Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you -Ephesians 4:32
Forgiveness is difficult for everyone involved. Anger, disappointment, hurt and resentment strain the forgiver’s ability to move past committed wrongs. Those forgiven, knowing they caused the forgiver anger and hurt, feel guilty and undeserving. Furthermore, when we witness another pardoned for an act we believe punishable, our jealousy and bitterness outrage us at the lack of justice; or in other words, a lack of retribution we secretly wish to see. Yet, despite the urge to bottle up malice, feel guilty, or pursue justice, acts of forgiveness demonstrate the grace and compassion we long for more than we long for justice or condemnation. While we find this compassion visibly in the stern love of a parent or caring sympathy of a wronged friend, we ultimately receive unconditional grace from our Father in Heaven. I believe that humanly forgiveness is representative of God’s unconditional, sacrificial, and compassionate love for us; which in turn calls us to accept and recreate His forgiveness.
Forgiveness hits close to home
Just a few months before the Vanderbilt Baseball team would begin their successful run at a World Series title, one of their standout players, Phil Pfeifer, began a separate journey. Phil’s failed drug test and “repetitive behaviors tearing him down”1 were an indication to both him and Head Coach Tim Corbin that things needed to change, starting with his removal from the baseball team.2 “Baseball was a big part of Phil’s life”3; yet as a result of harmful behavior, he lost what he had valued so greatly. Being in such a low place, Phil understood that he needed help, and sought it. Humbled by his experience and removal from the team, he “never asked for the opportunity back…he just focused on making day to day progressions”4. Despite not asking to be on the team, Phil received Coach Corbin’s forgiveness and returned to the team after a year away.
We can recognize this example as unconditional, sacrificial, and compassionate. Phil was a great pitcher, and letting him go from the team was a sacrifice that the coaches, players and fan base had to make. However, Corbin recognizes that “the sacrifices are worth it anytime you’re improving an individual.”5 Putting Phil’s well-being ahead of the agenda of the team also shows compassion. Corbin continued to care for Phil after his transgression. Despite still having a whole team of great players and moral characters, Coach Corbin says he was not going to give up on one player. Phil as an individual was important to Corbin no matter how great the team still was in his absence. Luke 15:1-7 describes God’s love in a similar way; comparing God to a shepherd who will leave a whole flock of sheep to save just one who has wandered astray. Finally, Phil’s acceptance of Coach Corbin’s forgiveness was important because in doing so “he used his experience to educate. He became a leader and a mentor.”6. Th e way Phil handled his return and the display of forgiveness by Corbin were an example to the other players on the team. Corbin considers Phil’s “comeback story” important not only for Phil’s personal improvement but to “teach [the other players] they can overcome and to not give up on humans, especially when they seek help”7. Coach Corbin’s forgiveness allowed him, Phil, and the team to move on, prevented Phil from feeling undeserving, and displayed to others the power of unconditional forgiveness.
Humanly and Heavenly Forgiveness
Everett Worthington writes that “transgressions are of two basic types: hurts and offenses. Hurts violate our physical or psychological boundaries…offenses or ‘wrongs’ violate moral boundaries”8. The way I see it, “hurts” describe transgressions against other humans, whereas “offenses” describe transgressions against God. God sets our moral boundaries by explaining that sins are our moral failures that keep us from living righteously. The Bible tells us God deems sinful thoughts equal to sinful actions, even if we never act upon our sinful contemplations or feelings (Matthew 15:18-20). Thinking immorally violates moral boundaries, but does nothing to hurt anyone physically or psychologically (other than ourselves, perhaps). According to Worthington, this is an offense, and since no one has been affected outside of the person thinking, it is an offense against God. What if we do act on our immoral thoughts? Outwardly displaying our thoughts, we may commit transgressions against another person, violating their physical or psychological boundaries. So when humans are prompted to forgive, they consider “hurts”, or transgressions made against themselves, while God forgives our “offenses”, or transgressions against the moral boundaries He sets for us.
This distinction helps us understand that forgiveness by humans and by God respond to very different situations. A person who has to forgive a “hurt” is likely dealing with an isolated incident that personally afflicted them. This may actually make it easier to forgive because of two conditions: 1) the “hurt” is isolated, instantaneous, momentary and 2) we can relate to the wrongdoer’s imperfections because we too are deleterious humans. To the first point, the “hurts” we feel are each single incidents, and we are capable of overcoming them if we forgive. Even “hurts” that cause years of psychological distress, and seem so detrimental and inherently evil, do not define who we are. Rather, our forgiveness of those “hurts” defines who we are. But let’s continue to think about evil as we address the second point. To be clear, God did not create evil. When asking for forgiveness from either person or God, we cannot use the excuse that we were made sinners by God, so He must want us to sin. In fact, God created us perfect, just like Him, in His own image (Genesis 1:27). The devil creates evil in us; whether a horrifying act that caused you to question humanity when you heard of it, or the mental “offenses” we commit every day. Our own track records of “offenses” and “hurts” should make us understanding of someone else’s, even if they seem (or by the judgment of the law they are) “more” wrong. But to God, all sins are equal (even sinful thoughts), and He has committed zero sins in all eternity. So to Him, even a lustful thought that comes and goes while you daydream in class is far worse than anything He has ever done. Yet He forgives us. We should ponder this as we explore the similarities between humanly and Heavenly forgiveness. When we see acts of humanly forgiveness that seem too generous to fit the crime, consider that those forgivers are displaying the love God has for His people who were made in His image. In reality, God’s is the most impressive act of forgiveness, for He forgives all people who seek forgiveness, though He never sinned. God’s grace should not intimidate us, but inspire us to forgive and to delight in others’ forgiveness.
A daunting realization when considering forgiveness is that no one is perfect. No one is without sin. No one can possibly obey all of God’s commandments (or any set of rules for that matter) perfectly, not even devout Christians. So, if it impossible to be perfect, how does anyone get forgiven by God? Consider Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. Rather than daunted, we should feel relieved that we do not need to be perfect because our forgiveness is not dependent on our deeds. God does set out moral boundaries for us, so we cannot simply live in our sin without ever thinking twice. But inevitably we will sin, and as long as we have faith in Him and we ask for forgiveness, honestly repenting, we will be forgiven unconditionally.
In a short memoir about her Tutsi family’s brutal murder at the hands of Hutu soldiers in Rwanda, Immaculée Ilibagiza describes her forgiveness of the murderous soldiers she never met as “radical forgiveness”. She explains that “radical forgiveness is not about what the other person does or doesn't do. It's about making a decision to live in the light, grace, and freedom that an open heart brings.”9. That sounds a lot like the Ephesians 2:8 description of God’s grace, in that it is not based on the actions of the perpetrator but in the heart of the forgiver. Hateful killers hardly seem deserving of grace, especially since they never asked for it, but Immaculée’s forgiveness, like God’s, is not based on the severity of their actions, but on the magnitude of her grace. Incredibly inspiring, and perhaps difficult for us to understand, Immaculée’s forgiveness shows truly unconditional forgiveness, representative of God’s forgiveness no matter how seemingly undeserving our sins.
Now we know that God forgives our “offenses” despite our undeserving actions, but why? Ephesians 1:7 explains that “in Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace”. We have seen that God’s gift, not our own doing, warrants forgiveness, and this verse introduces that gift . God sacrificed His son who had never sinned for the sake of our sins. Forgiveness is not given only when the forgiver will gain something from it, but true forgiveness is sacrificial.
It might seem far too drastic and morbid that humans could display this kind of sacrificial forgiveness. However, when tragic acts of hatred result in the death of a person’s loved one, that person must sacrifice feelings of anger, resentment, and maybe even their own hatred toward the murderer in order to forgive. Understanding the incredible selflessness associated with forgiving the murderer of a loved one, we can begin to comprehend the enormity of the sacrificial forgiveness God had for us - enough to let His son die in our place. Imagine the strength of Bernadette Power, who, after a gunman killed her husband and injured her young children on their way to church, prayed that the Lord give the unknown assassin “the chance of salvation, too, of forgiveness”10. This kind of forgiveness is completely sacrificial in that it is completely selfless. Similarly, Jesus cried to the Lord as His murderers executed Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), wishing them forgiveness despite their horrible crimes against Him. In Bernadette’s story, we see the same unselfishness in wishing forgiveness upon those who have hurt her, sacrificing her own emotional pain in order to forgive.
Sacrificial forgiveness also means easing the transgressor’s guilt rather than seeking our own healing from them. We all know how deep guilt can prevent us, as the committers, from moving beyond a transgression. So we should be able to sympathize with those who “hurt” us, sacrificially prioritizing easing their guilt and putting our own feelings aside.
What happens when someone we love commits a “hurt” against us? Transgressions can be even more hurtful coming from someone we are close to, making them ever more difficult to forgive. We may have had compassion for that person before the transgression, but how are we to restore that compassion and forgive them? Pastor John Piper addresses what happens when loved ones “hurt” each other in his series Ask Pastor John. He introduces the concept of “enemy love”, which occurs when a loved one acts like an enemy momentarily, hurting you the way an enemy would. He uses Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” to illustrate how important love is to forgiveness. We are to love enemies, and loved ones acting as enemies, even when they hurt us. Piper says that forgivers should find themselves “treating the other person better than they deserve – in a sense as if they hadn’t been hurt”11. Treating our perpetrators better than they deserve shows the true power of compassionate forgiveness. Romans 5:8 tells us “God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Unlike momentary “enemy love”, our moral “offenses” against God are not isolated. We are still sinning; we are continuously sinning. However, the compassion of God’s forgiveness is displayed in the fact that while sin was still going on, He forgave us. He treats us better than we deserve, compassionately forgiving, as we should others.
Now when we see impressive acts of forgiveness, we should recognize the components that point to the grace of God, and remember the awesome forgiveness that He has shown us. When we are pardoned for heavy transgressions, we should not consider the forgiver radical or ourselves undeserving, but we should remember how unconditional God’s forgiveness is. We should not react to “hurts” in a way that will benefit ourselves but forgive sacrificially, keeping “God’s grace should not intimidate us, but inspire us to forgive and to delight in others’ forgiveness.” in mind God’s sacrifice. We should not criticize kindness, compassion, and love when others are forgiven, but recognize that compassionate forgiveness involves treating the wrongdoer “better than they deserve”12. Beyond acknowledging these characteristics, we should embrace them, accepting forgiveness when it is given to us instead of feeling guilty, and reproducing forgiveness in place of holding grudges. This way, others will also be able to recognize the power of forgiveness, appreciate God’s forgiveness, and use our example as inspiration to forgive.
1 Corbin, T. (Feb. 2016). Telephone interview.
2 Ammenheuser, D. (2015, May). Vanderbilt’s Phil Pfeifer Strikes out His Demons. The Tennessean.
3 Corbin, T. (Feb. 2016).
8 Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. New York: Routledge.
9 Ilibagiza, I. (2008). Forgiving the Unforgivable. Essence 38.11: 224. ProQuest.
10 David, K. (n.d.) ‘Power’ to Forgive a Murderer. CBN.com (beta)
11 Piper, J. (2015, Oct.) The Major Obstacle in Forgiving Others. Desiring God.