This series was refined and enhanced to become Making Sense of Forgiveness, published by New Growth Press in 2021.

It is one thing to live forgiven in the eyes of God. It is something else to live forgiven in the eyes of another person. Just because an offense against a perfect God is more significant, does not mean embracing God’s forgiveness is more difficult. Just because the forgiveness of a fellow sinner is inadequate to get us into heaven, does not mean it is easy to live forgiven.

We must not allow the ultimate significance of embracing God’s forgiveness to cause us to observe the challenges of being able embrace the forgiveness of other people. We must not be deceived into thinking that we somehow have greater reverence for God’s forgiveness by downplaying the things that are uniquely hard when forgiveness is exchanged between people.

We must not be deceived into thinking that we somehow have greater reverence for God’s forgiveness by downplaying the things that are uniquely hard when forgiveness is exchanged between people. Click To Tweet

Pause and consider the number of things that can make embracing the forgiveness of another person difficult. We will examine five challenges that exist in embracing forgiveness from another person, which do not exist when we embrace God’s forgiveness.

First, we see the people we offend.

We don’t see the expression on God’s face. We don’t hear the tone or pain in God’s voice. We don’t see God at church, notice he walks into another room, and wonder if he saw us and is now avoiding us. We don’t send God a text message and wonder, in every moment he doesn’t reply, if this is an indication of how upset he is.

This reality creates more stimulus for us to process as we embrace forgiveness from another person. It is one thing to differentiate the sound of a flute from a clarinet. It is another thing to pick out the sound of each while a full orchestra is playing. The amount of visual, auditory, and affective (i.e., emotional) information that bombards us when we are seeking to embrace the forgiveness of another person is greater in quantity than when we embrace God’s forgiveness.

Second, people are more harmed by our sin than God.

God is durable and sturdy. We don’t worry about doing irreparable damage to God. The offense of sin is against God’s holiness. Sin is as inadmissible in God’s presence as trying to touch two polarized magnets. But sin only offends God and creates distance from him. Now that the work of Calvary is complete, sin doesn’t hurt God.

With God, we only face the reality of our sin. With other people, we face the consequences our sin has on them. Sin does wound people – physically, relationally, emotionally, or spiritually. We can see the pain we caused. Even after forgiving, we see the person carry the load we created. This is different than when we know God rejoices in the opportunity to forgive (Luke 15:7).

Third, people have not pre-promised forgiveness.

We come to God knowing he has already promised, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9).” We know that Jesus has already cried out in victory, “It is finished (John 19:30)!” When we ask God for forgiveness already knowing the answer. We do not worry about God changing his mind.

We ask people for forgiveness with a sense of suspense. They may say, “I need time,” or worse, “No.” They may ask clarifying questions to make sure we understand we know what we did (God already knows our hearts). They may ask for consequences of our sin to be amended (i.e., telling a mutual friend what we said about them was untrue). This uncertainty – being unable to answer the “What if they…” questions – is often what inhibits us from seeking forgiveness.

Fourth, people are not perfect at forgiving.

For God, forgiveness is not a process or a journey. The only process involved in God’s forgiveness, is our sanctification (i.e., spiritual maturation). God never comes back and says, “You know, I thought I had forgiven you, but…” and explains of new aspect of his pain he just came to know. God doesn’t claim to have forgiven us but continues to be passive-aggressive in the days ahead. There are not other gods who have “done us this way” and wonder if the real God will.

When we seek forgiveness, two people are mid-journey: us, putting our sin to death, and our friend, learning to forgive. When we embrace forgiveness from another person, we must leave space for them to be mid-journey too. With God, our growth is all that matters. With people, we are both growing. This can be messy. Embracing forgiveness from another person requires that we be willing to enter this messiness with them as they have been willing to enter it with us.

When we seek forgiveness, two people are mid-journey: us, putting our sin to death, and our friend, learning to forgive. When we embrace forgiveness from another person, we must leave space for them to be mid-journey too. Click To Tweet

Fifth, people are sometimes slow to heal.

Jesus literally bore the sins of the world at Calvary and it only took him three days to fully recover. While Jesus was bearing the sins of the world, he was able to pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:33-34).”  With God, forgiveness is purely on our timeline.

With another person, forgiveness may be rightly delayed because of healing that needs to occur in their life. The other person did not choose for us to hurt them. We cannot choose the pace at which they forgive. When forgiveness is delayed so the other person can heal, we are forced to face the magnitude and impact of our sin. Rushing our friend is a form of minimizing our sin.

Jesus literally bore the sins of the world at Calvary and it only took him three days to fully recover. With another person, forgiveness may be rightly delayed because of healing that needs to occur in their life. Click To Tweet

Conclusion

This reflection should make us more grateful for God’s forgiveness. It should deepen our appreciation for many of the attributes of God that makes our salvation (i.e., restoration of a right relationship with God) simple and straight-forward.

This reflection should also deepen our empathy and compassion for those we sin against. We should resist the urge to expect them to be like God in how they forgiven us. We realize the importance of patience, allowing them to forgive at a human pace.

This reflection should also help us articulate some of the challenges we face if we are the one forgiving. Even when our forgiveness is slow, or in-process, we can love the person we want to forgive well by putting into words the strain that exists. Mutual understanding and patience create an environment of love and trust that allows forgiveness to be cultivated.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Think of a person with whom it is difficult for you embrace their forgiveness. Which of these five challenges captures the barriers you are trying to navigate?
  2. How has this reflection increased your appreciation for the attributes of God that make embracing his forgiveness much more relationally simple?