Understanding Forgiveness


At the time I wrote my last letter, I was suffering terribly. My eyes were full of tears, and my heart was broken. But I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I only wanted to let you know how much I cared for you. I don’t want to be hard on you. But the man who caused all the trouble hurt you more than he hurt me. Most of you have already pointed out the wrong that person did, and that is punishment enough for what was done. When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them. I also wrote because I wanted to test you and find out if you would follow my instructions. If you forgive someone, so do I. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did in the presence of Christ for your benefit. I have done this so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not unaware of his intentions. (2 Corinthians 2:4-11)

The man to whom Paul is referring ( see 1 Corinthians 5:1-2) had damaged his relationship with God, his family, the community within the church, and the witness of the church in the city of Corinth. The church’s discipline had accomplished the purpose of humbling him and bringing him to repentance. Now, Paul gives them the ultimate goal: forgive, comfort, and keep him from the despair of a broken spirit.

As an idea, the idea of forgiveness sounds really good. It’s a principle that we really want other people to grasp. But what if we are the one damaged by sin?

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” -C.S. Lewis

What is Paul actually asking of Christians here? Is this "forgive and forget"? Do we have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do we have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Are we supposed to move on and act like nothing happened? Let’s look at some principles of forgiveness as we see in this situation and in the rest of Scripture.

1) Forgiveness of those who repent is mandatory. The Bible is clear that if you want to be forgiven by God, you must forgive those who wrong you.

“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)

“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.” (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)

2) Forgiveness comes from the forgiven. Paul wrote elsewhere, “For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)
I was in the dominion of darkness. So were you. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us so that forgiveness is available to us. We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis

3) Forgiveness requires honesty. We have to be honest about the nature and depth of the offense. Sin leaves a mark on individuals and communities, and we minimize its true nature at our peril. Those who harm others need to understand the price they are asking others to pay in order to forgive them.

If someone says, “I’m sorry,” we don’t have to just say, “That’s okay. It was nothing.” It wasn't okay (though it might be eventually); if it were truly nothing, it would not need forgiveness.

4) Forgiveness does not cancel accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and forgiveness are not enemies.

  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like. 
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the promised land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.

We have a tendency to think that the offended person should just get over it and move on, as if somehow the fact that our actions had consequences has now become the other person’s problem. But life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We hurt them. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture. Consequences are a gift; they make our path clear. Circumstances may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.

5) Forgiveness does not delete history. Paul didn’t unwrite his first letter to the church in Corinth; I don’t get the impression that anyone in the church was trying to act as if nothing had happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a biblical command for us. Have some survivors of the Holocaust forgiven the prison guards? Of course. Have they ask for the Holocaust Museum to close? Absolutely not.

Forgiveness is meant to fully bring repentant people back into fellowship with Christ and healthy fellowship in church community. If this process requires memory loss, we will not fully appreciate the power of forgiveness and grace.