’t forgive what we cannot control. We often won’t forgive what we cannot influence. Yet, the presence of powerlessness requires that we acknowledge it, that we even embrace it. Because when we forgive when we are powerless to do anything but forgive, then true forgiveness comes rushing like a mighty river.
The mark of true forgiveness, after we have been hurt, is to embrace powerlessness. When we give up control and wish someone the best anyway, then we know we have forgiven.
Once when talking with my biological father about his sins against our family, long after I had declared forgiveness for him, he said, “I don’t owe you anything and you don’t owe me anything.” He was using it as an excuse for his behavior. But in reality he was speaking a kind of truth. If I had truly forgiven him, then his debt to me was wiped clean. I was powerless to change his life. I was powerless to make him do anything. There was nothing else I could do, so, why not just forgive, wipe the debt clean, regardless of his sin or repentance? You know what happened when I did that? For the first time in my life I could wish him well.
What does that have to do with forgiveness?
Have you ever heard someone say, “Love is a decision, not an emotion?” The truth is, that is a lie. Love is a heartfelt emotion every bit as much as it is a decision. Christians sometimes use that as an excuse to divorce positive feelings for the offender from the so called “act” of forgiveness. Guess what. If you don’t feel it, you haven’t done it.
Forgiveness is also more than a decision. It is also an emotion. Have you heard the saying, “I have to love him, but it doesn’t mean I have to like him?” Biblically speaking, that is also a lie. Christians use a saying like that as an excuse to hold hatred in their heart. But remember what Jesus said in Matthew 18:35. We must forgive from the “heart.” What is the heart? It is the seat of our emotions. When we forgive, at some point, we must, from within the heart be able to wish the offender well in his or her life. If you declare forgiveness but have no desire to wish that person well, then you haven’t finished grappling with forgiveness.
The Lexham Theological Workbook describes forgiveness this way: “Forgiveness is the release, on the part of the creditor or offended party, of any expectation that a debt will be repaid or that an offender will receive punishment for an offense.” What a powerful explanation of forgiveness. A release of debt. No punishment. How often have you forgiven someone but still hold something against that person? You feel they still owe you. You still want them to get their just desserts. You want him or her punished. You can be sure that if that is the case, then forgiveness has not yet been allowed to have its full work.
The Ultimate Example Of Forgiveness
The thick Roman spikes had been driven into Jesus’ wrists and feet. He had been savagely beaten with a whip embedded with fragments of bone and metal, ripping away at his flesh. While suffering in agony he was verbally tormented by the Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders. Yet, while he was in the very process of being murdered he spoke something truly profound. “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).
Before anyone had repented, before anyone had realized what was really happening, while they were intent on murdering him and torturing him, Jesus asked for their forgiveness. If there was ever a time for someone to love someone but not like them, it was that moment. If there was ever a time to declare forgiveness without the emotion of love, that might have been it. But it wasn’t that way. Jesus was the Son of God. He could have retaliated with all of his power, but he didn’t. He wasn’t powerless in the sense that he had no power. But he obeyed power. He declared to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above” (John 19:11).
When Jesus declared forgiveness it was real, it was emotive, it was full. So too, our forgiveness must be real, from the heart, emotive, with the tenderness of love that makes its mark as the real deal. But that can only come when we embrace our powerlessness, resigning everything to God.
Real forgiveness is not an easy road. But for most of us, choosing forgiveness is much easier than choosing it the way Jesus did. For most of us, we aren’t being murdered or tortured. So, we have much less to forgive. So, why not forgive? Why not bow to the powerlessness that defines our situation and forgive? In doing so, you will find more power for love and godliness than you ever imagined.