Written by Chris MacLeod, Australia
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
Have you ever forgiven someone who isn’t sorry for the way they hurt you?
After my 13th birthday, one of my parents started struggling with alcoholism due to a mixture of financial pressure and marital stress. It was a scary and destabilising period, and as time wore on the crisis seemed to have no end. My heart grew despairing and hateful because I was scared for the safety of my family and angry at the unjust nature of their behaviour. By the time I was 15, I discovered I held a lot of hate in my heart for this parent, and had traded my hope for healing with revenge.
One afternoon, against the advice of my counsellor whom I had begun seeing because of this parent’s alcoholism, I made an ill-advised visit to that parent to address our family issues. At the time, my heart was thick with judgment—I wanted this person to suffer as I had. So much so that when they demonstrated signs of repentance during our intervention, my inner motivations surfaced. I raged, I threw items, and I did everything I possibly could to prohibit healing and was swiftly removed from the room.
“They do not deserve forgiveness! They deserve to suffer as I have! They are not good enough!” I raged.
Fortunately, Jesus stepped in.
Moments later, I found myself lying on the ground, looking at the sky with a racing heart and bitter mind. As I lay there, the flow of ruinous ruminations was interrupted by a single penetrating thought: “What if your anger makes you like them?”
And then: “Your hate and fear will make you like the one you hate and fear.”
Suddenly, an unfamiliar sensation warmed my heart, and true feelings about my parent began to surface, such as concern, pity, and above all else, a desire to see them freed from their own shame, fear, and anger. I now know that it is sometimes called empathy, mercy, or forgiveness. But at that time for me, it was an emotional breakthrough!
I woke up one day later unable to locate the hatred and anger I had harboured toward this person. Instead, all I felt was concern that, in my anger, I had hurt this person too. I had let go of the desire to see them judged and punished, and in doing so, moved toward forgiveness.
It would be untrue to say that I never struggled with anger towards this parent again. But the realisation that resentment, unforgiveness, and anger would change me for the worse had fundamentally altered my perspective and placed my feet back on the way of Jesus’s non-violent (Matthew 5:38-40) and peace-making (Matthew 5:9) gospel.
Years later, as I attempted to cultivate a new relationship with this parent, God taught me another truth about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just sacrificing the right to condemn and judge, but also the right to wish the person was who you wanted them to be.
Forgiveness is not a contract. Forgiveness is not, “I forgive you, so be better”. There is no swap or transaction. Simply put, forgiveness is a gift we give, even if it isn’t received.
But if this is the case, why forgive? How can we be motivated to forgive when it is not done based on a reward or result?
Because it helps us become like Jesus
There is a story in the Bible about Jesus healing ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), but only one returns to thank Him.
What does this story teach us about Jesus and God’s love and forgiveness? It shows us that Jesus’s love for the ten lepers was not conditioned by their faithful response, but by Jesus’s compassionate and unearned love.
Jesus is the greatest gift-giver to walk the earth. His character and resolve were so powerful that excruciating pain on the cross could not stop Him from presenting yet another gift to humanity: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).
What kind of Father forgives the murderers of His son? What kind of Man can look at the soldier who crucifies Him with love? Only a God “who so loved the world” (John 3:16).
It can be difficult to forgive others who inflict hurt on us. Perhaps they didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand. This person thought your sacrificial love was superfluous—that nothing was wrong with how they acted. They were even insulted by your forgiveness because they were unwilling to admit they ever needed it. Sadly, despite your grace, nothing between you changes, and the hurt continues as it had before.
But when we look to Jesus, we see exactly how forgiveness works in that way.
We can forgive as we have been recipients of God’s forgiveness. But at the same time, however, we aren’t Jesus, and forgiving is never easy. What’s important to remember is that we don’t simply forgive because we are already like Christ, but because forgiveness helps us on our journey to see “Christ formed” in us (Galatians 4:19). We are a people who are becoming, so don’t be discouraged if you haven’t ‘arrived’ (has anybody?). And we are guided and helped by the Holy Spirit throughout our entire messy and complicated lives. Thank God!
So how can we forgive wisely? Here are a few reflections from my own experience of forgiveness, in both giving and receiving:
Forgiveness can happen now
Unfortunately, many relational hurts in life end without an apology (perhaps that is why they hurt so much). But we don’t have to sit around waiting for the other party to apologise before forgiving them—the act of forgiveness can happen now. Forgiving others, irrespective of an apology, frees us from holding onto bitterness and resentment. It frees us from being trapped by somebody else’s unrepentance.
Forgiveness is a process
It’s rare for us to be able to entirely forgive those who hurt us in one single moment. More often, forgiveness is a journey with multiple stops, replete with reminders of hurt and grief, followed by supplementary acts of letting go. Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself needing reminders to continually forgive. Jesus knew this would be the case, so He taught His disciples that they would need to learn to forgive endlessly (Matthew 18:21-22).
Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation and that’s okay
Sometimes forgiveness and reconciliation are treated interchangeably, but this is not helpful for relationships. Whilst forgiveness is a gift of grace we give to one another, just as God gave to us (Ephesians 4:32), reconciliation is the process of two parties recognising that something is wrong, and coming together to communicate, repent, and change the relationship.
Sadly, forgiveness does not always end with reconciliation. Whilst we can forgive each other freely, reconciliation only occurs where apologies are made, and behaviour is changed. Sometimes we must place boundaries with people in our lives who do not repent. In situations like these, we can still forgive, but also remember to put a safe distance between ourselves and these people, while continuing to pray for repentance that leads to reconciliation.
On that note, this is where my relationship with my parent now sits—while we have made some degree of peace (Romans 12:18), but it seems likely that reconciliation will never occur—though I hope otherwise. Any peace we have is generated from an inner forgiveness that is sacred between God and me.
Sometimes, life is like that. It’s messy, unpredictable, and often difficult to navigate. That’s okay—it happens. But let’s not let that stop us from moving on, growing, and becoming who God made us to be.