People want good relationships more than just about anything else. We want loyal friends, loving spouses, devoted children, and considerate neighbors. God made us to give and enjoy love, but many things seem to get in the way, and even good relationships suffer so that enduring relationships are comparatively rare. Why? I am a peacemaker because I am convinced that conflict, disagreement, divergent agendas, and strife are normal and that failing to tolerate or resolve differences stresses and often unravels the bonds between people. Conflict may be common, arising from our diverse individuality, chronic, worsening when we fail to deal with it, or carnal, occurring because some “divide” in order to “conquer.” Some see all conflict as sin or evil; the reality is that, beyond those who intentionally provoke or abuse others, mishandling conflict is more often the real sin. Mishandling or failing to deal with conflict constructively damages the very relationships we once desired, but it doesn’t need to happen that way.
The United States and Western culture have developed into communities of victims. Victims are those who refuse to see their own responsibility and guilt. Instead, they blame someone else and wait for someone else to fix the problem. This tactic has become a strategy of interest groups and a prevalent attitude for many. Sadly, if indeed it is true that people want good relationships, being a victim, blaming others for life’s vicissitudes, and demanding “justice” merely aggravates the conflicts and guarantees more alienation and strife.
Consider these questions: 1) Do you accept or deny responsibility for the mistakes you make? 2) Are you more likely to blame someone for things that happen or feel shame for your own mistakes? 3) Do you live justly or do you complain about the injustices of others? 4) Are you more likely to feel guilty or declare the guilt and failure of others? 5) After an argument, are you more likely to feel angry with yourself or angry with someone else? 6) Do you more often find yourself confessing your mistakes or condemning the mistakes of another? 7) Are you more likely to forgive people or fight with them?
Sinners relate poorly to other sinners without forgiveness. Since “all have sinned,” everyone needs forgiveness, those “lost” in guilt and shame and those “saved” but confused. Our sovereign God has ordained forgiveness to be central to the gospel, but it is the most logical way to restore the broken relationships between the Creator and His creatures. Forgiveness is also critical for peacemaking in repairing broken relationships among people. Sadly, many do not understand or properly apply forgiveness, as important as it is. In fact, the words “never forgive” seem to be more increasingly common.
To clarify the nature of true forgiveness, consider two pictures taken from law and banking. In law, one who fails to do as the law requires is a law-breaker. He is guilty, and justice demands a penalty for the offense. In banking, a person may use another’s money by taking out a loan. He then owes a debt, which he must repay. The Bible uses other pictures to illustrate sin—slavery, rebellion, danger, being lost, falling short, disobedience, being dirty–but none portray as clearly the nature of forgiveness as these two involving guilt and justice, debt and obligation. The results of forgiveness are an encouraging list—free, reconciled, safe, found, restored, and clean—but these two illustrate the means: crimes or offenses pardoned and debts canceled. This is what God does when He forgives; it is what He commands us to do and what we should want to do to prevent the loss of relationships and to repair those already broken.
When a guilty sinner comes to God in faith, God forgives him; that person rightly expects Jesus Christ’s atoning death at Calvary to satisfy justice. Scripture is clear that this forgiveness is more than a placebo to make a guilty sinner feel better. When God forgives, he “justifies the guilty;” a forgiven person is declared righteous. Christ, the only perfectly sinless or innocent Man, bore the penalty on the cross due lawbreakers, and satisfied justice. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:18-21). By forgiving or “canceling the debt,” God, sees the debt as paid, the obligation ended: “And when you were dead in you transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). Other terms expand the understanding of the fullness of God’s plan—redemption from slavery, alive from the dead, freed from captivity, cleansed from filth, healed from sickness and corruption, rescued or saved from peril, reconciled from alienation, found and adopted from being lost and alone. Yet, nothing gives a better picture of forgiveness than debt cancelled and guilt satisfied.
Only the victim or the debt-holder can forgive. Only God can forgive sin; He is the ultimate victim of human sin, because He is our sovereign Creator and Lord of the Universe. When we accept His provision in Christ, He wipes our record clean of every broken law and He cancels all debt to Him. When a person sins against another person, the guilty has two victims or debt-holders: the human victim and God. To correct the problem, the offender must seek forgiveness from both. God willingly forgives not only the condition of sin in salvation, He promises remedial forgiveness and cleansing whenever it is needed: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
Forgiveness comes by confession; it requires an admission of guilt: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalms 32:5). “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16). The confessor admits guilt and acknowledges his or her debt. Confession, admission of guilt, repentance or turning away from the sin in question, and faith in God’s provision opens the door to God’s eternal forgiveness. Confession, pledging to avoid similar offense in the future, and restitution (repayment of damages) opens the way to forgiveness from another person. When the offender admits failure, God charges the offended party, if a Christian, to forgive in the same spirit. “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1; see Matthew 18:15-18). Jesus gave us a model prayer in Matthew 6:9-15:
“‘Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptations, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.’
For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. but if you do not forgive men, then your father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Not only obliged to forgive, Christians are also obliged to forgive repeatedly, even for the same offense, just as God forgives them: “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'” (Matthew 18:21-22). Within this requirement, God leaves no room for grudges, bitterness, extended alienation, or revenge. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. ‘But is your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). Even godly repugnance at the original offense may not prevent forgiveness, as with the sinner rebuked in I Corinthians: “…sufficient for such a one is this punishment…forgive and comfort him…reaffirm your love for him” (II Corinthians 2:5-11).
Forgiveness is God’s remedy for mending the effects of conflict: “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as god in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:23-32). He expects His children to be honest, direct, and still love each other. He accepts anger but not sin or lengthy delay, because that’s where the devil can provoke infections of dissension and discontent. God desires honest work in place of theft but generosity out of what is earned. He prefers timely and constructive encouragement and forbids destructive negativity and condemnation. “Grieving the Holy Spirit” is how He characterizes any form of harsh unforgiveness—bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. Instead, He asks His people to embrace interpersonal kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness. That leaves little room for revenge or even human demands for justice. God’s design is for broken relationships to be mended, and His ordained method is forgiveness.
Given all that, forgiveness does not require forgetfulness. In fact, deliberate human forgetting is virtually impossible. Ironically, only God, whose memory is perfect, can promise to forget sin. “Then he adds: Their sins and lawless acts, I will remember no more. And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:17,18, quoting Jeremiah 31:34). Man’s memory is imperfect as well as tainted by sin. Sin itself, strong emotion, and pride not only interfere with memory but also hinder forgetfulness when there has been conflict or offense.
In a typical situation, emotion-filled perceptions of an unpleasant incident are confused and unreliable, seen through a grid of prior experience, strong emotions, and reactive self-absorption. After the event, mental rehashing and interpersonal recounting, further alter already inaccurate, though first-hand knowledge with subtle distortions. The “victim” becomes increasingly innocent, betrayed, and offended while the “offender” is ever more guilty and evil. Sometimes, the retelling serves to strengthen the emotions, the teller getting more angry and oppositional. All the while, whether over a short time or long duration, the memory of the offense is vivid, unforgettable, as well as often grossly inaccurate.
When the obligations of peacemaking and obedience to God, whether by personal choice or outside intervention, bring adversaries together, two problems often arise. First to be resolved are conflicting memories of the matters and events in question. Frequently, the parties must decide within and between themselves that they cannot and likely will not agree on an exact account of what has transpired. This can be a major stumbling block to reconciliation, if any party is determined to get an admission of guilt regarding “sins” which the other does not recall and is unwilling to confess. Here is where “demanding justice” can be a deal breaker!
The second problem is expecting to “forget” admitted sins to which others have confessed and sought forgiveness and the offended have granted. Real hurts leave painful memories, and even smaller injuries remain vivid when part of significant experiences. The human mind, a biological audio-visual data-keeper, records everything experienced, even while the person sleeps, permanently, barring serious destruction of brain cells. Forgetting is, in actuality, failing to recall. God wisely designed the human mind so it does not keep track of most of the trivial stuff of life. Even important things may slip through the system of recall and memory, making memory-enhancing systems helpful and popular tools for improving recall. However, the emotional stress and frequent “reviewing” of significant events assure clear memory and long-term recall. Forgiving alone will not make bad memories disappear, even when the basis for the memory has been addressed and rectified.
In place of “forgive and forget,” Christians must “forgive and restore.” Reconciliation means restoring to the relationship its former love, trust, intimacy, and enjoyable activities. Restoring the pleasurable pastimes of the relationship allows new and positive memories to replace the old, unpleasant ones. Unhappy memories may not be forgotten, but they will gradually slip into the background, while happier scenes of a renewed relationship create more pleasant recollections.
These basic principles of forgiveness are the remedy for real offenses. False guilt, however, can also interfere greatly with otherwise healthy relationships. False guilt involves taking responsibility for effects rather than causes. Sin is doing a wrong thing–breaking a law, injuring another, disobeying God; regardless of the effect, the cause is sin. On the other hand, taking responsibility for an unfortunate event is not about guilt but grief. If a loved one dies after surgery, an influential survivor may feel liable for either encouraging or not opposing the operation. Unless, such involvement was intended to harm, they did not sin or offend; they may have exercised poor judgment, or not, but they have no responsibility and no need of forgiveness. People who feel false guilt must release it; people who accuse others of guilt in such situations must also stop.
Blaming and shaming has become a too common tool for attempting to control others. They may be the language of false or genuine guilt, but their purpose is more often humiliation than anything redemptive or healing. Unless they have “seared” their own consciences, most people already know their own mistakes, sins, and offenses. Finger pointing at accidental, unintentional offenses merely turns a “molehill” into a mountain, a practice that has become common today. Political correctness, among other things, has become an abusive method of trying to prevent any such offense, at least to empowered special interest groups. “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult” (Proverbs 12:16). “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). Some things should just be ignored. That is the first result of Jesus’ instruction is Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over;” those who try may settle many minor problems simply by talking to each other, with a degree of tolerance.
Forgiving cuts through a number of other, very common activities, such as criticizing, judging, and condemning. These, like revenge, are God’s business often involve “qualitative” rather than “quantitative” evaluation of the choices and activities of others. To hold people accountable for violating specific commands (i.e. murder, adultery, stealing, gossip, etc.) is a good thing, if others have witnessed the offenses. Judging tends to evaluate generalities (things like maturity, spirituality, humility or pride), qualities that may warrant attention but are not identifiably sin. An immature person may try to shoplift, but the sin is stealing, not immaturity. The sin can be remedied by confession, restitution, and forgiveness; the immaturity requires time and encouragement for the purposes of growth. Forgiving someone for immaturity, unspirituality or pride is just a backhanded way to judge and insult, itself likely a greater sin, at that. Concerns such as prejudice and ignorance also warrant caution. These qualities may arise from sin and may lead to sin; but, being qualitative, they are not themselves sin. They are also far more common than most accusers and critics imply, which takes this discussion on to “logs and splinters.”
“Logs and splinters” illustrate judgment distorted by self-centeredness. Jesus said, in Matthew 7:1-5, “Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly in order to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Everyone tends to see his own besetting sins, more clearly, in others. One’s own experience leads to hypersensitivity so that a person tends easily to notice them in others. Specific or general, judging others is risky, because people are often not sensitive to holiness and the harmfulness of sin and disobedience. Instead, they are experienced sinners who know the sins they have committed, resist, and expect or imagine they see those sins in others, whether those sins are actually present or not. They also are experienced victims who have been hurt by the sins of others, may be unusually fearful of experiencing those hurts again, and prone to anticipate those sins, even when they are not present. Jesus was speaking more of the first, but both create bias and inaccurate understanding of the actions of others.
Forgiveness has many applications, but in this “peacemaker’s view,” just one more question needs to be addressed. In the mix of values and stories related to forgiving, the Bible sets up an intriguing tension between “an eye for an eye” and “turn the other cheek,” the New Covenant and Jesus favoring the latter. The spectrum between these extremes is filled with words and ideas, either equivalent to forgiving or to an evasion of true forgiveness. Is an apology the same as asking for forgiveness? How about “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry you took offense?” Obviously, the former may be and the latter is nearly an accusation. On the other side, is “That’s all right” an expression of forgiveness? “Apology accepted?” Is “no problem” a statement of forgiveness or just a way of avoiding the problem, and even a lie? Experience suggests that few ever say, “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” Likewise, few rarely say, “I forgive you,” and mean it. Words mean things, and guilty sinners are good at choosing words that sound like things that they are not. Those seeking reconciliation choose words that mean honest confession and genuine forgiveness.
Forgiving is not easy. Jesus set the standard for actions such as forgiveness: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sacrificing one’s feelings of disappointment, hurt, anger, and even of injustice, is not “laying down life” but it may seem like it. Doing so, for those who may seem not to fully appreciate the harm they have done or share the same sense of outrage, may also be hard. Yet, again, Jesus sets the example: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11). He even tells us to be like Him: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and give Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Not only so, He commands us to do the same, as worship or full appreciation of what He as already done: “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). He plainly tells us to live by His standards of merit, not those of the world. Forgiveness, perhaps as much as any, is a quality of the divine, a virtue to be exercised by the children of the divine. Just He forgave us when we least deserved it, so are we to forgive others; in this way, we become a part of the very reconciliation, for which Christ died and achieved for all His children.
 Lost is the word often used to refer to living without a relationship to God, lost in their dissatisfaction with life and unaware, at some level, that they have lost their way. When God rescues or delivers people from this state, He saves them. Unfortunately, the words are overused so that they have become jargon, often misunderstood by non-Christians.
 Sin, in the singular form, refers to man’s condition of rebellion against his Creator and Sovereign. “A sin,” with an article, or sins, plural, refer he specific, individual acts of disobedience and rebellion.
 Confessing wrongs that were never committed is unwise. This is a common occurrence in plea-bargains: innocent parties admit guilt under threat of extreme punishment; guilty parties receive punishment for less serious offenses that those actually committed. In civil cases, negotiations produce similar results, due to the high cost of legal representation and excessively high, jury-awarded damages, especially “punitive” damages. False confessions are damaging all around, producing a fluid understand of both guilt and innocence.