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What Does Forgiveness Really Mean

Updated on August 9, 2015

What does forgiveness mean?

Following the recent killing of nine African American worshipers by a young white male in a church in South Carolina, relatives of the deceased, amidst tears, expressed their forgiveness to the shooter. This action brought tears to the eyes of many listeners; others expressed shock that these people who had lost their loved ones in such a senseless fashion, could find it in their hearts to forgive. But this is nothing new. From time to time, we hear people saying, "I've forgiven him/her." But have they really forgiven? What does it mean to forgive someone?

Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. The Bible commands us to "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3 : 13)NIV

The Mayo Clinic defines forgiveness as "a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge." So, if we follow the Biblical mandate, we would forgive others whatever wrong they have done to us. If we go with the Mayo Clinic's definition, we would decide to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge against those who have wronged us. They basically mean the same thing, although in the case of Christianity, we forgive as an act of obedience to God.

The benefits of forgiveness

Should we forgive just because the Bible or some other authority says so? I believe as a Christian that whenever God tells us to do something, we better do it because He knows what is best for us. But even psychiatrists, psychologists and other non-Christian sources recognize that there are distinct benefits to be gained from forgiving someone.

1. A sense of release as we unburden ourselves of feelings of resentment, bitterness and wanting to get back at the other person.

2. Greater peace of mind

3. Improved relationships

4. The ability to put the past behind us and move forward.

These are all benefits to the person who is doing the forgiving. But what about the one who is forgiven? If you have ever been forgiven, you know the overwhelming sense of relief that you feel. It's like going to the bank to pay your mortgage and learning that the debt has been forgiven. You no longer have this burden on your shoulders. Your slate has been wiped clean. You can make a fresh start.

This is what Jesus did for us on the cross two thousand years ago. He paid off our mortgage debt that was owed to Satan because of our inherited sins and He gave us a new beginning. We are now free, for whom the Son sets free is free indeed (John 8 : 36). Such is the power of forgiveness.


Forgiving is not easy

If you have ever been wronged by someone - especially someone close to you - you know that it's not easy to forgive. The hurt, shock, disappointment will linger for a long time. You may think you can never get over it. But you can, if you forgive. By forgiving, you rid yourself of those toxic emotions that keep you up at night and interfere with your normal functioning.

Not only is forgiving difficult, it's also a slow process. Don't think it happens the moment you decide to forgive. For some people it can take years, depending on the nature of the wrongdoing. There will be times when you may think you have forgiven, but then you run into the person, or something reminds you of them, and everything hits you again like it was yesterday.

I knew a woman who had been raped by a man. Nine years later, she was still checking the computer every day to make sure he was still in prison. She had not been able to forgive and let go of that horrifying ordeal. She was still that man's slave.

How difficult is it for you to forgive someone?

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What forgiveness is not

Now that we have looked at what forgiveness is and why it is important to forgive, let us look at what forgiveness is not.

It is not:

Condoning the act - it doesn't matter or it was bound to happen.

Making excuses for the person - he/she couldn't help it.

Blaming yourself - it was my fault.

Pardoning - choosing not to hold the person accountable.

Reconciling - restoring trust. More on this in the next section.

Should you reconcile?

Ever so often we hear of a couple that had separated and then reconciled and were renewing their vows and inviting all their friends to celebrate with them. When this happens, everyone feels happy for the couple and would like to see their relationship take on a new beginning. But there's a caveat.

Reconciliation implies trust. If you do decide to reconcile, you should have very good reason to believe that the person has repented (turned away from) of their wrongdoing and is now worthy of your trust. Let me digress a bit. I once heard a story of a young girl who saw a pretty snake while walking in the woods one day. She picked it up and put it in her pocket and carried it with her everywhere she went. Then one day it bit her. She said, "Why did you bite me? Haven't I been good to you?"

He said, "Yes, but you knew I was a snake when you found me."

Such is the risk you run when you decide to reconcile.

Steps to forgiveness

So, you know in your heart that you ought to forgive, but you are finding it very difficult. Here are some steps to take:

1.Make a determined effort to forgive.

2. Pray for the one who offended you and for yourself that the Holy Spirit will help you to forgive this person as Christ has forgiven you.

3. Speak to someone, such as a pastor or counselor, who may be able to help.

4. Think of a time when you were forgiven. How did you feel?

5. Write a letter as if you were the person who caused the harm. Jot down your thoughts and feelings. This can help to bring about healing.

6. Think of forgiveness as a gift you once received. Would you like to give that gift to someone?

7. Give it time.

Some last words

Forgiving someone who has wronged us can mean the difference between a life of peace or a life of turmoil. Forgiveness does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process, but during that time, you will experience new growth, new insights and new ways of dealing with people. And maybe, just maybe, you will come to realize that while you love others, the only one you can trust completely is God.


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