This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”

“Can somebody please tell me, when I say, ‘I forgive you,’ what I am committing to?” This is the question we want answered. We want to know what kind of check we are writing when we proclaim forgiveness over some hurtful action.

At its most basic level, forgiveness is canceling a debt. But, to stay within the financial metaphor, canceling a debt doesn’t necessarily mean living as if the debt never happened (unwriting history), giving another loan (trust), or starting a business together (reconciliation). You can cancel a debt while being aware of someone’s financial habits, declining to lend more money, and refusing a joint business venture.

Forgiveness is canceling a debt. But, canceling a debt doesn’t necessarily mean living as if the debt never happened (unwriting history), giving another loan (trust), or starting a business together (reconciliation). Click To Tweet

So, to gain clarity we ask another question, “What would it look like to hold an emotional-relational debt over someone?” Whatever forgiveness means, it would be the opposite of the answer to this question. The answer that transfers across the most situations might be leverage. We hold a debt against someone when we leverage their offense to coerce them into an action they do not voluntarily choose.

We will consider three ways offenses can be leveraged: (1) intrapersonally, (2) interpersonally, and (3) socially.

The Intrapersonal Dimension of Forgiveness

Intrapersonally means within (intra) ourselves (personal). We can leverage an offense against someone within our mind and attitudes. What does this look like? It looks like writing a narrative about this person that reduces them to their offense and evaluates the rest of their life through the lens of their offense.

For instance, someone lies to us. Internally, we make them a flat character (a one-dimensional character like those in Winnie the Pooh, where, Tigger is only an extrovert and Piglet is only a worrier). They are now a liar. They have no right to talk about honesty, integrity, justice, or virtue to anyone in any setting for any reason. For them to do so is disruptive to us because it conflicts with the character we’ve declared them to be.

This pattern of unforgiveness becomes more destructive when it generalizes to an entire population. The person who hurt us is now representative of all men, all women, all bosses, all members of a particular race, all member of a socio-economic status, etc.

Intrapersonally, forgiving means allowing someone to become a three-dimensional character; someone with multiple facets to their personhood, any of which may be most relevant to a given situation. Our friend who lied to us may be a great parent, teacher, or coach who is appreciated for how they invest in others in those roles. That can be true, and they still be a lousy friend whose lack of ownership for their sin against us makes it unwise for us to trust them.

This type of forgiveness protects us from being emotionally disrupted by every compliment this person receives and accomplishment in their life. Intrapersonal forgiveness liberates us from being upset by good fortune in the life of someone who hurt us.

The Interpersonal Dimension of Forgiveness

Interpersonally means between (inter) us and the person who offended us. We can leverage an offense against someone by the expectations we place on them or the special rules we expect to govern the relationship.

Returning to the example of a friend lying to us, we could expect that they give deference to our preferences moving forward (expectations) or that they give tangible evidence that all their statements are true moving forward (special rules).

If our friend is unwilling to voluntarily offset their deceit with more forthrightness, there is reason to question their repentance. In that case interpersonal forgiveness towards this person should not progress towards trust. If we try to force the fruit of repentance, we get baited into matching their lack of repentance with attempts to coerce change (leverage).

Later in this series we will spend several sections reflecting on wise trust and whether reconciliation is advisable in a given relationship. For now, we will only discuss what interpersonal commitment is being made when we say, “I forgive you.”

Interpersonally, forgiving means not using past offenses as trump cards in present decision making. When we forgive, we forgo the verbal formula, “Because you did [sinful action], I expect you to [positive action].” This means when changes relevant to their offense are appropriate, we make it as a request rather than a demand. So, it would sound like, “It would help me if you would [positive action], because I’m still recovering from [sinful action].” If a reasonable request is made like this and is met with an aggressive-defensive-neglectful response, the relationship is not at a point where trust and reconciliation are warranted.

The Social Dimension of Forgiveness

We can leverage an offense socially by speaking negatively of the person who hurt us in order to harm their reputation. This can be either top-of-mind-tip-of-tongue conversation, or intentional conversation we initiate about the person who hurt us.

The first kind of conversation is what occurs when the pain is fresh, and everything reminds us of the offense. Often the person we’re talking to feels like our disclosure of pain is a change-of-subject to the conversation. These conversations frequently occur before we’ve had time to process the pain or the person who hurt us has made an attempt to repent.

The second kind of conversation is usually something we intend to be a warning. Back to our example of the friend who lied to us. We talk to someone else who is interacting with that friend. We remember what happened and try to discern, “Is this person in danger of being lied to or do I just want to create mistrust towards the person who hurt me?” Either answer may be accurate. The first would be protecting a mutual friend. The latter would be unforgiving towards the person who hurt me.

Socially, forgiving means refraining from tarnishing the reputation of the person who hurt us for reasons other than protecting others. Even this statement is frustrating, because it’s not cut-and-dry. It requires wisdom to assess situations and self-awareness about our own motives. One of the things we’ll have to wrestle with in this series is that forgiveness requires wisdom and cannot be reduced to rules.

To summarize, forgiveness means keeping three commitments:

  1. Intrapersonally – I will not dwell on this offense and reduce you to this failure/offense.
  2. Interpersonally – I will not use this failure/offense as leverage to coerce you to change.
  3. Socially – I will not bring up this event with others unless it is to protect them from similar hurt.

We now come to the biblical phrase about forgiveness that has the most power; meaning it can be used for both the greatest blessing and greatest harm when talking about forgiveness: “forgive as Christ forgave you” (Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32). This is the phrase that can be used to flip forgiveness on the person who has been hurt and seems to imply unqualified restoration. But does it?

We’ll wrestle with this phrase more in future reflections, but for now consider that not everyone goes to heaven (Matthew 7:21) and Jesus did not entrust himself to everyone (John 2:24). Jesus was exceedingly gracious but no doormat.[1] Jesus extends the opportunity for relationship, but he does not allow sinful people to set the terms for the relationship. With Jesus there is nothing unforgiveable (the actual meaning of conditional), but there is not forgiveness on any terms (a frequent, misguided use of the word unconditional).

When we read a simple statement like “God will not be mocked” (Galatians 6:7), we often fail to recognize that this means God doesn’t get manipulated by false tears, doesn’t get torn between conflicts of interests, and doesn’t wrestle his own emotional limitation. We seek to “forgive as Christ forgave us” as we navigate these kinds of challenges. This requires wisdom.

In this reflection we’ve sought to define what forgiveness is. In future reflections, we will continue to unpack how to wisely live out forgiveness. To be continued…

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which aspect of forgiveness is most difficult for you? Is that because the implications are cognitively unclear or emotionally difficult?
  2. What is your response to the idea that “forgiving as Christ forgave you” requires wisdom to apply instead of just being a rule you can follow?

[1] If you want to do more study on this aspect of Jesus’ relational life, consider the book When to Walk Away by Gary Thomas which is an examination of how Jesus responded to toxic people.