I remember talking to a lady several years ago who had been abused by her father as a young girl and who was, understandably, still dealing with the mental anguish of the abuse as a middle-aged woman. She had reached a point in her life in which she no longer wanted to live in the bitterness and anger of her past. And she was ready to forgive her father.
But he had died a decade before.
I explained to her that forgiveness can happen at anytime and that it does not require two people to come together, agree with one another, or for the other person to accept the forgiveness. In fact, the other person does not even need to be alive to forgive them.
Forgiveness is, very simply, a change in one’s heart disposition toward another, that moves from a place of anger, bitterness, and resentment to a place of compassion and mercy. It is a heart posture that no longer holds enmity or hostility or condemnation toward another, but that manifests from a place of compassion and mercy into a loving grace.
And to that end, forgiveness is never dependent upon another. Forgiveness is always self-generative. That is why forgiveness can never be transactional, or an “if you do something for me, then I will forgive you” proposition. It is only, and always, the posture of one’s heart toward another. And to that end, forgiveness is always a one-sided affair. It begins and ends with you and you alone.
That understanding of forgiveness was a huge revelation for her (and it may be for you as well), as she was then able to forgive her father, even though he was no longer alive. Through her forgiveness, she was finally released from the hostility that had been consuming her for decades.
But it seems that, like my friend, many people do not fully understand forgiveness and do not understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. In fact, my explanation of forgiveness may be different than how you have always understood it.
You may have always thought of forgiveness as a verbal sentiment withheld until an adequate measure of contrition, remorse, or tears have been poured out by another. And that is completely understandable, because that is the model of forgiveness we have been culturally-conditioned to understand, especially in our churches. Within that model, forgiveness is conditionally given in exchange for one being sorry, with one side holding the ultimate power of forgiveness or unforgiveness and the other side needing to prove they deserve it.
But what we find in Scripture is actually something very different than the conditional, reactive forgiveness that holds power over another. In story after story, and account after account, we discover that the forgiveness of God, demonstrated through the life and teachings of Jesus, is unconditional and preemptive. It is always unmerited and given before anyone ever asks for it. And there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to earn that kind of forgiveness. Again, it is birthed out of compassion and mercy that becomes a loving grace which is given regardless of one being sorry. And it is precisely this unconditional and preemptive forgiveness, this kindness of God, that can lead to repentance, or a change in one’s mind that leads to inner transformation.
But many miss God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness because they project their merit-based value system on to God and/or look at the Bible as a mechanical process to be exactly followed, or a mathematical equation that only equals forgiveness if all of the numbers are added up correctly. That completely misses the heart of God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness we are to emulate. Forgiveness is neither a mechanical process to follow nor a mathematical equation to get correct.
God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness has always been God’s first move toward restoring a relationship with each of us. And if you have missed that then you have missed the entire point of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not, as many believe, the essential head nod of God given to grant us access to a future heaven. God’s forgiveness is the first step toward a whole and healed relationship with us. Forgiveness allows for the repairing and mending work in our relationship to begin. For the two to become one. For that which has been divided to come back together. For wholeness, completeness, and harmony to be realized in our relationship. That is what reconciliation is. It is the process that slowly begins to build trust, heal wounds and divisions, and make relationships whole again over time.
But while forgiveness can happen immediately and is always one-sided, reconciliation takes time, maybe a lifetime, and necessitates the willingness of both sides to work toward reconciliation in the relationship. But there is no guarantee that both sides will be willing, or able, to work toward a reconciled, whole and healed relationship in this lifetime. But that is always the hope and longing of God- that in light of God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness, all will be reconciled, all will be made whole and complete, all things will move toward perfect harmony, and that shalom will be obsessively pursued.
Interestingly, that is why followers of Jesus are referred to as ministers of reconciliation, rather than ministers of forgiveness. Because God’s forgiveness has already happened. Every single person in the past, present, and future has already been forgiven by God. Past tense. That is the Good News. And now, in light of God’s forgiveness for all people, we are those who announce that there is no enmity, hostility, or condemnation from God toward anyone. There is only love and forgiveness and open arms that welcomes back every prodigal, to be reconciled to God, to be whole and healed in this relationship with God and then with all people. That has always been the point- forgiveness that leads to the reconciliation of all things.
God’s forgiveness is completely a one-sided affair and was demonstrated at the cross of Christ for all people, for all time. So in every way humanity has believed, or continues to believe, that a sacrifice is necessary on our part to be at peace with an angry god, it was God who finally put that faulty assumption to rest, once and for all, by giving a peace offering to us.
Rather than a power play that holds forgiveness or unforgiveness over our heads until we are contrite and remorseful enough, until we have offered enough sacrifices, or until we have shed enough tears, the forgiveness of God stands alone and is unconditionally and preemptively self-giving and self-generative, birthed out of God’s great compassion and mercy into a loving grace for all.
The forgiveness of God has never been dependent upon any single person climbing the ladder of worthiness or attaining higher levels on the fictitious relative sin scale. The forgiveness of God is here for all, surrounding us every moment, waiting for us to live in light of it, longing for all things to be reconciled. And it is that forgiveness that was demonstrated perfectly at the cross of Christ, to show that in any way we may have believed otherwise, there is no absolutely no enmity, no hostility, and no condemnation from God toward us.
There is only and always forgiveness for all.
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